The Internet can be an invaluable resource for finding a competent, reliable ITC in your area, but like most products and services advertised in cyberspace, you shouldn't take what you see at face value, according to Ramon Ray, small-business technology analyst and consultant, founder and CEO of Family Computer Consulting Services in New York City and publisher of the online newsletter Smallbiztechnology.com. "There are a lot of places on the Net where you can find consultants, but just because they have a nice-looking Web site, that doesn't tell you if the guy is a scam artist or if he just got out of jail," says Ray. "That's where word of mouth comes into play. If [an ITC] can provide you with the name of a client you've heard of, or if your own network of friends can say good things about this guy, I would rely on that. You should also ask for references. If [the ITC] is good, they'll be prepared to give you some. And if they don't have references, that can also be a good indicator."
When it comes to complex projects like designing a small network or programming a database, an ITC should have some certification, or at least some verifiable experience with these types of projects, says Andy Chang, vice president of sales and marketing at NDC Communications Inc., a Sunnyvale, California-based maker of SOHO networking products. "Certification, whether it's a MCSE (Microsoft Certified Software Engineer) or a CNE (Certified Novell Engineer) can tell you something about the person's level of knowledge, but there is really no substitute for hands-on experience," Chang explains. "Before hiring for a big project, you need to find out what kind of projects the ITC has been involved in, whether it's networking, installing software or writing software applications for specific kinds of businesses. You should know exactly what applications they worked with, or what role they played in their previous job."
Once you've decided on an ITC, the next step is to work with the professional to produce a proposal, which spells out the services the consultant will provide, the equipment needed for the job, the time frame for completion and the amount and method of payment. "The written agreement is the core of the whole relationship," says Chang. "How closely the ITC adheres to the provisions of the proposal also tells you a great deal about their professionalism. If they're not meeting the schedule or goals they mapped out in the proposal, or are coming to you for more money above the agreed upon amount, that can be a bad sign."