Consulting (Part 6) — Work Finds Experts
December 18, 2011
In my last post in this series of articles on consulting, I suggested that you’re better off if you don’t have to spend a lot of unbillable overhead time searching for work. The article covers several ways to position yourself so that you’re more likely to run into unsolicited contract offers– “make the work come to you” rather than having to go find your next assignment yourself.
Another mechanism for putting yourself into the path of potential job offers is to build a reputation as an expert in your chosen field. This kind of reputation is more than just a way of getting your name in front of potential clients. It also leads to more interesting and higher-paying jobs as a general rule. Of course, it can also sometimes discourage people from calling– “Oh, they’d be too expensive to hire!” But these are likely not people who you would want as customers.
Being recognized as an expert can “just happen” to some people who are at the right place at the right time, but it is also a reputation that can be developed through continuous improvement. I actually started this process during my time as a full-time employee, 5-6 years before I went out on my own as a consultant. You can start right now.
Building your reputation as an expert is not unlike “leveling up” in your favorite computer game universe. You start out as a novice and gradually work your way up through challenges, each of which unlocks the next level of challenges.
Before you start out on your quest, you must first identify the subject matter area to specialize in:
- It should be something marketable. Becoming the world’s foremost authority in underwater basket-weaving might be extremely interesting, but it’s unlikely to bring in much cash.
- Pick something that’s hard. This ties into being marketable. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “If it was easy everyone would be doing it.” The consultant’s corollary is, “If everybody’s doing it, you can’t bill much money for it.” Pick a field where there are significant technical “barriers to entry” for people getting into the field.
- Don’t get too specific. Particularly in the technology field, becoming an expert in a specific technology niche hurts you when that technology ultimately gets abandoned in favor of the next big thing. Yes, there are still COBOL programmers making lots of money, but fewer and fewer every year.
- Don’t get too general. “Jack of all trades, master of none” doesn’t help you sell your services. Plus there’s too much to learn everything. Pick a field and a specialization– my consulting business started out doing Unix administration and security, focusing heavily on Solaris, which was the most popular enterprise Unix platform at the time.
- Pick something you enjoy doing. Yes, you need money to live. But you should also have fun with what you do for a living.
The next step is to build up knowledge in your chosen field. You’re not enough of an expert to go out and consult, so you’ll probably spend some time learning on the job. Look for jobs that stretch your capabilities and force you to learn new things about the area you’re interested in. Yes, you’ll also likely be playing around with things in your own home lab environment. But you need to face “real world” scenarios where you must balance competing forces: from the purely technical, to the political, to the budgetary. If you only know something from doing it in a lab, then you don’t really know it. And you don’t yet know what you don’t know.
The next step is what I think of as “getting on the radar”, or creating your initial body of work. Most likely, this will take the form of blog postings and other self-published work. Presenting at local user group meetings is another good mechanism for introducing yourself to the community. Submit papers for conferences, but be prepared for rejection. Learn from the feedback you get, and keep submitting better proposals until you get accepted.
Over a period of what can take several years, you will gradually work your way up into more prestigious venues that gets your work more visibility. For example, you might transition from writing blog posts to getting your work published in journals and trade magazines (as the former Technical Editor for Sys Admin Magazine, I can tell you that technical publications are always desperate for good content). Your local user group talks will move from regional to national venues and possibly even international events.
There are some signs to look for to show that you’re really starting to “break through” into expert status. Getting invited to present at a conference is one indicator. Other experts referencing or citing your work is another. The clearest indicator is when you start to get paid for your writing and speaking. Congratulations! You’re an expert, though you may not feel that different from when you were a novice. The more you know about a field, the more you realize how much you have to learn.
The other important aspect of this “leveling up” process is that it forces you to participate in the community and creates a professional network that you can fall back on when you do go out on your own. And if you’re shy or introverted, you will be forced to come up with a strategy for coping with that so that you can succeed. Also, teaching something to other people really makes you learn the subject to an amazing level of depth.
It’s also worth thinking about the possibility of writing a book. Everybody’s heard of the person who “wrote the book” on a certain subject. There’s a reason that phrase is in common usage– being the person who literally “wrote the book” is an invaluable calling card and addition to your stature in the field. That being said, reputation is pretty much the only reason to write a book. If you look at it as a short-term financial transaction, your “hourly rate”– amount of money you get as the author divided by the amount of time you spent writing– is trivial compared to what you could be earning on your job or as a consultant. So you may want to write that book before you start consulting.
Ultimately, work will start finding you. Initially, it will probably take the form of full-time job offers. This is great. You can pick the ones that seem the most interesting and which have the most to teach you. If you end up finding your happiness in a succession of full-time jobs and you never end up consulting, that’s great too. You didn’t waste your time “leveling up” to expert status. All that effort helped you land the sweet jobs you get offered.
My experience was that after working in the industry for about 10 years with ever-increasing seniority, I had “topped out” in the technical track. At this point a weird thing happens: most companies try to make you a manager. Try it, you might like it. Personally, I hated it because I like being “hands on” with technology. The only role left for senior people who wish to stay “hands on” is consulting. After being a manager for 18 months, I worked through my professional network to find a former co-worker who needed a consultant for a six-month engagement. I signed the contract, and gave two weeks notice at my last employer. I’ve never looked back.
Keeping It Up
The tricky part about being perceived as an expert is that it’s an ongoing process. Our field is constantly evolving and you have to keep learning and publishing to stay ahead of the curve. I spend a great deal of unbillable time on continuing education. I will earn some money for writing articles about my research, and much of what I learn ultimately gets turned into training that I get paid for as well. But in the final analysis, this “overhead” or opportunity cost for the time I spend on research is my sales and marketing budget. And it’s a lot more interesting than printing glossy brochures or throwing expensive parties.
I give a lot of my work away for free. Like my friend Celeste says, “Contribution is marketing.” People often ask me if I think it hurts my business to give information away for free. Not at all. Consider:
- If it’s easy enough to do that somebody could just read one of my articles or presentations and do it themselves, then it’s probably so uninteresting that I wouldn’t want to do it myself. And I wouldn’t be able to charge much money for it if I did.
- Even if an organization has the technical capability to do something, they may lack the resources to get it done. In those instances, they’re going to call me, the person who “wrote the book” (or article or blog post as the case may be).
And ultimately, I do it because it’s just the right thing to do. I get enormous value out of what others are contributing to the community. I’m just trying to give back some of that value.