We often meet tech professionals who have loads of skills and experience, but who either don’t know how to get where they want to go in their IT career, or who struggle to ‘package up’ what they have to offer in a way that gets them the roles they’re interested in. Without a strategic and planned approach to your career, it’s easy to feel a bit lost and directionless.
So here’s how you can build a niche in the IT industry, harnessing your skills, experiences, and interests to progress your career and get the best income and fulfilment from your work.
1. Build the foundations of your skillset
To create a lasting niche in the IT industry, it’s crucial to begin by building core skills first. The specific foundations will vary depending on your chosen discipline. For example, a developer will need to be proficient in HTML/CSS and other key programming languages, testing, deployment, and so on. A project manager will need to build strong budget and time management skills, an understanding and application of project delivery methodologies, and stakeholder relationship management.
These foundational skills may take 5-10 years to get to a point where you’re able to start to specialise. There’s no hard rule here and everyone’s journey is different. Our advice is to ensure that you’ve reached a level of proficiency that you can apply these skills to any situation successfully. Leaving gaps in the core skills can create blind spots later.
2. Experience different roles and employers
Gaining diverse experience is another cornerstone of a successful IT career in any direction. Whether you’re carving out a niche in a specific area of IT or within a specific industry, there’s tremendous value working in different roles across multiple businesses. By building up this experience, you’ll learn to look at challenges from different angles, experience different cultures and personalities, and gain the ability to understand new businesses faster.
For many specialised IT professionals, short-term contracts may become part of your future career path. By having experience in a number of businesses, you’ll become more adept at applying your skills and adding value quickly to these types of contract jobs.
Taking on different roles has also helped many successful Kiwi IT professionals to become more effective in their niche. One example of this are those who’ve worked in development roles, architecture and people management. Whether they move into a technical role or a people-based one, their spectrum of experience will come in handy; be it applying technical knowledge to better communicate with people as a leader, or people skills to better translate the business’ needs while working as a technical specialist.
Our advice is to consider the long-term benefits of potential roles. Sometimes, the best strategy is to look at roles as critical upskilling opportunities on the road to doing exactly what you want.
3. Get involved in solving operational challenges
IT and business operations are closely linked in this modern era. Technology is looked to as the solution for many challenges, and many leaders in New Zealand bring technology experience to their role. As an IT professional aiming to establish a niche for yourself in the market, we’d suggest actively going beyond the technical element of your role and becoming part of strategic discussions and meetings.
It’s normal for a technical delivery team to focus on the doing rather than the big why questions. If you’re looking to determine a business niche for your IT skills then it will benefit you greatly to be exposed to business challenges and opportunities in your work.
4. Keep your eyes open to market needs
It sounds simple but the value can’t be overstated; stay aware of the things you see and hear in your work. Are there recurring themes you come across in your work that don’t seem to have a (good) solution? The more you practise being receptive to such signs, the more potential opportunities there are for crafting your niche.
Finding a market need doesn’t require you to discover a totally untapped angle. In most cases a niche in the IT sector will be the combining of several skills and an approach that better fits what businesses require.
6. Determine what activities you’re best at (and enjoy most!)
Long term enjoyment and success depends on you reflecting on your own motivation for specific activities. You may have the technical skills to do something well, but have no interest in it. This won’t be sustainable. Instead, we suggest consciously noting down the parts of your work that you love, see the value in and are particularly good at. You might even want to write these down somewhere.
Understanding your own preferences in work is a long process. You may start with a certain picture of your ideal work and find this to be significantly different a few years down the track. If you continue to capture this information whilst you gain invaluable experience, building a clear niche will be easier when it’s time to specialise.
7. Continue to develop your skills
Any IT professional knows that skill development is never finished. The very nature of IT is based around change – meaning everyone needs to keep reading, learning and applying to stay relevant. Even those who’ve carved a successful career in a particular area of IT need to keep their existing skills sharp and acquire new ones at the same time.
Developing skills might be as simple as reading some new information. It could be online training, getting certified, taking a course or experimenting via a personal hobby project. Whatever shape it takes, personal development is an essential part of success.
8. Identify what problems your skills can help to solve
Over time you’ll start to see the impact of the work you do and how it affects the organisations you work in. Through frameworks like project retrospectives you can start to connect the input you contributed to and the output on the business. This might be securing internal systems, speeding up customer engagement processes, creating more efficiency or simply driving revenue growth. Whatever the business impact, you should take the opportunity to learn the effects of your work.
9. Package up your offering with clarity
You’ve got the experience, the skills and the understanding of the value you add. But all of this can’t create a successful niche on its own. It’s your ability to put all of this together into a coherent value proposition to the market. Whether you’re a salaried employee, contractor or business owner, becoming an in-demand specialist in a specific area requires you to communicate your value to anyone who makes decisions.
Are you able to swiftly describe how your skills make a meaningful business impact? Consider putting together a short paragraph that articulates this. You’ll be able to refer to this in your CV, cover letter, conversations, LinkedIn and even website:
- What specialist skills do you offer the New Zealand market?
- What experience do you have applying these and in what industries?
- What measurable business impact have these skills had on previous projects/businesses?
- What makes your unique combination of skills and experience preferable to others (point of difference).
10. Proactively build your professional networks
With a clear sense of the niche you have to serve the market, start to build up your professional network with a real sense of purpose. Start by ensuring that your profile on LinkedIn articulates your niche clearly. You may want to review each recent role and make sure it tells an accurate and clear story.
As you understand the types of roles that your work most commonly comes into contact with, or who are the key beneficiaries of your type of work, you can start looking to connect with and have conversations with these people.
Building up a professional network might start online, but it’s the in person conversations that typically provide the most value. Dedicate time to meeting with various people – without the expectation of direct business. As you have more conversations with people in the industry, you’ll find that you get more demand for your services. If not from those you’ve met, it’ll be others who they’ve talked to that are in need of what you offer.
Referrals and word of mouth are precisely why your niche needs to be clearly defined – so that when the problem that you solve arises, there’s no question on who to contact.
11. Consider the longevity of your niche
Niches can run the risk of pigeon-holing IT professionals into one area if care isn’t taken. Typically a specialist area should be broad enough to adapt with new technologies or market needs. For this reason, it’s also important to recognise your soft skills and transferable hard skills, allowing you to continue to have a clear market value, even if some short term upskilling or training is needed to stay relevant.
12. Capture successes and use them to build up to bigger jobs
As you apply your skills during the day-to-day, it’s important to note the impact your work has on your organisation’s success. As your specific approach to solving challenges is applied with positive results, you can leverage this into bigger future opportunities. As time goes on, you may find that your skills aren’t simply what’s in demand, but your unique methodology. Many also further refine their niche by dropping the hands-on delivery aspect and providing value through guidance instead. This approach is great for those looking for less work hours but who still want to add value. And as the stakes become higher with more technology being applied across more organisations, the experienced advisor is only going to become more in demand!
Learn more about New Zealand’s IT industry
If you’re interested in reading more about the tech sector, check out the other articles in our blog where you can find insights about a range of topics including job interviews, CVs and personal skill development.