code-for-a-living June 28, 2021

What makes a great IT consultant – and how you can become one

7N is an international freelance agency that has been connecting the best IT consultants with leading organizations around the world for more than 30 years. Here's the five qualities that make the perfect consultant.

You know the feeling you get when someone just performs at an incredible level? And not just when it comes to their own tasks. They seem to lift the entire team.

This is the feeling we strive for again and again. When we find it, we find the perfect match. It’s tricky to predict a perfect match, but for 30 years that’s exactly what we’ve been doing at 7N.

7N is an international freelance agency that has been connecting the best IT consultants with leading organizations around the world for more than 30 years. We do this by carefully assessing our consultants and finding the best matches for them. You’ll read all about that below, but if you want to find out more about what it means to be a 7N consultant, you can read our short booklet here.

For years, we have worked to create the perfect match – for the client as well as the consultant. At the core of our work is the understanding that technology consultants gravitate towards freelancing because it provides a good balance between professional ambitions and personal dreams.

To find the right match, we created an assessment framework that we call the 7N Competence Model. Maybe you’ll recognize parts of yourself in it. If not, hopefully it can help you develop your skills and increase your value as an IT professional. 

We focus not only on the technical skills you might have, but also on your ability to recognize skills you don’t yet have or how you can best contribute and be a valuable team player. Many software engineers are hired because of their experience and technical skills, but what often makes them really stand out is their ability to align, interact, and communicate with their team. When a software engineer is able to communicate well with their team, it increases the effectiveness and efficiency of the projects significantly.

Our studies show that IT consultants with a wide range of competencies are more highly valued. This is reflected in the tasks they are given, and as a result, the potential rewards they might get. When we retain IT consultants, we work to continue growing their skills sets through ongoing development opportunities.

In this post, I will share some of my own experiences with recruiting for the perfect match between a consultant and a project. 

The 7N Competence Model: a five-element approach

At 7N, we work with a structured five-element model, which we use to evaluate our IT consultants. This model has been extremely valuable in identifying the experts that are most likely to be successful at what they do. It can also help guide you to develop your skills as an IT professional.

The five elements are:

  • Experience and business understanding
  • Skills and knowledge
  • Cognitive ability
  • Behavioral capacity
  • Personality

Each element of our model has proven to be an essential element of the cases where we’ve found the perfect match, so let’s look at each element and how it can help you maximize your potential.

Experience and business understanding

When companies engage an expert, they are typically looking for someone to guide or facilitate a process they don’t have the knowledge, time, or desire to do. That’s where your previous experience comes in handy. If a company needs to migrate services to the cloud or is hoping to create a new mobile app, they will want a consultant who has worked on similar projects in the past.

Unless the job is focused on some very niche technologies, however, experience alone isn’t enough to stand out. To limit the risk of exceeding deadlines or project costs, clients most often hire the consultants who can present a proven track record in a specific field or technology. Be prepared to demonstrate not just that you worked with a certain technology, but evidence of your personal impact, of the project’s value to the organization, and of your ability to match or improve on the expected deadline and budget.

Business understanding often comes with experience, and this is crucial because no matter how skilled a developer you are, you need to understand the business you are working in to truly add value. Imagine you are trying to solve a challenging problem: if you have previously had a similar experience, you will likely find it easier to come up with a solution. When you join a project as an IT consultant, it’s critical to keep in mind that you’ll be solving both the technical and business applications, and will need to navigate both those worlds to satisfy the client.

Not all experience is equal, however. If you’ve spent ten years in an uninspiring environment that offered little challenge, those ten years might not have presented very many learning opportunities. On the other hand, if you constantly look to gain new insights and experience, you will grow over time and be able to solve many different challenges. You learn and grow by doing, so you should always be looking for ways to broaden your experience. Everything you go through presents a learning opportunity, and you need to make the most of these opportunities.

Try to reflect on what you’ve learned in any given experience. By deliberately thinking about what you’ve learned from previous experiences, you’ll be better at applying your experience to critical projects. You can also schedule a meeting with one of our agents if you’re curious about what your experience is worth.

Skills and knowledge

To be a top performer, you need a high skill level and extensive knowledge about your field of expertise. That may seem obvious – but to stay at the top, you need to continuously seek new knowledge, keep developing your skills and refine your practices.

Courses and workshops are valuable tools to expand your knowledge and learn new skills, but once again, learning by doing is incredibly powerful. By working on projects that fall outside of your previous experience and comfort zone, you learn to adapt and figure out new ways to solve problems. Today, there are a wide range of open source projects, both large and small, that present you with an opportunity to practice new skills, acquire knowledge, and create a public record of the time and energy you have invested.

If you see a number of lucrative opportunities opening up in a new area, there are now many ways to invest in online certifications that will demonstrate your ability to master emerging tech trends. From Salesforce to AWS to RedHat, many large companies now make the skills and knowledge you need to work with their cloud systems available to the public. Browse the training section of a platform like A Cloud Guru and you’ll get a sense for the pipeline between existing opportunities and relatively accessible online training.

The skillset of a good consultant is not just for their own performance. One of the most important aspects of mastering the right skills is to be able to educate your peers. By evaluating the general skill level of your surroundings, you can multiply your impact. That means you add value not only through your own role but also by elevating the performance of everyone around you. It’s also important to have the ability to recognize that you are not fully equipped to deal with a situation because it allows you to take a step back and delegate the assignment to someone else or take the time to learn more yourself.

