Developer

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...

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