Unemployed and need help developing a niche

I knew several good developers who complain about many employers stuck in a catch-22… they cannot find any competent PHP programmers for their needs, yet they are only willing to pay PHP developers below-average wages (compared to developers specialized in other languages).

As a result, the companies with those employers cannot advance their tools, so they are stuck with needing data entry, website and Wordpress tweaks, which doesn’t attract better developers, so things don’t improve and the PHP developers have a hard time advancing their skills.

This scenario is one that I can relate to a lot. Knowing PHP syntax and configuring LAMP stacks is long gone as a niche skill, but for me I have to keep looking for work that leverages that knowledge, because it’s what I do the best. I want to go beyond Wordpress and routine updates of client sites, though, because this is not challenging to me and I grow bored of it at work. My portfolio of work only gets me job offers from the companies described above.

No longer does the amount of years in my experience matter much, or at least that’s how I’m feeling. They are looking more to see what the websites/applications did, and how well they did it. I want to know how others have broken out of this loop (PHP developers especially) because it feels easy to trap yourself into only being marketable for expendable “easy work”.

Freelance is rough in any industry and devaluation exists across the board when you look at the full spectrum of requests.

Head over to oDesk and search for “Social Media Consultant” and the rates are generally sub $10 due to outsourcing yet it’s a field where surveys of known consultants in the space show rates from $100 - $300 / hour. Big difference.

If you want to stay in the freelancing world you have to build enough of a name and client roster for yourself that you are not dependant on inbound requests from “randoms”. These people see options from outsourced shops and go on price before skill, that’s not a field to be in, there is no upside.

Being a freelancer means not just doing what your profession is but building your own brand on the side. Thankfully we’re in the digital era and there’s lots of ways to do this from creating a blog to video tutorials to twitter presence to going offline at relevant events and even community programs or all of the above. You can hone in on a small business niche if you want to be full service or dive really deep into a nuisance of the industry like mobile development for payment solutions, something refined but hot.

If you can project authority in a topic and build enough of a reputation you’ll have the platform to network with more serious teams and companies who can lead to fair rates and ongoing work. Companies who spend more on projects are generally use to working with agencies or hiring regular contractors so being connected in with those groups is essential, as is having a strong relationship with local staffing firms to find short to mid term projects [if you’re up for them]. Anyone who has posted a job to a freelance board knows the junk that comes in… it’s a two way street.

Prospecting is not simple when you’re in a technical niche and certainly not overnight which is why many chose to work for a company full time rather than sticking it out on their own.

I’m not sure how I implied that I want freelance work in my last post, because that’s quite the opposite of what I’m looking for. I’m interested in a full-time, permanent position, and I’m facing these problems a lot when looking for a full-time job :eek: I just don’t want a 9-5 in a web shop that shows little interest in giving its workers a practical need to specialize their skills. For instance the project manager at one of my last jobs could only hand to me small things like static sites, blog fixes, or front end code updates for new designs. This makes it more difficult for me to advance to more stable roles because I have hardly worked on more “serious” projects.

Whoops! Just assumed when you talked small projects that you were project scrapping.

So you need to move to a bigger shop. The good news is that Chicago has a number of large agencies and companies with web teams so you’re not stuck having to relocate [although if you want too there’s a nice tech boom across parts of the US right now].

Let’s talk a little about who you are, what you’ve done and what you want.

  1. How many years experience? Any degrees or certifications [in or out of code]

  2. Experience working as a part of a team? Managing others? Managing projects?

  3. You said mostly small projects but what languages do you know? To what degree?

  4. What mediums have you worked on [web, mobile, desktop]?

  5. Any major APIs [facebook / twitter / amazon / etc]?

  6. How are your front-end development skills [html, css, javascript, ajax]?

And now on to what you want…

  1. Small company, medium, big company, or doesn’t matter?

  2. Types of development / work you’d LIKE to do?

  3. Types of development you’d HATE to do?

  4. Location [geographic and working in office / home]?

  5. What’s the perfect job for you?

Feel free to answer some, a few. I’m not a coder so I can’t talk the life but I can give you my perspective as a hiring manager and department lead of a number of web teams and many, many agency partners.

