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It seems to me that most consulting firms do little more than match resumes to positions, typically with insightful criteria such as "X years experience in technologies Y and Z."

But there are also some consulting firms that attempt to find talented developers and invest in them. And rather than simply providing staff augmentation, they either partner with a client to accomplish a project, or supply the entire team.

How can you effectively (and quickly) determine which is which? Since no one advertises themselves as a "body shop," how do you find and pursue the firm that is actually looking for good developers, and not just resumes?

Is there a Joel test for consulting firms? One that can be applied before you are hired?

I'm asking as a potential employee here.

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Are you asking as a customer or a potential employee? –  Mike Brown Apr 16 '11 at 4:48
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That sounds more like a recruitment agency than a consulting firm to me. It sounds like some recruiters have decided to go upmarket and rebrand themselves as consultants! –  Robin Green Apr 16 '11 at 7:44
    
@Robin Green: thas correct, but then many of the bigger consulting firms also behave the same way. –  DPD Apr 16 '11 at 10:35
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5 Answers

See what your consulting firm's geeks are doing outside of work. If they are speaking at tech conferences, contributing to open source, and so on at a high rate, you have found a shop that recruits and cultivates great minds.

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One telltale sign to look for is whether the hiring firm mentions a specific client (by name or otherwise) during the interview process. A quality consulting firm will hire skill sets they wish to cultivate per their long-term strategy and vision. A body shop will hire skill sets that are required to fulfill an immediate need resulting from a recent deal/sale.

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+1 That's a really good point. They'll also likely axe the developers as soon as that clients work is done and they can't immediately place them elsewhere. I have seen both of these approaches personally very recently, and the differences once you start looking deeper are drastic. –  Brook Apr 16 '11 at 18:29
    
Yup. And conversely, a good consulting firm will hire rather than fire during tough economic times, again to build a team that supports the vision and strategy. Staffing decisions are strategic instead of tactical. –  Puneet Lamba Apr 17 '11 at 13:04
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Look at the contract

There are sometimes special provisions that indicate a consulting/contracting company is confident in their ability to deliver quality work

I know of at least one good consulting company that gives clients the option of not paying them if they are dissatisfied with the work done. They charge hourly, but payment only occurs with the acceptance of work done (which can happen many times throughout the duration of the contract).

When I do consulting/contracting I offer a similar option. They have the option of refusing the work I did and not paying me. If they accept the work, they have to pay me.

You can also look for tell tale signs of noticeably bad contracts like spelling errors, confusing terms, no protection for the client, etc.

Lack of reference-able customers is also a bad sign.

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Search for potential company + lawyer in google. Many of the bodyshops seem to have rather large legal depts and aren't afraid to use them. A cynic might say some succeed due to their marketing and legal not their technicals.

Try and talk to an insider and see how they approach their employees with a new technology (ie do they send you on a 2 week training course then ship you off to the client as an expert - with a rate to match).

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Look for evidence online of them subcontracting to other companies who actually provide the consultants/staff. That is a telltale sign that you would be wasting your money.

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