Building custom software for an industry you are unfamiliar with

The telephone call

Whether you are a consultant, contractor or full time employee, you have gotten that call. It sounds like the perfect job for you, but it is in an industry you know nothing about. If it is a job you would love, you panic when the question comes up: “How many years experience do you have in this industry?” If you are a contractor or consultant or you are like me and own a firm of your own you know your customer is thinking: “I want someone who has built this type of project in my industry before.”

Sweaty Palms

Ok, before you start getting sweaty palms, let’s think about your answer. You know programming. You have mastered a programming language or many programming languages and built custom applications before in other industries. What do you have to offer this client that he would not find in a “more experienced” person or firm?

The one thing many companies are looking for is a fresh perspective. Even if the caller has not considered this before, this is your chance to turn around their plans completely. Sure, there are benefits to hiring someone who has written multiple enterprise-wide applications in that industry before. Let’s face it – they know what they are doing.

However, is that a good thing? Maybe not.

If you have driven the same way to work for the last 20 years and you have never ventured onto an alternative path and you never look at a GPS or map of the area, how do you know if there is a more pleasant path or a shorter one? Have you even considered that there might be?

We are creatures of habit. While those habits can often be very good ones (ie, exercise) some of those habits can be very bad ones (ie, smoking). However, if you started smoking in 1950 you might not realize it is killing you if you never read or watched the news.

A New Kind of Value

So let’s assume you have no experience in Bob’s industry (for the sake of argument, let’s assume Bob is in transportation). You already know there is one objective in transportation: get from Point A to Point B.

Easy enough, right? Clearly there are monumental steps between, on top of and around this objective, but when you boil it down to basics, this is what you have.

Rather than sit with Bob and go through how he currently does everything, why don’t you use this simple objective as your starting point?

Instead of doing research on the software that is already available to the transportation industry, do your research on processes in the transportation industry. Focus your new enthusiasm on learning what physically happens every day in a transportation business (not just Bob’s business).

Go to Google and type in “transportation”. What do you see? I started with the Department of Transportation website (I knew with pretty solid certainty they would not be the most cutting-edge technologists in this industry so it was safe to assume I would learn all about the physical aspects of transportation.)

Using this information you can build on all kinds of branches of research within the transportation industry. Build a comprehensive document for yourself and for Bob demonstrating your new found knowledge of the industry.

What does that mean to Bob? He just got a completely fresh perspective on his business from a very bright developer that he could not have gotten otherwise.

What does that mean to you? Knowledge begets knowledge. Once you have tried this method on multiple industries you will be amazed at how broad your knowledge base has become.

A new found strategy

Now when the telephone rings you have a strategy. If you do not know the industry, offer to learn more about it and come in with a fresh perspective.

Once you’ve done this a few times you will find you are really quite good at convincing yourself and your prospective client/employer that he/she would be crazy not to use your services.

No more sweaty palms and no more lost opportunities.

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