Stories about Software


Does Niching Make You Less Consultative?

Today I’m going to answer a reader question, what with it being reader question Tuesday.  Last time, I talked about how not to let negative feedback get you down.

That seems like child’s play compared to today’s question.  That’s because today’s reader question comes from a reader who is politely asking, “Erik, haven’t you contradicted yourself?”

Don’t get me wrong.  He didn’t put it to me in such direct fashion, as you’ll see shortly.  In fact, he didn’t even suggest contradiction — he was a consummate diplomat about it.  It’s just that his question caused 2018 Erik’s ideas to bang up against 2016 Erik’s.  And it took me a while to reconcile the two.

The Reader Question: Is Niching-Down Counter Productive?

Let’s get to it.  Here’s the question, with a reference to the 2016 post inline.

Thank you Erik for another great article. In “A Taxonomy of Software Consultants”, you say: “[Consultants] are hired in a more general problem-solving capacity. They advance their practice by being known for listening to their clients, tailoring solutions to them specifically, and notching glowing referrals”.

To achieve this, it looks to me that you would have to be sort of a generalist (as opposed to a specialist) in the sense of having to know (a little?) about many things. If so, it would be counterproductive to niche down. Correct?

Often you guys email me (erik at daedtech, and please, send me questions!) with questions or fill out a form on this site.  But this particular question comes in the form of a blog comment on this post, about avoiding the corporate hiring process, written just a couple of months ago.

MrJP has apparently read this blog recently, and also read it back when I made that post in 2016.  He understandably wants coherence in my overall narrative, or at least some kind of explanation.

I’m hoping to offer both today.

Revisiting the Consulting Taxonomy

I’ll summarize the taxonomy of consultants that I conceived a few years ago.  And, bear in mind that I came up with this taxonomy while feeling frustrated by the fact that “consultant” could mean “I work for a company that asks me to write software for other companies” or it could mean “I advise fortune-5 CEOs who are hiring CIOs.”

Clearly, it’s absurd to apply the same title to those two hypothetical people.  And yet, we do.

So, I tried to make things at least a touch more granular.  Instead of just calling anyone who does anything with software a “consultant,” I thought we should agree on some terms.

  • Software pro: a garden variety software engineer who slings (implements) whatever codez anyone needs.  Collects a paycheck from one company and writes code for another.
  • Specialist: comes in to implement something more specific than the software pro (e.g. a CRM system).  Can speak very authoritatively in a narrow context, less useful in a broader one.
  • Consultant: hired in a more general problem-solving capacity to diagnose and lay out solutions.  For better or worse, you’re the Rasputin to a director/VP/exec.

Looking at these three, it’s understandable why MrJP thought it might be counterproductive to niche down.  More consultative generally means more money.

The Problem: I Was Ignoring a Quadrant

In that post, it’s easy to imagine these three categorizations as stops along some kind of linear continuum.  But let’s reconsider.

Instead of a continuum, picture a two dimensional graph with these axes:

  1. A range from generalist to specialist.
  2. A range from laborer to adviser, as described in detail in this post.  Meaning, are you involved in diagnosis and prescription, or are you involved in therapy application and re-application?

We can thus describe the big picture with four quadrants, which I’ll map to the three terms I’d coined before.

  1. Generalist-laborer: software pro.
  2. Specialist-laborer: specialist.
  3. Generalist-adviser: consultant.
  4. Specialist-adviser: expert.

When I wrote that post a couple of years ago, I made the mistake of omitting what I’ll call the expert.  I beg forgiveness here, and attempt to excuse myself by saying that I hadn’t really figured this out yet.  You see, I was only listing what I knew.

I Ignored a Quadrant Because I Hadn’t Yet Grokked Its Existence and Significance

Back in 2016, the best way to describe my work would be to call it “IT Management and Strategy Consulting.”  Either as a subcontractor or on my own paper, I would go into different organizations and advise IT leadership on a variety of concerns.  These included, but were not limited to:

  • Helping new leaders design org charts.
  • Process/workflow gap analysis and remediation.
  • Advising on/tuning the hiring process.
  • Making developer training recommendations (and sometimes executing the training).

I could go on, but I’m boring myself, and don’t want to risk boring you.  But if you actually think about what I was doing, it was a logical continuation of what I’d done as a dev manager and a CIO.  I was rental IT leadership, which is sort of the essence of being a generalist-adviser.  The entirety of management/C*O existence is diagnosing problems and prescribing therapy.

Niching Isn’t Counter Productive: It’s Productive and Profitable

At the time, this seemed like a great career move.  And it was fun.  I’d go to different organizations solving different problems.

And, don’t get me wrong.  It wasn’t a bad career move by any stretch.  But niching and becoming a specialist-adviser, as I would learn later, is definitely a better deal.

I backed into this realization quite by accident.  Over the course of time, I started to do codebase/application portfolio assessments.  The more of them I did, the more I could talk about them.  And the more I talked about them, the more people wanted them.

This was great.  It allowed me to become more of an expert at application assessments.  Not only does that scratch the mastery itch (of mastery, autonomy, purpose), but it lets me do deep dives into what clients find valuable and to refine it.

Oh, and it lets me charge a lot more money.

When you’re a specialized expert with a unique offering, you can set the market.  And you can get away from hourly billing, charging instead for productized services or specialized offerings.  When you become this style of expert, you can dramatically increase the profitability of your work, even eclipsing the $200/hour-ish rate that a management consultant can charge.

Positioned as an Expert: Brought in for Specific Problem Solving

I’ll close by moving away from my story and on to yours.  Niching down and moving from laborer to adviser scratch two different, if inter-related itches.

Moving from laborer to adviser puts you in position to do higher value, more expensive work.  Moving from generalist to specialist eliminates competition and commodification of what you do.  Going from, say, software development (laboring/applying the therapy) to management (advising/diagnosing/prescribing)  changes how valuable your work tends to be.

But becoming a commodity with a higher bill rate doesn’t make you not a commodity.  Niching does that.

So, in the end, please make no mistake about my message or about my sins of omission from 2 years ago.  You should become an adviser, and you should niche down.  Get yourself into that expert quadrant, and you’d be amazed where your career can go.

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Dave Aronson
5 years ago

Then there are such terms as “contractor” and “freelancer”, which often get tossed into the mix with “consultant”. I’ve come up with the following taxonomy, which is a 2×3 matrix rather than 2×2: Contractor: someone you pay to do what you tell them to do. They may also advise somewhat, but the emphasis is on the doing, not the advising. Consultant: someone you pay to tell you what needs to be done. They may also do it, either partially or entirely, but the emphasis is on the advising, not the doing. Freelancer: someone in business for themselves, though they may… Read more »

Phil Vuollet
Phil Vuollet
5 years ago

Thank you for the expanded explanation! Seeing it as a quadrant makes perfect sense.

Do you suppose, as it is with many continuums, that we float around? In other words, could one be an Expert sometimes and a Specialist at others – depending on the context?

Erik Dietrich
5 years ago
Reply to  Phil Vuollet

Certainly you could, I’d imagine. Particularly if you’re an expert in a niche that becomes obsolete.

5 years ago

Erik! Thank you very much for your expanded answer. I really appreciate it. This certainly makes a lot of sense and explains many things. The missing link in the evolution from laborer to expert has finally been found. I understand two years is a long time to try to find some coherence between the two articles. However, you managed to connect all the pieces once again.

Thanks for all you do!