Last week, I wrote a post in which I answered a reader question about who writes the code in a world of empowered software developers. In that post, I continued my thematic assault on the concept of generalizing, which prompted a question about another topic I’ve tackled before: niching.
The question was pretty simple (and kind of more of a statement).
I’m having trouble picking a niche.
I Know. It’s Hard to Pick a Niche
The commenter there isn’t alone. People say this to me all the time. I have conversations with folks in the Hit Subscribe author group, field DaedTech reader questions, and generally talk to a lot of people.
They tell me it’s hard to pick a niche. They also ask me how to do so. And so today, I’ll do my best to offer some guidance on how to pick a niche.
It really is a tough subject, both in terms of execution and in terms of advice. And, while a lot of the reason for that is that it’s difficult to talk about a very specific thing in the abstract, some of it comes from nebulousness around terminology.
Let’s Define Some Key Terms
So let’s start by removing the nebulousness. I’m going to establish some definitions for the sake of the rest of this post. I’m doing this both for the sake of a working vernacular here, but also to underscore a fundamental misalignment in thinking that people tend to have.
Here, then, are the terms in question. These are not the dictionary definitions of such terms, should you look them up, but rather a framework for progressing as you pick a niche.
- Generalist. As a generalist, you optimize your career for “employability.” This means that you make yourself as deployable as possible as a human resource, ensuring that an arbitrary employer with arbitrary needs can find a way to use you.
- Specialist. As a specialist, you optimize your career to do only the thing(s) you most like to do. This means that you fuse your hobby and your job, manufacturing leverage out of high demand for a narrow skill set.
- Niche-filler. As someone with a niche, you optimize your career to deliver value to others. This means that you look for gaps in people’s needs and wants, and fill them.
Now, there’s a fair bit to unpack here. In the first place, it defines a bit of a continuum of agency. The further toward the generalist end, the more you say “I’ll flail around until a boss tells me when I’m doing it right.” And, as you get toward the niche end, you say “I’m going to flail around until money starts rolling in and I am the boss.”
But of more interest in terms of your career, it defines whose value you’re optimizing for. And that is, employer’s, your own, and a customer’s, respectively.
And only one of those makes for good, free agent business.