Software Consultant vs. Software Developer: What’s the Difference?

October 14, 2017   //   Careers

One of the most frequent topics of conversation I have when interviewing prospective candidates, especially new grads, is what it means to be a “consultant” in the tech industry. This discussion is usually in the context of how work might be different at SWC from, say, an insurance software company or a mobile app company.

IT consulting firms can be as different from each other as a banking software company is from a game development shop, but there are a lot of common elements with consultancies that we can compare and contrast. I have found a career in consulting to be a dynamic, rewarding path, but it is certainly not without its stresses and tradeoffs. Any new graduate, or even any veteran considering a change, should consider what their options are carefully, taking into account their goals, personality, and lifestyle.

Comparing Software Consultants with Software Developers

At its most basic level, if you are a software consultant, you are a contractor – no different than a contractor who you hire to remodel your bathroom or build a new deck. Only instead of being hired to replace that old shower, your consulting company is hired to replace that old order entry system. Instead of building a deck, you might build a new custom SharePoint solution. Work is usually project-based and, like that mason or carpenter, you will usually provide an estimate before you begin. A contract might be fixed bid, but it is often billed at an hourly rate. As you work, you will frequently consult with your client to ensure their requirements are being met and then make any necessary adjustments. Ultimately, you will complete the project, and hopefully the client will be happy with their experience and consider you for the next job. As a consultant, you have provided an agreed-upon service within an agreed-upon timeline.

In contrast, if you are a software developer, you are usually making some kind of product. The company may sell that product or may provide it as a service. Nonetheless, it is something you are building with the intent to sell or to generate revenue via ads or subscription fees. Rather than a contractor remodeling a kitchen, you are the one making the cabinets. The product of your work is being sold to many customers as opposed to your work being directly billed to a client. In most cases, you will not work directly with your customers, but rather, you will work with internal product teams. A very common variation of this is where the product you are building is not intended to be sold at all, but rather intended for internal systems key to the core business, and you are working in the IT department of that business. Still, you are building something to be consumed by a customer – in this latter case you only have one customer, but the concept is the same.

What to Expect from a Career in Software Consulting

As a consultant, you never really know what you are going to be up against. Frequently, if a client has engaged you, it is because they’re either dissatisfied with an existing service or blazing a new trail. In either case, there will be huge unknowns, big questions, and critical decisions around every turn.

The solution could require ASP.NET or SSIS or java or SalesForce or SharePoint. It could require all the above or something entirely different. You may need to learn a new technology to bring the project to completion, and it is not uncommon for new requirements to surface mid-stream.

What is boils down to is that you will frequently be challenged to quickly understand a business you know little about and expected to produce quality results in technologies that you may not be an expert in. This kind of environment can be both exciting and challenging.

Both roles and environments can be very different and appeal to different personality types. The key is figuring out which works best for you as you look to grow your career.

Our team is growing, and we’re always interested in talking to people interested in working in consulting. Check out our open positions on our Careers page and apply today!