Greg Miliates cautions against falling into the trap of thinking that your IT skills are important. Customers care more about the end result than your resume.
During lunch with a fellow techie friend last week, I asked him how work was going, and he launched into a long monologue about PBX trunks, defined hierarchies, and set-based operations. When he was talking, it hit me: No one but you cares about your technical skills.
"But wait!" you protest. "My Ruby skills are killer! And Ruby's far and away the best technology for..." blah, blah, blah. (You can replace Ruby for Python, Java, or heaven forbid FORTRAN.) You've fallen into the trap of believing that skills matter more than solutions. People have been doing this for decades and failing miserably.
Obviously, skills do matter, but we need to view them as tools, not the end product. The biggest reason we wrongly believe that our skills are the end product is because we're taught to think like an employee, where we build our resume around our skills. This is particularly true for tech professionals, because we like to tout our proficiencies in HTML, .NET, Cisco, etc. on our resumes.
It's easy to get drawn in by the fervor of passionate adherents for the hot technology of the day, but those zealots miss the point. If you spend your time trying to convince a potential customer why they've got to have their app written in Lisp or what-have-you, their eyes will glaze over, and they'll suddenly cut your pitch short because of an "emergency" call.
Stop making yourself a commodity
Your potential customers care about solving their problems, making their pain go away, and their "jobs to be done" (to use a phrase from Clayton Christiansen, Harvard business professor and author of The Innovator's Dilemma). Whether you're targeting consumers or businesses, your prospects almost never care about how the solution is implemented — they just want the end result. If you focus solely on your skills, you'll end up stuck in commoditized markets where you'll compete with hundreds or thousands of other professionals from around the globe, many of whom are eager to work for less than your typical pimply-faced teenage burger flipper.
Care to argue the point? Spend 60 seconds on oDesk trolling for Java jobs, where more than half the people charge less than $20/hour, which will likely get negotiated down a bit. That may not quite be burger-flipping rates, but you certainly won't be able to quit your day job either. For SQL (my specialty), 98% of contractors charge less than $50/hour, and 75% of contractors charge less than $25/hour.
In contrast, my hourly rate is $175. I have plenty of work; I ditched my day job more than four years ago (during the economic meltdown, mind you); and I consistently make over $100,000 working essentially part-time hours. I can charge that much and still have plenty of work by focusing on a very specific market and my customers' biggest problems. And therein lies the key: People will happily pay for their problems to go away.
Try this reliable strategy
I teach this strategy to new and/or struggling consultants, and I've seen it sell services time and again; plus, you don't feel like you're a sleaze ball used-car salesperson in the process. By focusing on a prospect's biggest problems and how you'll make their pain disappear, you can say goodbye to your burger-flipping spatula.