Specialization or Jack-of-All-Trades?
You are one of the few, the proud, the technically savvy. You’re an independent IT contractor. You set your own schedule and sign your own paycheck. So, when setting those rules—and determining what kind of cash you’ll be bringing in—what kind of services should you offer? Is it better to be good at the general stuff, the everyday IT maintenance that your clients need? Or is it better (for your bank balance) to become fluent in whatever is hot right now, and to cash in on your clients’ trend-following? Read on, and judge for yourself.
Beatrice Mulzer, CEO of Intellisys, which consults to small businesses in IT infrastructure design, implementation and network maintenance, said, “You don’t want to put all your eggs in one basket. The thing is, in order to specialize in one area, you still have to have a broad understanding of infrastructure. You can’t just go and specialize in telephony or in an accounting software and not understand how the sub-architecture of a computer works, or how networking works.”
Mulzer continued, “I’m currently writing a book on who’s who in the small-business space. Pretty much, 90 percent of the people interviewed all specialized in one area or another. There was one generalist who just specialized in small business, and then did work with every line of business applications he ran into.
“What happens when you’re independent and you’re a small shop and you are too general, you have that learning curve on every job when you run into new applications. The idea is to be profitable. It’s an equation. (You need to determine) the cost benefit. So it’s best to stick to one or two line-of-business applications. If you have a background in accounting or a background in a construction business, or a real estate business, to focus on the line-of-business application in those areas since you already know how the software is applied to that industry. That way you have a repeatable process you can hold down, and then your time to implement it lowers, but also increases your profit because you can do more with less time.”
According to Robert Shimonski, a network consultant for RSNetworks.net, you don’t want to specialize in a trendy niche until you achieve a higher level of expertise in the more basic skills. Shimonski explained that that is accomplished by continued training. “As a consultant, you really need to have your skills updated constantly. There are a lot of fundamentals that you have to get.
“Specialization really gets into the more medium to advanced level of each niche. Really, if you’re going to be consulting, you’re going to want to pick those niches that are hot and new and difficult—that’s usually stuff like voice over IP, advanced security or very advanced engineering,” he said.
However, it never hurts to play it safe. “When you’re in business for yourself, I do not recommend going with the latest fad because you think it’s a quick money thing,” said Mulzer.
That begs another question: What happens when you don’t specialize and your client needs that specific expertise? “It’s absolutely a good idea to partner with other people. If you want to be successful and remain in business for the coming years, there is just no such thing as you knowing everything. In order to serve your client professionally, you’re better off bringing in another professional in to help, and contract that out to them. There’s a finder’s fee that you can get, so it’s good to find partners in your area that complement what you’re doing, but where you won’t exactly cross the line,” said Mulzer.
Shimonski concurred. “As a consultant, if you’re going out on your own, I don’t think anyone really survives on their own. Good consultants have good consultant friends or vendors that they work with and they know how to contact them, or they know other consulting groups that they can get people from if they need to. You can always work it into your contract to work with the vendor directly with the client that you’re working with, and those costs are understood. They’re not added, and you’re not padding, which is a bad consulting move.”
So what is a good consulting move, if you are to be more generalized in order to fulfill the majority of your clients’ needs? “If it’s for the small business, then I really recommend to go for the Small Business Specialist which is a new designation from Microsoft,” Mulzer advised. “It’s not a competency, but at least this way you have a logo that you can use and you can say, ‘Look, I’ve been certified by Microsoft.’ That gears toward peer-to-peer networks, as well as client-server environments using their Small Business Server product. And that has become a really hot product. And the way the market is going, everything being in the upswing, a lot more small companies have the money to invest in an IT infrastructure. Now, if you’re an independent IT contractor that goes for large companies and you want to do consulting and you specialize, for instance, in security, then of course you have to pursue the security certifications. It depends again on your background and what you want to do.”
In reference to what can help give you a solid base of knowledge, Shimonski added, “I would say to pick a vendor like Cisco or Microsoft. If you want to specialize in routers, well, there’re a lot of routers.” He added that hard skills aren’t the only important thing in being an independent contractor. “You’ve got to balance out your skills in technology, but as a consultant you have to have business skills as well, and know how to speak, and how to conduct yourself. Know how to work with people.”
Elizabeth Perveiler, Copy Editor, firstname.lastname@example.org