How can you demonstrate the ability to lift others up? Employers will look at metrics like GitHub stars, Stack Overflow answers, and blog posts or tutorials you’ve created. If they see that you help other developers and have a knack for explaining technical topics, they will have greater confidence in your ability to work with their existing teams.

Cognitive ability

Cognitive ability is a great predictor of performance, and in fact, the more complex a task is, the greater predictability it can offer. A common pitfall, however, is to confuse cognitive ability solely with IQ. Cognitive ability assesses your ability to solve problems as well as change contexts and methods while solving them. At 7N, we look at our consultant’s cognitive ability through:

  • Mathematical ability
  • Language ability
  • Pattern recognition ability

There is no evidence to suggest that there is such a thing as an added bonus of being “extra smart”. The most important thing you can do is to know what your strengths and weaknesses are in relation to your cognitive ability. That way you’ll be able to navigate towards challenges that match your abilities and compensate for areas where you may not excel.

If you take the time to reflect on yourself, what you are good at, and what you are not as good at, you can become more aware of what areas to focus on in your professional life. We like to refer to the words of the Danish inventor and poet Piet Hein: “Knowing what you do not know is a kind of omniscience.” 

I remember a line from a colleague of one of our consultants that always stuck with me. “He always takes the shortest route to the solution of a problem – and that is often to ask others instead of wasting time trying to find the solution to a problem that lies outside his area of expertise. He is ruthlessly honest about what he knows and what he needs help to solve.”

Personality

There is also no such thing as a good personality. There are, however, traits that are more suitable in specific contexts. Some people are more introverted, others more extroverted. Most of us fit in somewhere along that spectrum, and while you cannot necessarily change your personality, you can become more aware of what kind of person you are and how you fit into various work settings.

Not everyone has the natural ability to fit in comfortably among a lot of new people in an unfamiliar organization. It is, however, an important skill for those who want to create a smooth working relationship on a difficult project. It demands more than simple politeness and professional interest in other people – you need to be helpful and calm and demonstrate a certain sense of how to handle situations in both professional and social contexts.

Consultants who genuinely excel at this are the ones who, due to their positive and easy-going manner, often are instantly liked by everyone. It means you are able to talk to most people and show a genuine interest in them without stepping over the line. Practice initiating social activities in the team and make sure that everyone is involved and no one feels left out.

Naturally, no matter how sociable you are, there will always be places that are more suitable to some people than to others. Two consultants may be equally skilled or knowledgeable about a particular area, but one consultant would be a better fit at one organization while the other consultant fits in better at another company. It is important to find the place that is right for you, and that’s also part of what we try to find when looking for the perfect match.

Is there anything you could be doing to make it easier for other people to collaborate with you? Try to reflect and you’ll be better equipped to play an important part on a team.

Behavioral capacity

Behavioral capacity is the consultant’s ability to put knowledge of own strengths and limitations into concrete actions. We studied our most successful consultants for a whole year and found seven distinct traits that were characteristic for them all:

  • Insight into their own strengths and weaknesses
  • Ability to perform under pressure
  • Holistic understanding of all elements of a project, including the non-technical aspects
  • Diplomatic authority, i.e. the ability to act with consideration to all involved
  • Social capacity, also known as emotional intelligence
  • Empathy
  • Grit (the level of passion, perseverance and dedication)

Basically, your behavioral capacity helps indicate how good you are at managing complex office and social settings. Do you handle stressful situations well? Are you able to put your own smaller project into context by taking a holistic view of how you fit into the wider framework? Do you work well with other people and know when you should speak up and when to listen? Empathy, for example, means understanding that your tasks can have an impact on other people. When you work with other people, you are part of a larger whole, and you need to figure out how to maximize your role.

Are you more comfortable working individually and excel under pressure? Look for projects that allow you to be an independent contributor and to focus on critical infrastructure or security. Feel better generating ideas with a team? Carve out a reputation as a consultant who can help existing engineering teams within an organization tackle new challenges and adopt new technologies.

The single most important thing you can do to improve your behavioral capacity is to ask for feedback. Even though many of us may think that we have a good idea of what other people think of us, the truth is often a little different. By asking for feedback from your manager, your colleagues, and other people you work with, you gain an understanding of your strengths and weaknesses.

Knowing where you stand makes it a lot easier to improve. Maybe you are not that good at handling stressful situations? While you shouldn’t necessarily put yourself under immense pressure, it might be a good idea to expose yourself to a little more pressure than you’re used to. The same goes for something like public speaking. Start out by giving small talks to your team and then move forward from there. Maybe you’ll find yourself on stage in front of a crowd giving big presentations one day.

No matter how many years you’ve been working, you can always look to improve. Find new projects, join different departments, volunteer and look for new challenges. That’s how you grow.

If you really want to stand out among other IT professionals, make sure you have a clear purpose in your work life. What are your personal ambitions? Make a plan and make decisions that put you on the path towards your goal. And above all, have patience. Both when it comes to spending time on self-reflection, but also in pursuing the goal you are working towards.

Mastering these personal skills is essential to success as an IT consultant. We evaluate all our consultants on each of these parameters and have done so for more than 30 years. 

In our pursuit of the perfect match, we try to take as much guesswork out of the equation as possible. Our philosophy is rooted in the belief that finding the right person for a task creates magic. But equally, that it is magical to find the right project for a person. 

If 7N has piqued your interest and you’re curious to know more, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me or visit our site for IT consultants. We’re always looking for talented IT consultants – and if you’re reading this, chances are you might be one of them.

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