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Video How to Become an IT Expert Companies Seek Out and Pay Well (Video) 207

This video is an interview with Matt Heusser, who makes a good living as an independent IT consultant. He says many other people who are currently pounding out code or performing other routine computer-oriented tasks can become independent, too. He's not selling a course or anything here, just passing on some advice to fellow Slashdot readers. He's written up some of this advice in a series of four articles: Getting People to Throw Money At You; How to become IT Talent; That Last Step to Become ‘Talent’ In IT; and The Schwan’s Solution. He also gave a speech last November titled Building your reputation through creative disobedience. (The link is to a 50 minute video of that speech.) Anyway, we figure quite a few Slashdot readers are at least as smart as Matt and may want to take some career steps similar to the ones he has taken. In today's video, he gives you some ideas about how to stop being an IT worker and how to become IT talent instead.


Robin: Good day. This is Robin Miller -- 'Roblimo' on Slashdot. We are here with Matt Heusser. And he recently wrote a thing about how, instead of trying to have 20 years of Java experience, 15 years of booby on rails or whatever, so you can get past resume filters, you should become so specialized that when they look, there’s nobody else like you, so they have to pay you extra. Personally, I think for people in IT that that is a really good deal. Let’s let Matt expound upon it. Hi, Matt.

Matt: Hi, Rob. Thanks for the introduction and thanks for having me on your show. I am a consulting software tester. And specifically, lately I have been working with projects that are between 30- and 200-person years that are a little bit challenged. Maybe they are large for that type of organization or something that hasn’t been done before.

The organization wants to get it up to speed, and they usually call in a consultant, but what’s the consultant going to do, he is going to pull everybody out into meetings, and then he is going to create a report, he is going to deliver the report, and the one thing you know when he delivers the report, is a week later that will be starting. So I work on delivery consulting. It is very, very highly specialized niche. I am not really a developer, yet I seem to have plenty of work. And I know a lot of people that are C++ developers or Java developers or one particular technology specialists that they struggle. And it is exactly what you said. So when a company has a problem, they want to find someone that could solve that problem right now.

Robin: Right.

Matt: And it is common to find people with specialties in performance engineering. That we kind of understand. You bring in the guy to get Oracle up to speed; he is going to be onsite a week; he is going to get you running again. And I think that most general IT professionals, doesn’t matter what you are doing, as long as it is a couple of steps past basic helpdesk work, you’d probably know how to do something, as someone you care a lot about. So you got to find out what that thing is and figure how to market it. The third piece on top of that is you want to go independent. And that’s what really interests people.

Robin: Are you saying that we shouldn’t all aspire to working for Gigantic Megacorp with free, well... with included healthcare and all, like that is not a good idea?

Matt: You give up a lot of freedoms and independence when you do that. I mean when you go work for Megacorp, you are working on the projects you are assigned to work on. The last time – when I was working as a fulltime employee, I would get assignments that couldn’t be successful and that was extremely emotionally painful for me. There are other tradeoffs involved in becoming independent.

Most Americans are socialized against being independent. They are socialized to get a good job and work really hard and advance in the system. I think most of us agree that today the system is broken in many ways. And as an independent, when I am given an assignment that can’t be successful, I can say ‘good luck’ or maybe I could help you find someone else who might be able to take that, I am not going to do this. And that is perfectly okay. I didn’t take the job. It is not like a terminable offense or anything like that. That’s just part of part of business.

Now I find that much more satisfying, much more acceptable to me personally than the corporate America thing. But especially because my business model is so niche. And if I wanted to be a general Java programmer I’d be perfectly happy. I think I could go work for Intuit or a company like that and be satisfied. But I like doing these things that work in small doses and small batches for a little bit at a time. I like the variety. It is just my temperament.

Robin: So what you are saying is it takes a certain temperament to do as you are doing. Maybe not everybody’s suited for it. What about the people who *do* want a job where they have regular hours and all that. What about that?

