The curious case of Junior Consultants


Off late in the blogosphere, there is a lot of chatter about why no customers want to pay for junior consultants in projects. I could not make my point in 140 characters – so I am trying the long form here, for whatever it is worth. And as always this is strictly just my view – not my employer’s view on the subject.

So who is the junior consultant? At SAPPHIRENOW 2011, I met a guy who is the manager of the best New GL migration expert I know of in SAP space. And the manager dude said something like “If you are impressed with that guy, you wouldn’t have any words to describe how awesome I am in new GL. That guy is good, but he is pretty junior compared to me”. Very cocky – but, he proved a point that “junior” is a relative term.  For the record – in this case, the Junior guy in this story would be more senior than most people you would find in SAP projects.

So what is the problem with junior consultants?  The prevailing thought seems to be that consulting companies staff junior guys in a project and charge exorbitant rates. There is probably some truth in that – no smoke without fire. However, there are perfectly good reasons to have junior consultants in a team.

1. Every one needs to start somewhere. The senior consultants of today were all junior when they started. And considering the fact that rates where much higher in late nineties than today, it is not fair now for the current seniors to say the juniors are not worth it. And on a slightly tangential note – the level of seniority needed for a project is also often exaggerated. I don’t know how many times last year I got unsolicited job emails that said someone was looking for 5 plus years of CRM 7.0 experience. How on earth can you have that when the product has not been around for 5 years?

2.  Know the type of contract before you make a big deal out of this. In a Time and Materials contract, the customer carries the risk. Customer needs people with the right experience, and there is no excuse for a consulting company to send some one with less experience without disclosing it upfront. However, not all contracts are time and materials based. Several are fixed price based. In Fixed price – typically, the consulting company takes the most risk. They are held to an outcome, and it should not matter if that company does the job with 2 senior consultants or 1 senior consultant and 2 junior consultants.  What I have seen is that irrespective of type of contract – the expectation is always that consultants have to abide by the Time and Materials mode. Again – there is no excuse for trying to do a project with only junior consultants without experienced folks to oversee their work.

3. Not every task in a project needs the most experienced consultant. If I were to ever work in the role of a client – I will never ask for a senior consultant to type up documentation, do routine configuration or development, or do routine testing. Experienced consultant’s value is in creating a great design, and then helping the team trouble shoot problems. If you make the senior person do everything – this consultant will probably be dead bored with what he/she does and do a sub par job, plus it will become prohibitively expensive for project to pay higher rates for low skill tasks.  Where as, junior consultants will be perfect for the routine stuff. They will be less expensive – and will have the drive to do all the stuff that appears boring to the senior person, since it is not routine to them. To the junior consultant – it becomes a great learning opportunity.  In the quest to do one-size-fits-all, some people make this mistake of saying they only want senior consultants on the project.

4. Finally- junior consultants bring fresh perspectives to projects. They usually know things no one else in the team knows, and I know first hand the opportunity cost of not using their ideas in projects just because they are junior.  Junior consultants are not dumb – they are incredibly smart, if only their managers and seniors in the team take the time to nurture them and give them a fair chance to express their opinions. I have been guilty of this in past myself, and I have suffered this from my prior teams when I was the junior guy. So this is very close to my heart now.

5. Actually, there is one more reason juniors should be preferred in some long term projects. You need continuity in domain and industry  knowledge to be retained in the team, although the type of expert level technical skills might change in future phases of project. It is much more practical ( less cost, less chance to leave because  of boredom and so on)   to let a junior grow into this role than keep a senior tied to it long term.

So, while there is absolutely no excuse for a junior consultant to be presented as senior – there are good reasons to have them in your project teams, and I will strongly argue that they add significant value to the projects.

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12 thoughts on “The curious case of Junior Consultants

  1. This is exactly where i’m, level of Junior Consultant, supporting Finance and Controlling module of SAP. Recently I’ve been rolled out of project and this was my first project. I’ve been part of team which has more than 20 supporting people including onshore and offshore resources and most of them has 5+ years of experience working in this module. Interesting part is, I was recognized twice for solving the number of issues per month in period of six months. Reading above Vijya’s post, i’m seeing myself over there interms hard working, smart …

    Currently I’m looking for new gig. Almost every job requirement out there requires min 7 years of experience, irrespective of supporting, configuring, designing and as you mentioned above routine tasks. Eventually my resume is not even getting into consideration at vendor level and in addition to this i’m an International student over here in US, graduated Dec-2010 with Masters in Info Systems. Almost every full time position requires Citizen or Green-Card, and Consultant position requires 7/8 years of experience, which i do not have it now.

    I will look forward to your solution to my problem. You can reach me at sree.sap@aol.com

  2. Junior consultants dosen’t matter as long as they have right attitude to learn what is right and get training before working on the client place.

  3. Right to the point – Vijay.
    In this trade where there is no formal apprenticeship, the role a senior consultant plays as a mentor and guide for a junior consultant while taking his own burden taking care of “routine” activities is of high value. However with so much competition it gets overlooked – for independents there is not much need while for SI companies the focus is more on heads & utilization leaving less importance in coaching. While your point 3 is logical, its point 4 that makes even the senior consultant think through the design once more.
    Somnath

  4. Great thought Vijay.
    Really the junior cosultants add more value to the projects by saving the senior consultants time,gaining experience on their part and saving the project cost.

    Keep it up.
    Venu.

  5. Vijay,

    Spot on about the experience comments. I saw ads for One year of CRM 7.0 experience when the product was only weeks out of GA. The number of years isn’t always important as the quality of the work done during that time.

    Take care,
    Stephen

  6. Great thoughts VIjay!

    I have worked as a junior person in a group of senior people and also vice versa. One of the biggest qualities that I have seen in junior consultants is that they are willing to learn. They have no legacy, no fear of failure, and no pre-conceived bias to a situation. They have two objectives: learn and add value. If the project manager understands these aspirations, the team can work very well together towards a successful outcome.

  7. We have a great balance of consultants, and clients really take to the junior consultants. When you have performed the same piece of config 20 or 30 times it getting boring for more experienced consultants, but good less experienced consultants will see this as a challenge and something new.

    As I have mentioned elsewhere – the good consultants experienced or not – are those who ask the right level of questions, challenge the customer and understand the true reason for the project.

  8. Vijay – valid points well made.

    One extra point to add – the client can provide some resource to work on projects to learn from the experts. To reduce cost and improve knowledge transfer getting the internal consultants to perform the configuration, and unit testing will add value to both the initial project, and the on going support and development of the product – reducing the need to call back consultants later.

    One issue I find, is that I become a trusted advisor, and therefore a comfort blanket to the client, that they dont want to let go of, even though they might not actually need me.

    • Yes , spot on Mark.

      I run into this side effect of being a trusted advisor every now and then – clients will expect juniors to bring in the same service level that I provide. It is an unfair comparison, since I was not half as smart as these people when I was at that stage of my own career. Thankfully, after a couple of discussions everyone usually gets on same page quickly

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