Biz - Careers
Hot Spots

The right niche skills (and the right location) can still get a consultant top dollar, even as many companies are cutting down on contract labor By Deborah Radcliffe
Deborah Radcliff

(Copyright 1999 by Computerworld, Inc. All rights reserved.)

Becton, Dickinson and Co., a $3.1 billion global health services and products company in Franklin Lakes, N.J., is looking for a few good consultants to help with its SAP rollout.

But human resources director Nate Bellemay would rather hire permanent staff to do the job. "Some of these consultants can cost up to half a million a year," Bellemay says. "Frankly, we can hire them for a lot less."

Bellemay's not alone. According to a recent Computerworld hiring survey, hiring managers hope to rely less on contractors and more on employees to fill their technology needs in the coming year.

And there's bad news as well for consultants. Some businesses are insisting that in-house staff, not consultants, lead their information technology projects.

"We don't tend to use consultants for overall project management. We like to keep a balance, staffing steady-state work with in-house employees and using consultants for peak activities or for very old technologies we don't want to continue our staff on," explains John Bent, director of corporate information systems at Amgen Inc., a $2.7 billion biotechnology company in Thousand Oaks, Calif.

Sound like gloomy market forecasts? Not to worry. There's still plenty of work for consultants who are mobile enough to follow the work and know how to position themselves in the right niche, says Melinda Oliver, vice president of business development at Glendale, Calif.-based IT staffing firm Software Management Consultants Inc. (

Hot growth areas such as Southern California, Chicago, Houston, Phoenix and Atlanta are still rich mining fields for technology consultants. But like Amgen, most employers are looking for business and industry knowledge and for very specialized skills in enterprise resource planning (ERP), back-office integration, databases and Web development projects, say hiring managers and job placement professionals.

Southern California is one area in which there's still strong demand for consultants. According to Oliver, the entertainment and banking industries in and around Los Angeles are expanding their e-commerce efforts. And as long as demand for Web developers outstrips supply, consultants can bank on lucrative work in the area.

Specifically, entertainment industries are looking for consultants to help build video- and audio-capable Web applications. And financial companies are stampeding into online banking and transactional business, while also integrating mostly PeopleSoft Inc. ERP suites, according to Oliver.

"Consultants stay consistently busy in our area. Entertainment companies are looking for Web, Oracle, SQL and other database developers," Oliver says. "With all the mergers in the financial services industry, Web, e-commerce, data warehousing, data modelers and client/server application developers are also still strong [positions] around here."

Oliver says she even gets calls from as far north as Seattle for such experience. "Actually, the entire West Coast is still in pretty strong need of C++ and Visual Basic programming consultants -- the same thing companies are looking for down here," she says.

In fact, businesses are having trouble finding skilled consultants to fit the bill in both e-commerce and ERP integration, Oliver says.

Jesse Cochran couldn't agree more. As an IT project leader and owner of a consulting firm 10 miles southeast of Oliver's Glendale office, Cochran says he and his team spend many a day cleaning up the work of other consultants. The biggest problems he runs into are that consultants who have gone before him don't plan their applications for the future and neglect to update and integrate back-office operations to facilitate Web-based transactions.

So Cochran capitalized on those problems and built a niche for himself. His company, FutureWare Software Consulting Group, specializes in Web-to-back-office development and integration. That, he says, calls for a combination of highly specialized skills in database implementation, Visual Basic Script, the Internet programming language HTML, Common Gateway Interface and "a little bit of Java."

Cochran has also found a niche for his 10-person consulting firm in a relatively untouched vertical market: mom-and-pop retail shops such as scuba stores and art galleries.

"My clients are starving for e-commerce. Everyone wants to sell on the Web and take orders and payment over the Web," Cochran says. "Once you have the Web-based product, you've got to have the back office to support the clientele. But one of the issues we're finding with a lot of our newer clients is they have older back-office systems."

Way Down South

Because of its high concentration of telecommunications companies, Atlanta is also a mecca for technology consultants, according to Ed Grasing, manager of technical recruiting at New York-based job placement firm Pencom Systems Inc. (

"Just about every player in telecommunications, whether wireless or hard-line, is down here," Grasing says. "You also have a lot of interesting start-ups down this way like MindSpring Communications Inc. and [Internet Security Systems Group Inc.]."