Matt: It is really interesting. When you look at the history of, say, the United States of America. If you had gone back to 1850, maybe 1800 and talked to people about getting a job, many of them would be surprised, ‘what does that mean?’ right. We are talking about farmers that provide their own living for themselves on a sustenance type. The majority of the population in the United States in 1845 is agrarian. Or you go further back, and you see the trappers, right? These people are going out in the wilderness and providing their own living. That was how it was done. That was the vast majority. The people that wanted – you couldn’t find an 8 to 5 job outside the military in 1825 in the United States.

So, mostly through socialization and the school system, and through time, through industrialization, industrial revolution, we’ve inculcated this desire in the American people, for the most part now, most people want a job. I don’t think that is nature, right? I think that is nurture. So there are some people who don’t want to change, and have this idea that they want a job. Then go get a job you know. I am not trying to change anyone that doesn’t want to be changed. If the argument is that that’s most people by nature, we could debate that; that is really philosophy, right?

Robin: You know, jobs. Government jobs started immediately. There were toll collectors, and of course the post office. The post office was a great thing. Benjamin Franklin. It was subsidized and yet it brought our country together, it disseminated information, newspapers, books always got a cheap rate, they still do; and you know, there were mail carriers. And they worked even in bad weather, remember? And of course, there were also postmasters. Man, a postmaster was an appointed position. People went crazy trying to get that postmaster job. It was a sinecure for life. You can lean on the counter and everybody in the little town would come over and give you all the gossip, and you know, maybe bring some booze. And people, remember in 1825, drank way more than would be acceptable today. But they did like jobs when they could get them. They worked, the guys on the barges, the sailors, these were all people who worked for a living.

Matt: Yeah, but if you look at the percentage of those jobs relative to the entire overall economy, Peter Drucker’s research showed that it was after the American Civil War that we had rapid massive expansion in the bureaucracy. In fact most of Peter Drucker’s research said that management wasn’t really invented as a science until after that time period because there just weren’t that many jobs to manage.

Robin: So we got into the thing after the Civil War where Peter Drucker and the science of management, that we managed and now today we have people who are worker bees, the vast majority of Americans are worker bees. What about people like that? Can someone who is highly niche specialized do better finding a paid job, a salaried job than someone who is just your Java programmer?

Matt: Yeah, they are really hard to get. In the US they require credentials. So if you want to work in the traditional system, you want to have a job as an employee, and you are really good at something, you need generally speaking, this is just off the top of my head, I wasn’t prepared for this spot.

Robin: It’s all right.

Matt: But you generally need a PhD or equivalent, right? So if you want to do research for Microsoft on some very, very complex mathematical equations, you optimize graphical rendering, for example, right. Microsoft has a research division and they will hire you to do that, but you need to have a PhD, usually from a top tier university. So there is a ladder of credentials you need to climb and you can get there through publishing, you can write books, if you are first to market, right?

If you are someone maybe not a Larry and Sergey level, but you invent like a Hotmail or Salesforce, you are the primary technical driver and cofounder of a large – medium sized to large enterprise and big enough to go public, get your name recognized and you can get a job as a professor somewhere teaching a very highly specialized field. But at that point, you don’t really need money, right? If you can write open source applications or contribute to open source in a significant way that makes something different, especially if a company wants it, right? So here is an example. You write an open source logistics and tracking system that plugs into a couple of major public systems that allows you to optimize and shave 1% or 2% off, a nickel here, a penny there, right?

Robin: Yeah.

Matt: But you get a company like Delta or United or Whirlpool interested in your software packages, it is terribly niche, logistics for Fortune 50 companies or something that have logistics problems -- Microsoft doesn’t have this kind of problems. They are hardly even shipping CDs any more -- but a company like that interested in it, and they start to use your software, and they get stuck for natural reasons, they want to extend it in ways that you didn’t design it to do. Well they are going to have to hire somebody, and how many people are going to be able to do that? It is going be like five guys and you are the number one choice.

Training is its own bag. I found that actually training is easier to sell than consulting.

Robin: Really?

