Software Development

IT consultants: Don't let your niche define you

Being the "go-to-consultant" for a niche can be great -- unless clients don't have any work for you in that specific area. Here are four steps for diversifying your skill set.

 

People usually engage IT consultants in order to benefit from their specialized knowledge and experience. Therefore, in order to increase your demand (and consequently, the money you can charge), you need to develop more expertise than the average IT worker in at least one area. That creates a niche -- a market to which you bring something extra that drives demand for your services.

You can, however, take that too far. If you become defined by your niche, then you can unintentionally exclude yourself from other potential business.

A friend and former coworker called me up one day to see if I was interested in a gig. He had taken a position with a new company, and they needed help integrating their software product with Microsoft Outlook. My friend knew that I had done a fair bit of work automating Office, so he thought I'd be a good fit -- and I was. They were very pleased with my work, and from then on, whenever they needed help with Microsoft Office integration or Visual Basic, I was their man.

But they didn't think of me for anything else. They could have used me for Java or C++ development, Web services over SOAP, or any number of other pieces of their overall product package. I brought that up several times, and they always acknowledged that I might be a good fit if they needed more help in those areas. Whenever those needs arose, though, they instead thought of their local resources. My name only lit up in their heads whenever OUTLOOK.EXE wouldn't go away because somebody forgot to set something to Nothing. Being known as "the Office/VB6 guy" made for some good money, but it also made me a little "VB sick."

I've experienced a similar phenomenon with Synergy/DE development. I've been programming in that language since 1983; I served on the ANSI committee; I'm considered one of the top experts worldwide; but even though there are a lot more applications written in Synergy/DE than most people realize, it's a much smaller market than many of the more popular languages. Being known as "the Synergy/DE guy" is great, until nobody has any Synergy/DE projects with which they need your help.

So, I've learned to diversify. "But," I hear you cry, "how can I expand into other areas when I'm already too busy just managing the work that I have?" Here are some actionable steps for you:

  • Make time to learn new technologies. Set aside a specific number of hours every week to learn something that gets you closer to the kind of work you'd like to do more often. Even if you never get the opportunity to use that knowledge directly, just the exercise of expanding your experience will make you able to learn things more quickly and increase your understanding of the entire industry. Plus, branching out often reveals tangential opportunities that you never would have considered.
  • Court business that's outside your comfort zone. This can be tricky if you're an expert in your niche, because your usual rate probably doesn't fly well in unfamiliar territory. You might consider offering a lower rate for work that you find educational, though some consultants make a point of charging more under those circumstances. You may also need to adopt greater humility than you're accustomed to displaying and not try to pass yourself off as an expert. Be aware that when learning any new technology, your first creation will probably resemble a mushroom cloud in the rearview mirror, so solicit all the help you can get.
  • Say "no" to some perfectly good business. You can't make time for something new if you keep taking on the same old work; you have to step off the treadmill and risk falling down in order to get somewhere else. "I don't have time" is a good reason to turn down business -- and if you don't have time for yourself, you don't have time. Too often, though, we think we can wedge in just one more thing -- and there go all our good intentions for self-improvement.
  • Identify yourself with your new expertise. Once you've acquired new skills, get the word out. Participate in online discussions, and publish your own new material. Give out free help and examples. But also be careful not to get pigeonholed into being only the go-to person for this new field.

As with all things, you must apply a balance. Don't abandon your bread and butter business just because you have a new craving, but gradually introduce new staples into your pantry so your business doesn't go stale.

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About

Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant b...

17 comments
biancaluna
biancaluna

I've found myself in a bit of a niche lately, and that is cloud transitions. Mail, Google Apps, archiving to the cloud. I don't want this to become a cloud evil or good debate, I've taken on several projects, I guess due to the need for assessments for all those security, IP, data and privacy domains, I've become the go to girl for cloud. Not just for my current client, but other organisations in the same industry. I am not sure if I am happy about that, I've always been very mindful of not painting myself into a corner. Although I must say, it is not a bad niche to be in at the moment, the moment I find that cloud projects are the only gigs offered to me, I'll start to say No. You burn out and loose your edge if you do too much of one type of project. When I started in consulting, it was infrastructure, complex box drops. That could have kept me busy for the rest of my life but I could see the writing on the wall towards SOA and that is where my focus has been. But I know folks as you describe, Chip, I think it also depends on the industry you operate in. Utility, Health and Banking have niche applications, some of them are legacy apps that only have a finite amount of folks who understand them and can support them. There is a danger in that, but on the other hand, there are commercial realities, these apps will still be around for a while. Some consultants drive Ferrari's due to their niche. There are also still organisations that need a Cobol support environment, heck, is that niche or is that specialisation. I spoke to a former colleague recently retrenched from one of the top outsourcers, and he was really hamstrung by his lack of current skills, as he was forced into that space and found himself without marketable skills. So there is a balance somewhere, as consultants, we have some freedom in self education that employed staff may not have as their employers are driving the workforce. Continued education is a good move, no matter what your "niche" or specialty. Personally I firmly believe in the need to understand business and IT process, as such, ITIL and Six Sigma are the name of my current education game.

