E-Commerce Explosion

FRAMINGHAM (03/03/2000) - Consulting companies are redirecting efforts to capture a chunk of this lucrative market, creating all kinds of opportunities for e-commerce-savvy consultants.

A few months into a maternity leave, Cathy Benko received a call at her San Francisco Bay area home from her boss, the chairman of Deloitte & Touche Consulting Group LLC. Would Benko like to oversee the company's worldwide e-commerce service initiative, which would likely include the creation of a dedicated business unit? her boss asked.

It was an opportunity Benko was hard-pressed to pass up. The e-commerce market is expected to generate more than $20 billion in revenue worldwide this year, according to market researcher International Data Corp. in Framingham, Mass.

Information technology consulting firms, both large and small, are reorienting their strategic focuses, creating dedicated e-commerce divisions and hiring dozens, if not hundreds, of people.

Among those firms is Deloitte & Touche competitor PricewaterhouseCoopers' Management Consulting Services practice, which launched an organizationwide e-commerce initiative last year. The new group cuts across all the New York-based company's consulting practices, including strategic management consulting. It's been hiring hundreds of people each month to staff the group.

Strategic Initiatives

For Deloitte & Touche, establishing a separate business unit like the one Benko has been charged with creating is unprecedented. The fact that the firm is seriously considering creating one, Benko says, drives home just how important this area of the marketplace has become to IT consultants and their clients.

Now back in the office, Benko is working furiously to create a business plan that will enable the company to support its clients with end-to-end e-commerce services that integrate business strategy with leading-edge, Web-enabled technology.

Although the plan is still in the works, the human resources needed to staff the unit are clearly immense, says Benko. Early estimates show a need for at least a dozen senior-level partners supported by perhaps hundreds of people with varied levels of experience and expertise in business strategy, enterprise computing, Web design and interactive marketing.

"With the kind of market that is looming right in front of us and outrageous growth rates that keep increasing, we're looking inside and outside for talent," Benko says. Moreover, she says, Deloitte & Touche is looking to recruit people who are outside the stereotypical hiring profile for a Big Five consulting company.

In Benko's unit, pinstripes will sit alongside ponytails and jeans. The key prerequisite for new hires, she says, is prior hands-on experience with e-commerce. But finding people who fit that description is no easy task, and it's the difficulty of the search that's causing firms to break traditional hiring molds across the IT consulting arena.

IT consulting firms are looking for people who, as members of a team, can help clients integrate both existing technology and business processes with new online business strategies - endeavors that increasingly involve complex transaction processing that goes well beyond simple order-taking.

When it comes to e-commerce, there are very specific technical skills IT employers want their consultants to possess.

Depending on the size and volume of the sites to be developed, an e-commerce consultant or specialist should not only understand basic HTML, databases and Web server hardware and software but also a client's needs, so the client can manage the site after the consultants are gone. They must have team skills, since most sites contain more than just a Web page that's linked to a database and thus require a group development effort.

Employees must be able to lead a team that includes skilled people who know graphics, databases, secure credit-card transactions, e-mail servers, software client license issues and server load balancing (for large sites) inside and out and who have reliable relationships with Internet service providers, in case a client needs to co-locate some servers away from its immediate premises.

And because the lines dividing IT consulting and management consulting are so blurred in the e-commerce arena, a strong business orientation is a real plus - so much so that universities like MIT are now creating degrees that combine computer science with more traditional business curricula.

Web Experience Wanted

That's great news for e-commerce clients like Laura Southard, co-founder of Seattle-based Healthy Environments, an online retailer of allergy-control products. For her, a consultant who can fully understand the impact browser errors and software incompatibilities have on Healthy Environments' market image and fix them quickly are worth their weight in gold. "Browser errors are like having a closed sign on your site," Southard says.

It's that kind of marketing savvy that Proxicom Inc., a midsize IT consulting firm in Reston, Va., with approximately 500 employees, had in mind when it recently hired Michael Pusateri, Marriott Corp.'s former vice president of interactive sales and marketing, as its senior vice president of sales and marketing.

Pusateri acknowledges that he had little traditional IT experience. But what he did have - and what Proxicom wanted - was hands-on experience managing Marriott's 3-year-old Web site. The site, which was built and maintained with the help of IT consultants, including Proxicom, enabled Marriott to increase its reservations by more than 200% after the site launch.

For Pusateri, the opportunity to leave his plum job at Marriott to work for its IT consultant, Proxicom, wasn't a tough sell.

"When something [contributes] beyond 5% or 10% of a company's distribution or revenues stream, it's going to become strategic," he said. "That is what is driving this growth in the e-business marketplace right now. Companies are deciding it's mission-critical and boosting investment levels as much as tenfold."

Proxicom ought to have a pretty good pulse on the market. In just five years, it has successfully completed 600 e-commerce-based projects for big-name clients like Marriott, Mercedes-Benz Credit Corp. and Mobil Corp.

The conundrum that companies like Marriott face, says Pusateri, is how to keep their e-commerce initiatives up to speed with those of the rest of the market.

Even experienced, online-media-savvy corporations like Marriott simply can't go it alone when it comes to deploying and maintaining their e-commerce sites.

Not only is it difficult to keep up with the pace of new technology releases, says Pusateri, but corporations like Marriott simply can't attract the kind of experienced in-house talent they need to keep their sites ahead of the market.

"In the hotel business, you don't have the value proposition to attract a smart Web professional that a consulting firm does," Pusateri says. "[IT consulting firms like] Proxicom specialize in this, and because it does, [it] is going to be able to attract the best talent."

Focus on Selling

Finding people like Pusateri who have hands-on experience coupled with technical know-how is something that many IT consulting firms are grappling with. Larry Shafer, founder of San Francisco-based Transact E-commerce Corp., a management and technology consulting firm, says that "recruiting is [as] important as selling services" to the company. His firm expects to grow from eight to 20 people this year.

Right now, Shafer is actively seeking prospective employees who have experience in leadership positions in e-commerce start-ups - vice presidents of marketing, senior developers and experienced Web page designers. The key point of hiring people with that type of background, says Shafer, is that they have experience working in a start-up environment.

"For even the biggest corporations, launching a Web site is like working as a start-up," Shafer says. "We need people who can think that way. We don't want some consultant who has been through boot camp at Anderson [Consulting] and doesn't understand what it's like to be a start-up and have limited capital."

As far as specific technology experience goes, Shafer, like many IT consulting bosses, is much more open-minded. "There's a recognition that technology platforms could completely change in three to six months. Right now, BroadVision and Vignette make the phone ring. In the next six weeks, it could be InterWorld."

E-commerce consulting, Shafer notes, isn't about technology for the sake of technology; it's about technology for the sake of selling.

Hubbard Preston is a freelance writer in Helena, Calif. Contact her at hhpreston@compuserve.com.

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