Matt: Yeah, yeah. Most organizations will say, “We know we have a weakness in X, we’ve identified weakness in X, we want to develop skills in Y, can you come train us?” Or you can do it in conferences, but if you do it at conferences, the conference company that is doing the research there, assembling all of the clients for you there, getting the facilities for you, they are doing all the credit card paperwork for you. So, because the conference company does all the work, they are going to get the most money.

One more thing that I should mention about is there is a lot more to talk about being independent, and we could do it this for hours, but one big differentiator is you have to find the gigs, which unless you have some sort of magical funnel system, like you invented some big open source system that people have a demand for and you have to find people that don’t know about you, and tell them about your research. And there is a lot to that. There’s marketing. There’s making people aware that you exist and they come to you. And that kind of thing.

And something really strange happened to me a few years ago. When I was working in corporate America, I would get feedback that I needed to work on my people skills. This was relatively constant for several years working for a large company. And I couldn’t figure it out. I read Dale Carnegie, which is, How to Win Friends and Influence People, right? I read the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. I read and read. I went to the library and brought home every book about people skills; I read books about how to make small talk, right? Because I don’t know how to talk about golf or football or any of that stuff, the weather. I don’t talk about any of that stuff. I know how to talk about the work. And I am pretty good at the work.

And I am a decent human being, like I have a family, I am not living in my grandmother’s basement, right? But I kept getting this feedback. And through that process I think I really and genuinely did improve on those skills to the point that after I went independent, at a rather large conference, the program chair described me as ‘crazy social’.

Robin: As what?

Matt: Crazy social. "And there’s Matt Heusser, he is crazy social, you guys should work with him." I am trying to figure how that came to be because I needed to work on my people skills. I think when I was in corporate America, I was put in an environment where very powerful people wanted to hear me say ‘yes,’ and the laws of physics and my own integrity meant the answer had to be ‘no.’ There was no way I could ‘people skill’ my way out of that. I tried every ninja fu move, so it depends, what are your requirements, are the requirements flexible, or what happens if we don’t hit the deadline? Or whatever it was, right? But they wanted to hear ‘yes’ and I said ‘no’ because it wasn’t going to happen. And when people want you to lie to them, and you refuse, the culture can’t admit what is really going on. I think you are going to get the sort of ‘you-need-to-improve-your-people-skills’ feedback. But the good news is: I really did actually improve my people skills through that process and it is part of what makes me successful or at least I have been relatively successful.

Robin: Do your kids get food to eat every day?

Matt: Yeah. No, we are doing really well. I don’t want to be presumptuous.

Robin: So what you are saying is, are you telling me that people, are you telling us that people skills are important even if our basic job; writing, video, programming, whatever, is not a people skill job; you are telling me it is important?

Matt: I think you need to have, you have heard of the two-out-of-three rule? Right?

Robin: No.

Matt: You can be friendly, you can be on time, and you can do good work. Three things, right? And you only need two. So if you are on time and do good work, you’d probably keep a job. But you are not going to get promoted. Right?

Robin: Okay.

Matt: And if you ever have problems with deadlines, you have problems with the quality of your work, then friendliness is sort of the stick that people fall back on, it is nice to have that stick in your arsenal.

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How to Become an IT Expert Companies Seek Out and Pay Well (Video)

Comments Filter:
  • by Joe_Dragon (2206452) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:32PM (#42512013)

    PHD is over kill for most IT jobs and one can be a trun off to HR as you come off as needing a very high pay.

    IT needs more hand on learning not years in the class room and more tech schools.

  • by ackthpt (218170) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:41PM (#42512121) Homepage Journal

    I learned from Wally.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:43PM (#42512137)

    .... A lot of "I'm so awesome because I've figured out this obvious thing all on my own" and not much "here's how you can be awesome too"...

