Career Opportunities

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A weekly ComputorEdge Column and Podcast by Douglas E. Welch

Niche it up!

April 30, 2004

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Wandering through “The Grove”, a new shopping mall in Los Angeles, I was struck of some similarities between retail sales and your high-tech career. Long gone are the days of the “do everything” department store, hardware store, grocery store. Today, we have reached the logical, if not somewhat absurd, pinnacle of shopping…not just the niche market, but the ultra-niche market.

Find your niche(es)

In the past, I have always preached a generalist approach to a high-tech career…know a little bit about a lot. I am not telling you to abandon that approach, nor will I abandon it myself, but there is a niche component that can be included. While they might sound like 2 different ends of the spectrum, combining your overall knowledge with a focus on particular niches could lead to a better career.

First, unlike a niche retail store, you can be something different to each one of your clients. You don’t just have to sell sunglasses to everyone. One client might see you as an expert in Final Cut Pro editing software. Another might call on you for high-level assistance with script formatting software. Still another might see you as the wizard of databases. Focusing on niches is less a change in what you do and more of change in how you do it.

As you go about your career you will naturally find yourself collecting specialized skills. It is here that your niches lie. When you see yourself developing these skills, start to look for a way to market them. You can even think about this as a different business from your general technology work. Perhaps you can market yourself as the Digital Recording Expert to people in that particular market. They need not know of your more general work, although that will certainly be a component in your work for anyone. Again, you are not trying to sell only one particular service. You are trying to focus your selling to a particular market. Think of yourself more like the developer who owns a mall, instead of retailer renting space. You are trying to fill your mall with the best and most popular niche stores in order to create a “whole” that is better than its separate parts. In this case, though, you own all the stores (or all the skills) and can easily and rapidly switch from one to another to meet changing needs.

A finer focus

You may find, over time, that you are focusing more and more of your energy on one particular specialty. This can be both good and bad. A specialty can allow you to command a higher price for your services and bring you more prestige among your clients. I would still encourage you, though, to continue developing your general technology skills. There are several important reasons for this. First, your specialty skills could become obsolete almost overnight. The pace of technology innovation is rapid and unrelenting. Software manufacturers fail. New technological developments make your skills unnecessary. Someone makes it easier/faster/cheaper to do things in a new way. Whatever the reason, you could find your “cash cow” suddenly left for dead along the side of some back road.

Take heart in the money and prestige your specialties can bring you, but always be aware that they won’t go on forever. You have to constantly be developing new specialties to match the changing technology climate. I can guarantee you that just when you are thinking you are set for life, someone, or something, will arrive on the scene to show you just how fragile your career can be.

This is why is it important to develop multiple specialties so that you have other areas to support you while you develop the “next big thing” in your career. Don’t be afraid to follow your interests down new and strange roads. If you are interested in digital audio recording, but don’t have any clients that need it today, that’s ok. Put your toes in the water and try it out. The truth is, you can never be sure exactly where your next specialty is going to arise. It is very possible that a personal interest in something could lead to an entirely new area of business. You won’t know unless you are constantly investigating those things that intrigue you.

Niche markets can help you to expand your business and your career as long as you don’t lose sight of the big picture. Hone your specific skills and advertise them to target markets, but don’t forget that a good general underpinning is what will keep your career moving forward even as technology, and the world, changes around you.


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