First off, I’m sorry about missing last week, I was busy and just didn’t get the article written in time. Now, moving onto this week’s Consulting Consultants.
If you are a newcomer to the consultant market, you probably have figured out quite quickly that knowledge is power. Not power as in the ability to boss others around but rather it power in the sense that the more you know, the further you will go. So the general idea is to learn as much as you can.
There are two distinct routes you can go (3 if you do a combination of the two) when it comes to knowledge: specialization or breadth. Specialization is exactly what it sounds like in that you pick a technology or subject and you dive in deep. You become the guru of that topic/technology/whatever. If you go for breadth, you will now a little about a lot but not have much depth on anyone particular thing. Some consider this a blessing while others might consider it a hindrance, and which one will largely depend on where or with whom you work.
Specialization is great if you really love a specific technology. If there is one thing that you specifically love doing, reading about, and keeping up with then it is probably a good idea to specialize in that. Specialization is also great because you become the expert, the guru, the "go to guy" for any and all questions around your specialization. A specialization is extremely helpful if there are a lot of people using a specific technology or product and need folks that know it well. The reverse to that is, if you become specialized and that product goes away or becomes less popular, you are left with an a lot of knowledge about a product no one is using and thus you are now difficult to place or you find it hard to locate a contract for that specific product/technology.
The best way to specialize is to grab a book, subscribe to blogs, and simply play with the product/technology until you understand it inside and out. For an example we’ll use Microsoft’s Sharepoint technology. There are about a hundred books on the technology and Microsoft has it’s own blogs specifically from those that wrote, developed, and use the technology. Microsoft also offers a Sharepoint virtual machine that anyone can download for free to try out and train on. But the main point is, you read and absorb all you can on the specific focus you want to specialize in.
Going for breadth leaves you with a similar problem. You are hard to place because you know a little about a lot. You might have a little more depth on certain products/technologies, but in general you are not an expert on any particular thing. But don’t lose heart because know a little about a lot can help you understand why things work the way they do or better yet why one product or technology is better than another in a certain situation. This can lead to what a colleague of mine refers to as the "Why Factor" (which we’ll discuss in this column at a later date).
When it comes to learning a little about a lot, you have a little more work to do than someone who is specializing. You have to read, subscribe, and attend trainings as much as possible for as many products/technologies as possible. So your RSS subscription list is going to get rather large. However, the more you read and connect on, the more you will understand overall. Sure you might not be able to dive deep into C++ code but you can probably look at it and understand what it is doing to some degree. The idea here is to soak up as much as possible about as many things as possible. This could result in information overload if you are not careful.
You can get the best of both worlds however. If you can pick a specific technology that has a good chance of being around for a while (programming language with cross platform capabilities, for example) and learn as much as you can about that while at the same time reading about other products/technologies. You can be placed on projects easily but still maintain that "why factor" understanding of how things work and why one might be better than the other.
The problem here is picking the product/technology (or multiples) to really dive into and become more specialized in. That can be determined by seeing what the market needs and figuring out what products/technologies will more than likely stick around for a while. So pay attention and do your research.