Consulting: Picking an Angle

ComplexMachineYou have “skills” at the top of your CV. You’ve got them listed on your LinkedIn profile. But… something feels missing. Just because you’re good at jQuery or Hibernate or Scala doesn’t mean you’re going to get seen as an expert worth paying several thousand pounds for a short gig. What does it take to turn that bit of your CV into an angle?

Finding your Angle

Skills are boring; even £150 per day contractors have “skills”. Shucks, even entry-level interns have skills. So, your “angle” has to be something that’s unique to you.

In some “how to be a consultant” courses and books, they’ll call that your “USP” or your “IP” or your “product”. You have to be able to ask: I can do lots of things well, and I love doing lots of them, and I’ve even gotten paid for doing lots of them. But what do I want on my business card? What do I want people to say when they talk about me?

What you want as your “angle” is something that’s unique about what you can bring to the table. You’ve got a bunch of projects behind you, and executing each project required that you execute a bunch of individual tasks. These tasks required skills for not only the stuff they asked for, but also the stuff they didn’t ask for but you did anyway.

Let’s look at an example. You might want your angle to be “bringing the possibilities and realities of new technology into established enterprise teams, bringing corporate .NET developers into the world of Scala/Play, MongoDB, and JavaScript”. It has to be narrow enough to differentiate you from the zillions of “zomg i wanna code da web scale apps too” kiddies, but broad enough to have at least a hundred or two hundred people in your extended network who’d know of a corporate need for your skills and be able to influence decisions to work with you.

Often, people fall into their “angle” by accident, because they’ve done something super-narrow in the last ten years and they’ve somehow become an expert in that field. You probably already have experience in doing not only the things you were tasked to do, and all the things in between that you weren’t asked to do but did anyway. That’s all part of your expertise, and that all works toward your “angle”.

Problems Picking your Angle

Frankly, most of the difficulty in picking your angle is psychological: You often don’t think you’re as good at any saleable thing as you actually are, because if you’re any good at all you’re surrounded by people who you respect, and you’re constantly learning stuff that you’re not yet good at.

Let’s look at some specific problems:

  • Environment – everyone around you right now has similar (or at least comparable) skills, and while you might be better at many things, you won’t be orders of magnitude better, and some of the people around you will have similar (or better) skills as you in other things. This goes for colleagues, people you studied with, professional peers, client contacts.
  • Perception – If you’re like every other techie worth his salt, you find something interesting until you’ve figured it out. Then it becomes boring and you move onto the next thing. So what interests you at any given time is the stuff you find challenging and hard, and of course that’s the very same stuff that you’re not yet an “expert” in. The stuff you’ve already figured out is stuff you’re expert in and stuff you’re not currently interested in or caring about, so when you think of what you’d like to work in, it’s generally not stuff you’re brilliant at yet.
  • Market – If you’re already freelance (or looking at what sort of work is available out there), you’ll see that there’s bucketloads of standard CRUD work in the big and boring techs like Java, C#, PHP (hack-spit), JavaScript.
    • You might think that because there are hundreds of places looking for people in those things that it’s going to be more lucrative to work in those areas, when there are only three or four people who need “bringing the possibilities and realities of new technology into established enterprise teams, bringing corporate .NET developers into the world of Scala/Play, MongoDB, and JavaScript”, and half the time they don’t know they need it.
    • It’s something you can do exceptionally well, better than other people, because you’ve already done it yet it has to be something narrow that at least some people want. If you’re the consultant, there’s only one of you, and you only really need one customer to keep you busy at any time, not hundreds.

Part of the art of being a successful solution provider is having the expertise to identify a problem in the first place. Usually that comes from having a lot of experience in that industry already.

Bear in mind that if you’re at this stage of your career, you already have a bunch of saleable skills (otherwise you wouldn’t have thought of this already) and you’re willing to apply those skills in helping people who are willing to pay for them.

Also, we have a tendency to ignore the things we’re already good at in favour of the things we’ve most recently become good at, so when you start narrowing your focus and zoning in on problems you want to solve, you might ignore some of the things people might find most valuable in your skillset, however long ago and intellectually uninteresting to you those skills are. Remember, solving business-level problems is more about your overall viewpoint of the industry and how its bits fit together, not about tickling your own brain with this month’s interesting JS framework.

You don’t even have to be the best in the world: You can simply be the best available, for a controlled value of available. I can derive a huge amount of happiness by being the best singer at a party, or the best at telling jokes in the pub, or the best at $SKILL in my team.

Even if you consider global geography (as with competing on the Internet as a startup, or looking for a job as a remote worker), you only have to be the best in that narrow area of what is available at that time (or the best at marketing it, or the best at selling it, or just the best at turning up and being presentable).

There are many, many opportunities to be “amazing” locally. You just need to define what, and where.

The Sweet Spot is in the Intersection

Often, you can be the best at something that connects other things. While you might be one of hundreds in the .NET space, or the Database Optimization space, those numbers drastically improve if you can do both. When you dig through your experience, you’re going to find places where the combination or intersection of two fields is unusual, yet in demand.

As a really bad example, you might have written a bunch of task scheduling/interleaving code to drive PLCs on a production line a few years back, and that might not be interesting to you anymore, and you might also have become really good at hooking Hibernate up to replace a bunch of badly-handwritten SQL after that, and again, that’s not interesting anymore. But, if you really know automation and enterprise app ORM, you might suddenly find something that people are willing to pay for.

Therein lies the key: Find the thing that nobody else around is doing, and bear in mind that the thing you find might be the connection between two or three other things.

Image adapted from “Omam 70-40-40 4” by Kitmondo PLA.

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