Getting Paid to be a Generalist

GeneralistSo you’ve established a career as a generalist, and want a change in career, one that makes the most of your expertise but isn’t just more of the same. Maybe you’ve been coding as a full-stack developer, or plodding along in an enterprise. Either way, you’ve a solid CV but don’t want to keep on keeping on. You’re an expert, and you want to be seen to be an expert. How do you convert this into a career move?

There are two main ways to achieve this: one of them new media and one of them nice and old. There’s a bit more of a challenge about new media, so I’ll cover that second (besides, it relates to some of what I’m going to say about old)

Old-Fashioned Earning

Two ways about this: get a job, or go freelance.

  • Get a job – as an evangelist or trainer.
    • Evangelist: This is tricky unless you stick with established tech and already have a reputation; The small, new, cool things already have evangelists and don’t need more. Specifically, they won’t pay for more.
    • Trainer: IT training companies make most of their money from Excel (most of their turnover from MS Office and ECDL type stuff, but that’s very competitive and very low margin).
      Once you get out of the Excel world you’re looking at diminishing returns; there isn’t enough work for training companies in high technology unless you’re, say, Oracle or Microsoft or someone who can write a course in one place and train it around the world.
      Otherwise you have to be a .NET expert for two weeks, a Java expert for a week and a half, a Modern Perl expert for 3 days, a PHP/Nginx expert for a week, then back to .NET, on to SQL Server etc. While it’s a great bootcamp and fantastic for building training (and other blagging) skills, you probably feel you’ve done your time as a generalist, and you want to play with the cool stuff…. I mean, you want to best serve clients with the expertise and insights you’ve gathered over the last many years working with the highly demanding needs of government agencies and multinational corporations.
  • Go Freelance – Consulting/contracting is what we’re talking about here.
    • Contracting: Daily rate, race to the bottom, don’t do this.
    • Consulting: This is where you want to be. High “daily rate” (more later), low volume. High value, low drudge.

To get into consulting, you need to have two things:

  • Angle (USP/Insight). This comes from what you’ve been doing, and actually if I’m honest, the bits between the bits you’ve been doing:
    • You’ve done all the fiddly little things to make your stuff work in environments that no sane designer could foresee.
    • You’ve engineered consensus from idiotic preconditions.
    • You’ve done all manner of incidental unasked-for clever stuff to make the asked-for clever stuff work. Capitalize on that. That stuff solves real problems for people.You’ve heard all the anecdotes about the old consultant charging $100 for fixing a widget by hitting a valve with a hammer, and charging $1 for hitting with a hammer, $99 for knowing where to hit. If you’ve put in the time and your CV is solid, you know where to hit.
  • Reputation. This is where you get your customers, and it’s like gold dust. You’ve got a network. You’ve impressed people who wear suits and play golf. You know how to twit and facetube. If you were to, for example, bump out on your own you could easily lean on people you used to work with or know otherwise. And this is why I talked about old-fashioned earning first, because reputation these days comes from …

New Media: The Internet

The problem with current new-media content models is that you won’t get direct income from it unless you’re huge (and enterprisey; people who want cool new things don’t want to pay for them, and people who can pay for them want big old stable things).

Places like Lynda and Pluralsight have been around for a while, and I’ve no idea how many subscribers they have, but I’m damn sure most of their money comes from companies; last time I used Pluralsight it was a subscription account that a company had paid for, for .NET stuff.

So, the huge bit means you need to have tonnes of customers (for direct income) or megatonnes of viewers (for indirects such as advertising, or commissions from books you recommend, or syndication). Bear in mind that to reach either goal you have to have really brilliant content, and that’s expensive; think about how much time you’ve put into any presentations you’ve done before, and imagine doing that much work for each half-hour tutorial you do. Then imagine a “syllabus” of 8 half-hour sessions that’d take you perhaps a month to design and research and script, and another couple of weeks to record and edit. Then multiply that for however many syllabxen you want. You’re talking about six month’s work for maybe 20 hours of good quality content. And as you know well, in new-media land, content is king. Tangentially, look at the hottest web properties (multibillionaire and startup) out there: none of them make content. Think about that for a second.

Where New Media Excels

Now, here’s the thing: new media makes a fantastic portfolio. If you’re looking for an old-fashioned consulting gig, it’s far easier to point to what you’ve done and say “You want that.” So while you’ll put in a certain amount of effort to make what is effectively marketing collateral, the medium- and long-term view is that the folks with money to spend on old-style consulting will go with what they know, and if you put yourself in their living room with this sort of thing, they’ll know you.

And when it comes down to it, people from the Internet don’t like paying much for stuff; you might get someone to pay £5 for a 30 minute video online. Conversely, it’s relatively less difficult to squeeze £500 out of someone for a good day’s work (caveats in “old” above apply).

So, as examples of what online content might look like, look at what Steve Dotto (DottoTech) has done, as an example. Now, he’s a “TV Personality”, but he does good screencasts/demos. Importantly for screencasts, he’s a bit of a gonzo – he injects himself into the picture, which makes his stuff stand out, and makes you remember him as much as you do the screencast. Compare with http://mysqlworkbench.org/about/about-tutorials/ where the idiot who recorded it never gives his name, and regardless how how brilliant it is (and how forwarded, copied, and otherwise removed from original context it is), nobody ever knows or cares who did it (hint: it was me).

Recommendation?

Anyway, in case my recommendation isn’t hugely clear by now, it’s this: Make your cash from old-school consulting. Pick an “angle” (more on this in a later post), build up your online portfolio, accept the few incidental jobs that come your way but aren’t really your “angle”, possibly doing some pro-bono work for charities, posh schools, student associations on the way; boards of things like schools and charities (particularly big charities) often have champions of local business on them, and if these folks see you do good work for their charity, they might call you and ask you to do the same for their actual business. For cash.

Swallow your dignity and integrity, become the sales guy you hate; start pimping yourself at conferences, online, on LinkedIn, to your friends and past customers, even your favourite leaders at your soon-to-be-ex-employer. Once you find what you’re good at, let others know about it, and have some initial effort to show, your reputation will hopefully build, and gradually you’ll become the expert you already know you are.

Image by Alan Light, (CC BY 2.0)

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