dkelly
dkelly

Learning something new is all good and well, getting other people to be able to understand your capabilities is not easy in my experience, especially when those skills come from diverse areas, some outside their experience. Anyone have any good ways to open peoples eyes?

slatimer76
slatimer76

Deciding to open a new consulting business in this climate, I am very much looking towards Cloud Computing as what I want to recommend to my clients. Why?? you ask. I can hear it now. The reason I am looking at this is very much what this article is about, namely being good at one thing. But, IMHO, being good at cloud computing can make you a good web designer/troubleshooter, as you may have to setup IIS and virtual Directries. You can get good at troubleshooting networking issues, as you "have" to be online to use Cloud Computing. There are many areas to IT, and cloud computing helps get a consultant good at many of them. And when Cloud computing becomes outdated, as terminals and mainframes did, then you are well setup to learn new technologies, as people will still need Internet access, and this will be bread and butter still, but you will have a chance to learn more. Growing up with the mind frame of learn everyday, and learn what you don't know about is what makes consulting fun and exciting to me. Also, growing up in a business that emphasized a bread and butter technique to everything else learned, spreading this aspect into everything I do has greatly helped. I am not sure if I answered how I balance learning new technologies and working on old ones, but the advice in Chip's Blog is excellent, not just to keep you in business, but to keep you loving business and wanting to keep working. Keeping the learning curve high is what keeps you interested.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... then you have to put it in terms of what your skills can do for them. "I know Scala and Clojure" So?

apotheon
apotheon

When I find something new that interests me, I throw away some of my free time and delve into it. After a while, my natural enthusiasm for a new interest makes people aware that it's something to which I've devoted a lot of time and energy, and it automagically migrates into my repertoire. The problem comes with not letting the older areas of expertise fall by the wayside. Enthusiasm for one thing can translate into an apparent lack of enthusiasm for another thing. That's really my weakness. Of course, regarding that "free time" thing -- I'm not single, but I don't have kids. As such, finding "free time" often involves sacrificing something that might not ideally be sacrificed, but it's still possible (whereas with kids in the picture I'm sure I'd have to actually sacrifice some business time to the gods of New Knowledge).

apotheon
apotheon

Maybe (s)he is planning on getting into the business of building cloud computing networks. That sounds like a crapload of fun, if there's enough work out there in such a specialized niche to keep one busy.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yeah, that's my case -- evenings and early mornings are usually off limits. I often work on weekends these days, but even then I have billable work I could be doing instead. I have to consciously devote time to learning.

apotheon
apotheon

I was thinking more along the lines of serving "enterprises" that need their own internal cloud network resources and the like. It's probably not happening much, yet, but I think it may become a "thing" within the next few years. Of course, what I'd really like to see is the development of a cryptographically secure, anonymizing, Internet-based shared resource cloud. There probably isn't much money in developing such a thing, though. For one thing, if you try to make the tools proprietary and closed source, you'll doom the effort from the beginning because it would depend implicitly on widespread adoption by dilettantes and hobbyists.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but the startup costs could be pretty steep, if you intend to compete with the likes of Amazon on uptime and reliability.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Where, once having floated an obscene dollar amount, they say, "Is that all?" (Damn!)

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

...as PMP'sicle suggested below. Believe it or not, I'm still in sticker shock over my own rates, so raising them further requires balls -- but hey, if the market will bear it...

apotheon
apotheon

In essence, it works out something like this: "Wow, that's awesome income! Oh, wait, those taxes consultants pay. Well, it's still good income. Of course, it's an IT-type job, so you probably work extra hours, so I guess that's just decent income for the type of work and the number of hours, but at least you still get to set your own career path. What's that? You mean you effectively work even more hours than at a normal job? You're almost never completely 'off the clock'? What the hell kind of slave driver are you, working yourself that hard? When all's said and done, you're making as much as the kid at McDonald's for the number of hours you put in! I'll never be a consultant like you."