One of the most important things you can do as an IT consultant is find your niche, your passion. This commonly-overlooked law of nature goes against the typical mindset of an IT professional, but it's something that you must pay attention to.
So how do you find your niche? As much as you think you know yourself and your skills, it's not a simple process. The first step is to think about why you got started in IT in the first place. Was it a natural progression starting with the college degree you earned? As with personal relationships, we sometimes forget about the initial charm that lured us in. Try to resurrect that. It's key to understanding what you like to do.
Next, examine your past IT roles. What specific aspects of IT did you enjoy and were good at doing? Maybe it was network design or software development, installation or troubleshooting. Maybe day-to-day administration was your cup of tea. Or perhaps it was writing documentation or managing people. When I think back on these things, network design and installation really motivated me. Systems administration was fine, but it didn't excite me -- not the way troubleshooting did.
If you're new to IT, explore what interests you. There are legitimate areas of IT that will not be going away, including network design and installation, database administration, software development, security administration and even computer forensics. If you're not sure what's involved in the day-to-day work, reading about it can help bring things into focus. Try shadowing a peer who does it full time. I also recommend going to work for someone -- ideally an IT consulting or systems integration firm -- for at least a couple of years so you can get the broad exposure and build the credibility you're going to need to succeed on your own.
I was already focusing on information security when I went out on my own, but at first I needed to fill the billable work gaps in other capacities when I could. With my background in networking and operating systems, I could market those skills in conjunction with the security work I was doing. I performed side jobs, doing basic network administration, installation and troubleshooting in the context of information security. After a year or so, I had built up my information security practice enough to be able to justify focusing exclusively on security projects.
If you're still unsure about exactly what you want to do, don't worry. You'll know it in time. When you're just starting out, you may not be able to focus solely on what you love and are good at. This can go on for a couple of years and that's okay.
By taking the time to analyze your goals and the things you can do better than others, you're setting yourself up for success. You'll know what type of work to go after and how to establish your limits. That will set your clients up for success as well.
Never lose sight of the fact that you perform at your best when you're doing something you're proud of and enjoy. You won't have fun if you're doing work that's unsatisfying.
Kevin Beaver, is an information security consultant, keynote speaker and expert witness with Atlanta-based Principle Logic LLC. Kevin specializes in performing independent security assessments. Kevin has authored/co-authored seven books on information security, including Hacking For Dummies and Hacking Wireless Networks For Dummies (Wiley). He's also the creator of the Security on Wheels information security audio books and blog providing security learning for IT professionals on the go. Kevin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This was first published in June 2009