    I did short term 'gigs' as an IT guy back in the early 90's... I was getting $150/hr back then resurrecting SunOS filesystems, setting up backup regimens, installing new disks, NIS, plotters, firewalls, blah blah blah... The problem with it is, while the money is great, it's rarely for a full 40 hour week because someone wants you to come over tuesday at 9:30 to upgrade a disk in some computer... You haven't started bright and early and it should take you a couple hours unless something goes wrong, so you can't book something else until maybe late afternoon the same day... Suddenly you find you've made $300 that day, or maybe $600 if you're lucky... Lots of 1-2hr billable days... Sometimes you score and get a couple of 15 hour weeks... You're still making chump change and you're generating a lot of small invoices... Sure, it's 20 years later so your billable rate has gone up but your cost of living has as well... You're good so you get a lot of word-of-mouth new clients and if you don't piss off any of the existing ones, you should be able to be fairly busy; but there's still a limit to what you can reasonably do in a single day...

    Cut forward, and I picked up some 1-3 month 'gigs'... Good money. But suddenly you've lost your big handful of faithful clients because you're stuck servicing one client for 3 months so your other clients have lined up other people to do their small work... Now you've got to line up your next gig after you've finished the present one... It's rare to go from gig to gig so you end up sitting around for a month, maybe picking up a few short day things at $200/hr... You're still not breaking 6 figures... (again, this is now the late 90s early 2000's)...

    Now I've got a 5 year contract gig at an embedded linux shop doing board bringups, bsp's, drivers, et'al... This has been super lucrative, super easy, relatively interesting, and I get to go home at the end of the day not thinking about work....

    (AC because I don't feel like going through password retrieval)

  • by GC (19160) <> on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:43PM (#42512139)

    It's not a job, it's not employment, it's business. I sincerely doubt HR even know he's done work there.

    I'm a contractor, I go in to solve their problems, US $90 an hour, when I'm done, I'm done. The Invoice is in the post.

    I never have to interface with HR, I'm not looking for Health Insurance, Gym membership or any of that stuff, leave that too the employees.

    If I had a PhD then it would probably go quite a way for me, might not get a potential employee too far, but then that's not what PhDs are for!

  • by HornWumpus (783565) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:55PM (#42512277)

    Repeat until you understand: 'There is no such thing as permanent employment.'

  • Re:Step 1 (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Quakeulf (2650167) on Monday January 07, 2013 @07:56PM (#42512289)
    This. Why is this even an article? It is just a blatant advertisement.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @08:08PM (#42512411)
    Semi-successful people hack hardware and software, but very successful people hack other people.
  • My 2 cents (Score:5, Insightful)

    by thammoud (193905) on Monday January 07, 2013 @08:27PM (#42512631)

    I spent 25 years in IT consultancy before starting my own business. The following are my tips:

    • 1) Be diplomatic and respectful. Employees are almost always suspicious of consultants and rightly so. You need to deliver, work hard and earn their respect. Listen to them. You will learn a lot.
    • 2) Develop a reputation. See above.
    • 3) Learn a business domain. This is a must. Financial, Insurance, whatever. You must acquire that domain knowledge not to be expendable. They pay for the combination. You will go through multiple business domains in the initial phases of your career. Pick one that you like and will make you the most money and stick with it. It might take years but this key.
    • 4) Work for large enterprises. They have the money. Startups can make you ultra-rich but the odds are against you.
    • 5) Learn real languages. Yes Plural. JavaScript, Python and other scripting languages are useful but not sufficient. Java, C, C++ are a must.
    • 6) Learn your transactions, Messaging, distributed computing (State-full, Stateless service API).
    • 7) Always look for the problem solver. Do NOT write your own middleware. You are not that good. Spend your time leveraging other people's work.
    • 8) Read. If you think you read enough, keep on reading.
  • by ScentCone (795499) on Monday January 07, 2013 @08:37PM (#42512733)

    Perhaps you have never understood what it is to have secure employment

    What are you talking about - tenure? Otherwise, pretty much nobody has secure employment. If you pretend otherwise, you're a fool.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @09:01PM (#42512939)

    Perhaps you have never understood what it is to have secure employment and to have the ability to plan long-term with more certainty than any consultancy would allow.

    "Job Security" means your employer is underpaying you so much he can afford you keep you around no matter what happens. There is no free lunch. Nobody is being nice to you. It just means you earn so little, it's cheaper to keep paying you than to hire and train someone else.

