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I am absolutely convinced that you one make a very good living as a consultant that helps customers with deep understanding of and practical knowledge in one of the following topics

  • Time zones, daylight saving time and leap days/seconds in software processing any kind of events
  • Character encodings

Both are small niches hard to get right if you are lacking knowledge and profound experience but come up in many projects. Hence, there would be customers who want to avoid mistakes, and those who have messed things up and need help urgently.

However, those topics are unsexy and probably full of many details that most would find boring, but I know that there are people out there who thrive on solving hard problems of any kind. So my questions are:

  • What are similarly bland but important and highly specific niches in the kind of software you develop?
  • Do you know people that actually do consulting on one of these topics?

Edit: I'm talking about a skill level that goes beyond being able to build a decent implementation on your own -- to be able to quickly bring a system towards best practices after other people have really messed it up. The latter is not something you can quickly pick up.

Oh, and btw: I'm not thinking about moving into these areas, and wouldn't do it for a lot of money. That's exactly why I think that this boring kind of stuff could earn somebody a good living.

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Consultant in character encodings? You made my day :) –  user2567 May 28 '11 at 19:15
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Based on your examples, it sounds like you are targeting technical people, who can easily read up on this information themselves. It sounds more like a book than a consulting opportunity to me. –  John MacIntyre May 28 '11 at 19:41
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Yes, there are boring specializations of great value. A certain large German ERP vendor comes to mind... (YMMV). Managing time & character data? Good grief, that's overspecialized. –  Pontus Gagge May 28 '11 at 20:00
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Too narrow. If I need to know all about date/time issues, I can learn it myself in 2 weeks. –  quant_dev May 28 '11 at 21:38
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In principle, I agree that there are lucrative specializations. Not to burst your bubble, though, I had a broader specialization in internationalization (which goes far beyond date/time/character encoding issues) and have found it too rarely needed a specialization in my area (near Microsoft) to focus on full-time anymore, and not particularly lucrative, though it did pay reasonably well. I am doing better as a generalist in web applications development than I was at the peak of my internationalization focus. –  JasonTrue May 29 '11 at 1:47
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5 Answers

Gold mine niche? Essentially, pick any product that's aimed at big "enterprisey" customers. The salesperson shows the executives all these pretty graphs they can get out of the system if they buy their software. Then they buy the software and realize there's a ton of customization that has to go on to make it do what they want.

Since the technologies are proprietary you can specialize in knowing the intricacies of the proprietary system. That makes you part of a scarce commodity (everyone claims to know Java, but how many people really know all the crazy/insane details of SAP integration?).

Since the products are very expensive, they're typically sold to companies with a lot of money, and they've already shoveled a big mound of cash into this hole, so you can go in there with your $200/hr consultant rate and look cheap by comparison. They love to throw good money after bad.

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I completely missed SAP, but of course that's the prototypical example of something well paid because it's such a pain in the back to learn. –  Christoph May 30 '11 at 19:21
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@Christoph - the other example I was thinking about was MS Sharepoint. It's a little different - the initial cost is much lower, but it still needs a lot of customization, and you need specialized knowledge, past a certain level. Also, since it's a commercial product, rather than open source (e.g. Drupal/Wordpress/MediaWiki), your customer base is pre-screened to those willing to pay money for a product. –  Scott Whitlock May 30 '11 at 19:46
    
+1: In my area, I've heard that SharePoint developers/experts make a hefty wage. –  Steve Evers May 30 '11 at 20:38
    
@SnOrfus - I've heard the same in this area about a year and a half ago. It could just be a short-lived bubble (compared with something like SAP), but I agree the rates are very high. –  Scott Whitlock May 30 '11 at 20:57
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Niche gold mines aren't so narrow in knowledge base...

The problem with stuff like character encodings and timezones is that any decent developer can become pretty much a specialist in them in the space of a few weeks of intense fulltime effort (max). If it's that quick to learn, too many developers would jump on it if it seems to be becoming a lucrative niche, and soon the balance will shift to the point where enough developers know it that it's not a niche knowledge area anymore.

Gold mine niches are things like massive and complicated proprietary ERP and database systems. Things that take years of fulltime effort to learn well inside out. The effort to learn it has to be pretty much the focus of one's career, not something that any developer can quickly pick up as a side-skill.

TL;DR version: Gold mine niches are centered around stuff that takes ages to learn. It has to be so big that it's more or less your fulltime career focus in the long term. Narrow and quick-to-learn skills like knowing character encodings well are too easy - the existence of a lucrative niche is self-correcting.

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508c compliance for federal government contracts is both boring and required! Any entity that produces electronic documents for the government must ensure they meet the criteria for accessibility. This is so specialized, it is insane. I am currently trying to learn this niche because the company I work for does not want to shell out the bucks for a specialist. It is quickly becoming a more difficult endeavor than anyone had anticipated.

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Just try to find those with real business value, and that depends on the business you are trying to offer the service. Try offering such highly technical and abstract consulting to someone that only targets a single culture, they may laugh at you... but I don't really think you can regard encoding and time zones as a gold mine, sorry but that is delusive IMHO.

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I was not asking for career advice, thank you. Cleared that up in the OP. –  Christoph May 30 '11 at 19:30
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I think the big problems with your example niches are that people don't realize they have a problem. Once they know they have a problem, and what it is related to, they pretty much know what to do to get it right. Before they know what causes the problem (getting â,¬ when needing ), they don't know they need a character encoding expert. Once they do, they are close to solving it.

What's nice about some of the other examples mentioned (Oracle, SAP, other ERP) is that people look for an expert in the biggest part of their problem. They know they want an SAP consultant before they know what problem they want solved. They just spend a $$$$load of money on SAP, and they still have IT problems. Then surely they need a SAP expert to solve them, right?

Another thing you can try is some standards or legal stuff forced upon companies by the government. The more boring and useless it sounds the better. It's easy to sell (do this or go to jail), and everybody hates it, so there will be less competition.

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