Main image of article Can Tech Pros Really Win the Gig Economy?
The Gig Economy—where independent workers take on assignments of varying length and depth for multiple employers—really isn’t a new concept in the tech industry, where contractors have been a presence for years. But recently, recruiters have reported that more companies are putting an emphasis on temporary workers as they build teams to tackle technical projects more quickly and cheaply. At the same time, they say, younger professionals are expressing a preference for independent work, rather than tying their careers to a series of full-time jobs. By some measures, more than 40 percent of U.S. workers will be independent in 2020. Today, that number stands at 34 percent, according to the Freelancer’s Union. By all accounts, the trend seems widespread enough to indicate that tech pros should prepare themselves for the dynamics of a world that depends more on contingent work. One of the first things they must decide is what, precisely, will they offer the market. Should they act as jacks-of-all-trades, ready to jump into any portion of a project? Or are they better off zeroing in on a narrow set of skills, on the theory that specialization commands more value—and thus higher fees?

No One Path

“I think it’s a bit of both,” said Dana Hutchins, president of Inforest, a Website and applications developer in Princeton, N.J. “In our business, you need to have a broad understanding of how Web pages get put together so you can converse with other professionals.” Even those who choose to specialize, Hutchins believes, need to understand “the building blocks” of whatever tools or technology they’re focusing on, because “having enough experience with the core components allows you to get up to speed quickly.” Rich Angermiller agrees. The president and creative director of Dragonfly Interactive, a digital design, development and marketing shop in Pennington, N.J., Angermiller suggests it can be “a huge advantage” to understand as many aspects of building a project as possible, from design and marketing to coding and technology: “Nine times out of 10, I can answer a client’s questions on the spot, resulting in decisions and better estimating on projects.”

The Hard Choices

Still, both Hutchins and Angermiller are talking about foundational knowledge here, not the down-and-dirty skills necessary to take on a specific role. And this is where the hard decisions must be made. While knowledge of a wider variety of tools and technology may provide you with more opportunities for work, a narrow specialty, while presenting you with fewer potential clients, may make you more valuable in the long run. “It makes sense to go deep if you think there’s enough mass of people to make it worth it,” said Hutchins. He suggests looking at job openings and ads to see whether hiring activity aligns with your interests. In addition, he noted, “It’s important to network with other professionals to find out what they’re seeing.” It’s also important to understand how a “specialty” is defined, Hutchins continued: “It might not be about a particular technology, but about the tools based on that technology… so maybe it’s about knowing WordPress or Drupal rather than PHP or Perl. It’s about the framework.” When hiring someone for a gig, “I might hire based on their experience with a particular tool. That’s more important than their knowing how to craft the actual code.” That approach may differ for tech pros who consider themselves strictly developers, Angermiller pointed out. For them, “having a clear set of skills is obviously what you should focus on.” He sees languages such as PHP and jQuery as being the most in-demand right now, but notes even those concentrating in such areas should hone their analytical, creative and problem-solving skills, especially if they’re seeking work from smaller companies. “Often, it’s not so much, ‘OK, develop this widget that does A, B and C,’ but more like the client wants the site to do XX, with a dozen or so parameters. In that case, it’s more about using your technical skills to develop solutions that work and are efficient, not so much doing things by the book,” he explained.

Early Tradeoffs

The tradeoffs are particularly notable for tech pros who are just starting out, believes Will Kelly, recruiting director in the Dallas office of staffing agency Modis. For example, a boot camp graduate who’s mastered JavaScript and AngularJS will quickly land a gig in today’s market, he said, but may be have trouble moving into a more advanced position the next time around because their skills are too narrow. On the other hand, computer science graduates with good object-oriented backgrounds and knowledge of several languages may be harder to place, but once they complete their first contract they should be able to find another assignment fairly quickly. “Employers have to work harder to see the fit of a generalist,” Kelly said. “But once they find that first gig, they have a better path to their second one.” Hutchins points out another risk of having too narrow a focus. “Given the speed with which technology changes, you’re forced into a balancing act,” he said. “You could find yourself irrelevant if the technology you choose falls out of favor.”