The decline and fall of Tonto

IS Guerrilla

Now the mystery masked man was smart

He got himself a Tonto

’cause Tonto did the dirty work for free

But Tonto he was smarter

And one day said:

Kimosabe, kiss my ass,

I bought a boat and

I’m going out to sea

– Lyle Lovett

The Tonto of that song always reminds me of the great symbol of our information age – the independent IT consultant. Someone with great skills and lots of experience. Someone who figured out that they don’t really need to be working for anyone but themselves.

Everything I read a few years back said that we were going to be seeing more of these Tonto-types – the hired guns, the independents, the anti-corporate types – in the IT business as time went on. I couldn’t turn a corner without bumping into a consultant. They all seemed to be satisfied, well fed, constantly employed, and certainly making a lot more money than I was. Damn them, they even seemed to be having more fun than I was.

On top of everything else, the tax treatment of their income was much more agreeable than mine. They could expense and deduct everything. All I had was my RRSP.

At that time, I could only see two downsides to the independent IT-consultant lifestyle. The first was the pressure to keep skill sets current, to ensure that what they were able to supply was what the market was demanding at the moment. The independent couldn’t afford to miss a technology beat, or they’d find themselves outside the market looking in. Remember the prices that even a relatively junior SAP resource was commanding a couple of years back? A lot of SAP consultants who didn’t switch horses soon found themselves competing for fewer opportunities at lower rates.

The second was the need to market the next piece of work while executing the current piece. The selling of a future opportunity always had to go along with the execution of the current one.

These were challenges to be managed, yes, but they never seemed to present a serious problem for the independents I knew. Things looked good for them, and they appeared to be making out like bandits. And when I thought about it, these two challenges were ones that I faced as an employee as well, even if I didn’t want to admit it over the smugness of my “stable” permanent position.

And then I had coffee with Steve. Steve is a friend of mine who runs the IT shop for a good-sized oil company here in town. Now Steve is one of the most technically competent guys I know, and I trust his judgement. He’s also something of a tough guy, and he runs probably the leanest and most cost-effective shop I’ve ever seen, so I wasn’t surprised at what he had to say when we turned to the subject of independent consultants and their rates.

Steve said he was “philosophically opposed to paying any consultant more than $100 an hour,” and even that rate made him uncomfortable. “For those kind of rates, I can hire and develop excellent people, or train my folks to do the work and keep the skills in house,” he said.

When I mentioned rates north of $200 (that’s in U.S. dollars) for some of the folks I knew, he became really animated; “I wouldn’t pay someone $200 an hour to rescue me from a burning building, let alone twiddle code!” When pressed, Steve recanted, but only a little. “Okay, maybe to rescue me from a burning building, but only for the actual 15 minutes of the rescue.”

Was Steve the very beginning of a backlash against the high-rate independent?

And then I heard that Craig was looking for work. Craig looking for work? I’d always thought that IT work went looking for Craig. This is a guy who could seem to do any kind of coding you could ask, loved working with technical teams, and managed to avoid, for the most part, all the “political crap” that we employees had to put up with. I’d thought Craig’s was a fine life, and a good example of how the independent IT consultant was supposed to live. And now Craig’s trawling through the Internet network looking for a gig. Hmmm…

So what is the state of the world at the moment? I know I’ve seen more resum