For years now I have tried to market myself as a specialist of one type or another. If you knew me when I lived in the French Quarter in the 90s you may recall I had business cards that just read “The Expert” along with my phone number. Back then I was trying to fake it until I made it and all I cared really was that “it” was interesting. 25 years later and I have faked it until I made it more times than I care to count; I am now truly an expert in a number of domains and am able to powerfully synthesize them.
A few months back I decided to build a specialized consulting practice around the idea of taking on out-of-band software projects—that is, projects that are not blocking anything and not in the critical path so they don’t get attention despite the fact significant benefit would be derived from completing them. Think automating a manual process: the manual process may take an extra ten minutes a day but it works and everyone is too busy to fuss with it. But once it gets automated an entire week of time per year is saved. I could knock that out in half a day to a day, be paid well and the client would save money, everybody wins. This is the sort of work I would do as a manager to keep my tech skills sharp without getting in the way of people delivering features and I could see a market for this service particularly in cases where a manager who has been somewhat hands on is transitioning to a hands off role due to growth. This work generally generates little useful learning or institutional knowledge—certainly none that can’t be documented in a README—so no worries on that front.
But what I ran into was folks concerned that the cost required to transfer the necessary institutional knowledge would be too great.
I was approached by a few clients demanding detailed proposals, then when I provided such they decided they didn’t actually need me for the implementation phase. Nor were they inclined to pay me a consulting fee for handing them all the knowledge that required decades to acquire so they could have it implemented by folks at lower rates.
Then I considered a more pure form of consulting—selling the valuable detailed proposals instead of giving them away. But unfortunately that sort of work is difficult to sell without getting on the buzzword bandwagon and I cannot see myself extolling the virtues of, eg, edge computing as if some analyst-hatched marketing concept is going to be a one-size-fits-all solution. Maybe those buzzwords and campaigns exist because teaching a new idea is more palatable to the ego than look, I’m just better at this, let me get in there and help you out?
About twenty years ago I flew out to Atlanta for a job interview. The hiring manager said he really liked me, but he saw me as more of a generalist. That was the first time ever I didn’t get a job I interviewed for and I did not like it. I hated being called a generalist as if I wasn’t really good at anything—I was good at lots of things! He tried to assure me that being a generalist wasn’t a bad thing and that he, in fact, was a generalist and that he was still interested in hiring me, just not for that role. It didn’t make me feel any better.
But he was right. Looking back over the years at all the faking it to make it I have done, only to start over again as soon as I have made it, demonstrates that what I was faking all along was the desire to make it. I do not derive my power from focusing ever more closely in a single area; I derive my power from the creativity that flows from the synthesis of mastering more and more areas—this provides me with the big picture and insight and the ability to effectively communicate and coordinate the efforts of disparate specialists toward a goal. The more dimensions there are to a problem, the gnarlier it is, the more fun it is for me to solve. Maybe that means hiring me into an existing role as project/program manager or member of technical staff or solution architect or CTO, but more likely I reckon it means a newly-created role with wide latitude to accomplish sweeping and transformative goals. If you have sweeping and tranformative goals in mind you should hire me.