Networking

Why specializing may help IT consultants cash in

The U.S. government and private industry predict growth in specific IT areas over the next five years. Susan Harkins says having a niche often means being able to charge more for your services.

 "Knowledge is power." -- Sir Francis Bacon

If you're an IT consultant, knowledge can also mean money in your pocket. Knowing where IT managers and leaders expect their departments to grow over the next few years is the first step to preparing yourself to meet their needs.

One piece of interesting information that's being repeated in a number of technology publications is that Obama's American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 will be a boon to the IT industry. A cool $20 billion is predicted to create one million technology-related jobs. The bill aims to modernize our technology infrastructure in several ways:

  • Digitizing healthcare records. Only four percent of U.S. physicians have a fully functional electronic records system, and a large part of stimulus payments will go toward training personnel to use electronic record systems.
  • Adopting energy efficient practices, aimed mostly at large data centers.
  • Expanding broadband networks. As a consultant, you might not be involved in the expansion, but you can certainly help your clients take advantage of that expansion.

Companies within the industry who are lucky enough to secure those government contracts will need more developers, managers, and even IT consultants. Being prepared to support the necessary technologies could put you in demand.

You don't have to look to the government bailout for new business. A 2008 survey by Forrester Consulting reported that companies are encouraging in-house specialties among their IT staff. In particular, companies are looking for professionals who specialize in wireless networking, security, and voice (telephony and VoIP). The surveyed companies plan to increase dedicated coverage over the next five years. According to the survey data:

  • Security will grow 34 percent.
  • Voice will grow 29 percent.
  • Wireless networking will grow 27 percent.

What does this mean for your consultancy?

Most importantly, it means that both the government and private industry are increasing their IT budgets. Money for IT professionals is going to be available if you know where to look. Furthermore, these dollars will chase those professionals who specialize in specific areas. If you can specialize in one of these hot areas, not only will you have plenty of work, but you'll be in a position to charge more for that knowledge. Specialization almost always equates to higher fees.

If you're an independent consultant, it might be time to consider a coop agreement with other consultants who specialize. You won't be competing for the same money, and the referral fees are a nice bonus.

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About

Susan Sales Harkins is an IT consultant, specializing in desktop solutions. Previously, she was editor in chief for The Cobb Group, the world's largest publisher of technical journals.

15 comments
mikifinaz1
mikifinaz1

I have met more failed specialists, leaves the field open to me and I like that. For instance, COBOL programmers, when was the last time you heard about an dire need for thousands of COBOL programmers? Pick an area and stay ahead of the curve, that will always get you a job from which you can build a career.

jmgarvin
jmgarvin

It was fun, but very few business actually take it seriously and want to invest the time and effort in actually setting up security AND usability for their users.

mjd420nova
mjd420nova

My boss and I have the perfect pairing, I do just the hardware and he does just the software. We have grossed $60K a year each doing just weekend shut downs just once a month. Can't complain about doing fourty eight hours straight but I get to sleep the rest of the week and it's only once a month. It's a broad specialization but is again quite confining.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

If you don't have a specialization, you don't really have an edge on anyone else. But it's important to choose your niche wisely, and to avoid becoming too narrow in your focus. Deep knowledge in a few areas, and broad knowledge across many areas.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... there's quite a demand for COBOL programmers, especially in banking and finance. But who wants it?

ssharkins
ssharkins

You know, I understand exactly what you're saying and there's one more issue -- the liability is huge. I'm not talking about insurance, I'm talking about the hit you take if something goes wrong.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

Generally choosing a niche to specialize in is an important aspect of building any business. Without a niche you really don't know who your clients are and its hard to talk to a vast amorphous mass. If you're not talking to one person you're probably talking to no-one. However, there are downsides. The second half of the article is really talking about the increasing tendency of businesses to niche-buy. That is they want someone who has specialized in a particular niche. There are many problems with this approach from the company's standpoint but from a consultant's standpoint there are three. The first is that of viewpoint. The niches you will see as a supplier will be different than those the client sees. Your focus will naturally be on who the client is, and what skills they require and perhaps on the problem they have (if you are getting very specific). Unfortunately, in IT lately there has been a tendency for the client to focus on the microscopic (not only the specific problem, and not only the solution to the problem but all the way down to the package version). As a result your attempt at niche selling may not be fine enough for the client. The second is selecting a viable niche. In order to maximize your potential in a niche (and often to enter it period), you need to be an early adopter. That means that the market may not be capable of supporting you. It also means that you are guessing that it will -- one day -- be able to do so. Add to that the problem of micro-niche buying and the probability of viability is reduced even further. The third issue is obsolescence. Most niches (the customer/skill set) have a limited lifespan. As the sub-niche becomes ever finer or even grows more levels the lifespan becomes even shorter. (Experience in installing Yoursoft 2009 may have a lifespan of less than 6 months for example). Get a long term contract and your niche may be gone. A fourth problem (which isn't actually a niche issue) is that often the identified speciality markets have more to do with agendas than reality. It seems to have become a standard technique ... if you can't find people at the price you want, tell everyone that you can't find the skills you want -- rather than admit you don't want to pay a fair market price. So when identifying the "latest trend" do your own market surveys. Remember that old saw ... "In God we trust, everyone else pays cash". Glen Ford, PMP http://www.trainingnow.ca

ssharkins
ssharkins

I agree, and the great thing is, there are so many areas, so it should be easy to find a few that you're enthusasitic about as well -- it's nice when you enjoy what you're doing!

ssharkins
ssharkins

My husband is an "old" Cobol programmer, but he won't touch the stuff... after many years in the industry, he just walked away from all of it one day -- said he couldn't write one more line of code, ever, and he hasn't.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... but you don't really have to be an early adopter to become a niche expert. You only need to be able to devote 10,000 hours to it before it becomes obsolete. :)

ssharkins
ssharkins

Those are valid points, but I think they're just part of the scenery now. As the technology advances, it will grow difficult for individuals to maintain a broad knowledge at an expert level. We're already living that reality. Second, as technology grows, it outgrows us quickly -- it's that snowball effect. That's only going to get get more intense. I'm not suggesting that anyone find a niche and stay there. Nor do I think most of us would remain viable with a single expertise.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

For almost a year, all I wrote was COBOL. My brain almost didn't survive.

santeewelding
santeewelding

Yours was an effective line of code crafted by an old hand. Any chance you will ever walk away? I hope not.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I was joking -- I read somewhere that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert in anything, but I agree with you that it often requires far less than that. Even 20 hours of serious study can enable you to amaze the uninitiated with your collected wisdom.

PMPsicle
PMPsicle

To be serious a moment (oh NOoooooo) you don't need 10,000 hours ... most subjects really only need 100-1000. :p The problem comes in being able to convince others. In many markets, the only way to get the paper is by being there before they have anyone else to choose from. They can ask all they want for 5 years of experience in a brand new product ... but they'll have to settle for your 100 hours of training. Glen

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