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.
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?
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.
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?
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?
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.