But when compared with more senior techie areas such as New York, Boston and Silicon Valley, Atlanta's corporate base is about a year behind in terms of e-commerce efforts, he says. That also spells jobs for skilled Java engineering consultants (the types that earn $75 to $100 per hour).

"There are a lot of Java jobs here, but not a lot of talent. Employers are seeking senior-level talent with five to seven years of object-oriented background and at least one year of Java," explains Grasing, who in the past 18 months has placed 50 to 60 such specialists in the Atlanta area.

Grasing acknowledges that IT consultants working in Atlanta don't pull in as much money as their tech-city counterparts, but he says it balances out because the cost of living is so low in Georgia. He warns, though, that transplants to outlying suburbs and townships around Atlanta will face locals who are "very cautious around newcomers."

Windy City

According to Grasing, Chicago is undergoing a similar drive to get up to speed technologically.

Ari Kaplan, an independent Oracle consultant, moved to Chicago in 1995 and has been busy ever since. In many ways, he says, Chicago is on the leading edge of technology work. Companies such as Motorola Inc., Andersen Consulting and Jellyvision Software have a strong presence there.

Kaplan also says large companies such as McDonald's Corp., petrochemical giant BP Amoco Inc. and Sears, Roebuck and Co. are in the midst of large-scale e-commerce and data warehousing projects, all of which call for a quick skill base in those areas.

"I have Chicago's Silicon Prairie magazine in front of me," Kaplan says. "I would say that much of the opportunities are for Oracle [database administration] and development, Unix administration and Web design."

Kaplan has also made a consulting niche for himself. And it doesn't have so much to do with geography as it does with business topography. That is, he strikes out for industries that aren't traditionally technical. As such, he's developed databases and decision-support systems for just about every Major League Baseball team in the country.

Until Kaplan got into the act, talent scouts tracked players on written notes that they later stuffed into file drawers.

"If a team wanted to trade a player or recruit a new one, it would take weeks, maybe months, to get this information up to the team president," Kaplan says.

Kaplan has put some polish on his niche by making user-friendly interfaces that look like the forms scouts already use and then training those scouts to use the new system. Some, he says, are so technophobic that they arrive for their computer training with chewing tobacco (and buckets) to calm their nerves.

Now Kaplan's setting up similar databases for dance, theater and ticketing agencies. "So many organizations are behind the curve electronically," he says. "They need database decision-support for everything from ticket forecasting to booking their performances."

Hot Skills

Cities such as Houston and Phoenix offer great opportunities for consultants because these places are experiencing an influx in telecommunications, financial and technology companies, according to Margi Fatcheric, founding president of Relational Options Inc., a Florin, N.J., job placement firm.

In addition, traditional high-tech meccas such as Silicon Valley and the Boston area are still high-volume locations for consultants with cutting-edge skills, especially in the areas of Internet and e-commerce development and SAP. Universally, Fatcheric says, "the Internet is a sweet spot right now and probably will be over the next five-plus years. That requires talent in the areas of Java, C++, object-oriented tools, Windows and Unix."

Also, SAP skills are hot everywhere, she adds, and they require more than technical skills; they require "functional talent" -- experts in manufacturing, human resources, accounting and so on.

In addition to the telecommunications, entertainment and financial industries, big accounting firms and pharmaceutical companies throughout the country are looking for people with those skills, Fatcheric says.

In fact, the entire medical and biotechnology industry is under the gun to conform to a Food and Drug Administration order to establish secure electronic documentation and auditing, Bent says. The order will increase the need for information security skills, which Fatcheric predicts will soon catch up with the demand for Web-development skills.

Because of that, Bent says he will be looking for consultants with specific skill sets in system auditing, documentation, security advice and security-system implementation. He's just waiting for year 2000 work to die down first.

But Bent is quick to point out that he's looking for skills to do only the coding and integration work, not project management, which he plans to leave to in-house employees.

Thus, staying on top of this changing marketplace requires insight and tenacity. Professionals and hiring managers offer this last bit of advice to those who want to stay ahead in this declining market: keep your skills sharp, follow the work and build a portfolio of references. And the best way to gain strong references, Cochran says, is to "design projects for next year instead of tomorrow." w

Radcliff is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Back to Ari Kaplan's Home Page


n strong references, Cochran says, is to "design projects for next year instead of tomorrow." w

Radcliff is a freelance writer in Santa Rosa, Calif.

Back to Ari Kaplan's Home Page