I’ll answer your questions one by one:

  1. Between 4 and 5 years of related experience. I have no certs and a BFA in Electronic Media. (I’m 28 right now by the way)

  2. I have no experience with project management or other “leadership” roles. I turned down an offer to be moved to project manager because I wanted to stay close to working with code for a while. I’d rather become a lead developer or a software architect.

In some places I am the only “techie” guy aside from my manager, so there’s no point in getting promoted there.

  1. I know mostly PHP and this is what I do most of my work with. I’m pretty confident with most object-oriented concepts and can work with an MVC framework pretty well.

  2. I produce for the web medium 95% of the time.

  3. Neither I nor any of the people I worked with use APIs.

  4. My front end skills are very good, but my weakest area has to be Javascript. Once in a while I have to use JQuery with vanilla Javascript that I write for it.

  5. Just large enough to have a dedicated IT team.

  6. Large scale projects, and projects that encourage my colleagues and I to learn more third party technologies.

  7. Any work that involves just working with a project manager who knows little or nothing about how websites are actually put together.

  8. Chicago and its metro area is fine for now. I have no plans to relocate given my financial situation.

  9. I like to work in a company that goes beyond talking about project scopes in generalities, and get into development methods. I vaguely know what Scrum, agile development, and unit testing mean, and I don’t know in which cases they should be applied. It would also be a job where we have a lot of authority on technical know-how and where clients do not dictate the flow of the development process.

In the places I worked with the longest, we just use tools that our clients want us to use and time and budget doesn’t allow us to suggest alternative ones. I think it’s typical of web shops that bring in lots of small businesses. We never sit down to talk about how we can roll out our own system of developing products, or refine it, to explore different frameworks/APIs and minimize boilerplate code.

dice.com and elance.com might be two places to check out. The first is a tech-related job hunting site. The other is a freelancer site for picking up projects (both big and small)

Sounds like you’d be a good fit for an agency on the verge of being midsized or a company that’s truly midsized. Enough to have some long term work but not overly process focused or departmentalized.

Javascript / AJAX are vital skills you’ll want to dive further into given the interactivity expected in the web today but that’s not rocket science.

As far as finding work, Dice is a great suggestion already. CyberCoders tends to have some good stuff as well but you can also expect to find gigs on the larger generic boards. I’d suggest looking for names that do fit that mid-sized label so you avoid the pitfalls of small and the process of big that seem to be outside your target areas.

Chicago has some great firms you can find and network with directly. Manifest digital is a company I RFP’d once, seemed like a bright group, and there’s many others. If you find one don’t just kick over your resume, see if they’re on a channel like Twitter and ask them a few questions about their world to see if you can spark up a warmer introduction.

P.S. your comment on 9 & 11 are red flag you want to watch when you go through any application process.

Thanks for the advice, guys. I definitely need to get more into Javascript and AJAX, since I tend to have my head buried in server-side programming. Dice and Craigslist are two places I regularly check back to, but Dice tends to have many more jobs that are out of my league for me ie. they usually require much more specialized knowledge and not just simply “know how to set up a server and produce websites on open source stacks”. Maybe also the reason my resumes are put to the side, applying to these intermediate jobs with an ART degree (with 12 credit hours of CS education :P) I will start contacting more of those places anyways despite the requirements they ask for, and see how much leeway I can give for my experience.

Ted S, you say midsized companies would be a good fit for me. Would they provide proper career guidance for junior developers? Other than just wanting to get as much of their in-house team as possible to do only sales or project management (yeah they’ve been off-shoring work, but not really outsourcing since they technically own 90% of the off-shore property).

Depends on the company but generally yes. Unlike say a small shop, there’s more formality to have a process to educate and bring people up while still being flexible enough to work on a lot. But it’s really company specific as a small or big shop can be equally good, and a mid-sized bad.

As far as the outsourcing, that’s also pretty variable. A good shop wants expertise in and potentially rudimentary work out to maximize profit. However some clients [more and more IMO] want it all localized and outsourcing has increased risks as sites become some much more a part of a business so I don’t see you getting forced out of development in the right shop, unless you want to move into management.

Remember, you are interviewing them to see if they get years of your life and that means being able to say “no”. Keep at attitude, with the respect needed to sell yourself too of course, and you’ll not only find better results but should be happy with your job.