    My wife's current job hunt has produced two offers: $73K working for the state, or $240K at a private company. Same job, same applicant pool, same requirements. The non-salary benefits are comparable. The only difference is the state job is practically guaranteed for life, but the private sector job could be 6 months or 15 years.

    In financial terms, "job security" is just an insurance policy. The premiums get deducted from your paycheck and you never even see them. How much is it costing you? If you don't know the amount off the top of your head, it's likely to be costing you far more than you would ever imagine.

  • by drooling-dog (189103) on Monday January 07, 2013 @09:12PM (#42513055)

    A PhD means you've been trained to do academic research, and mapping that skill set to non-academic environments can be problematical at best (especially in CS). While you might assume that someone who has earned a PhD is more able to do things like "reasonable design and architecture", many employers will assume the opposite: that you live in a world of abstract algorithmics, and the mundane skills involved in producing real software are beneath you. Both assumptions are equally bogus.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday January 07, 2013 @09:30PM (#42513253)

    True, but there is a world of difference in what you can plan if the interval is 20 years vs 2 years vs 2 months.

    At two months, you are always selling, which is a whole job unto itself (often a hated one) on top of the "real" job.
    At two years, you never forget about the selling but you don't have to deal with it all the time. Makes it hard to make long term commitments though.
    At 20 years, long term commitments are pretty easy and you can actually forget about selling. This can be a problem when it actually ends.

    But there is no such thing as an interval of 20 years, or even 2 years for that matter. At any point in time, even the very next day an employer can say to you "Sorry, your redundant". So to actually believe you have even 2 years of job security is a pure fantasy.

    I have been a contractor for 15 years and have planned for 15 years because I know from practical experience that I have more job security doing what I do than any person who has what they call permanent employment. When I move to another contract I bring with me a wealth and bredth of experience, plus a guaranteed track record that practically ensures me a job, plus recent and repeated interview practice.... those with permanent employment are out of touch with interviewing, and only have a stagnant and unchanging level of experience where they have sat there doing the same thing day in and day out for years.

    The simple fact is, nobody knows what will happen tomorrow, its the tools and experience you build TODAY which will give you more security than some misguided belief that your permanency equates to anything.

    Even take redundancy.... people may argue that if they are made redundant they are given a payout which gives them time to find a new job... sorry to burst your bubble, but I earn 3 times what permanents earn, I have already built up that buffer several times over, so I have already put a contingency in place in the event I am without work (something that has only happened a total of about 8 weeks in 15 years), while those who foolishly believe they are "safe" don't have any contingency in place at all, nor have the funds available to put one in to cover them in the worst case.

    I am staggered that people cannot see this? thought meta-thinking about it, I guess for those who ARE permanent, they have to believe that being permanent is the best option, otherwise they would be admitting to themselves they are not achieving their own potential and are purposely undercutting themselves. So it is easier to generate justifications for them staying where they are, than actually admitting they lack the confidence and belief in their own skills that they would be able to maintain a contracting lifestyle.

    Don't get me wrong... there is nothing wrong with working a straight 9-to-5 if thats what suits you... but please don't try to convince yourself there is any more safety in it than there is in contract work.... and certanily don't try to convince yourself that you even have an interval of 2 years in which you can plan.... Do you know how many people will be fired tomorrow who thought they had 2 years? EVERYBODY thinks they have time right up until they are put off, and yuo have absolutely no control over how/when/where this will happen. So if you think its better to just cilng to the belief you are safe rather than actually developing your career around overcoming any possible outcome IN ADVANCE.... my hat off to you!

  • by NotSanguine (1917456) on Monday January 07, 2013 @11:42PM (#42514417) Journal

    It gives benefits to the old/sick people at the expense of the young/healthy people. That's the whole point of forcing everyone to buy the insurance, whether they want/need it or not.

    Yes. It's called the Social Contract []. We give up some liberty and treasure to society, so that the society we live in can be enhanced *for all of us*. Those young, healthy people will one day be old and infirm. Or are you unable to grasp the cycle of life?

"It doesn't much signify whom one marries for one is sure to find out next morning it was someone else." -- Rogers