Marketing for Geeks
One of the problems with what I do is that there are a lot of people out there who claim to be "web developers" but are really hack-jobs. I went to the Paypal Developer's Day demonstration today and while a few of the 'developers' (I use the term very loosely) present seemed to be worth their salt the great majority of them really were hacks. The following conversation I overheard sums it up pretty well:
"Do you also work with PHP?"
"Oh, yes! Of course! But really I am waiting for the new PHP to come out. You know, PHP 5."
(For those of you not in the industry, PHP is a programming language, and version 5 has already been out for so long that version 4 has officially reached it's end-of-life.)
It's scary to think that this represents my local competition. These guys who really don't know diddly-squat about web security, web standards, or any of the above, and are willing to work for $9 or $10 an hour. Most small business owners are too technologically ignorant to filter this sort of thing out, and so they end up with a highly inferior (not to mention hackable, if you're gathering customer data!) product. They see that Developer X has "10 years of experience" (really consisting of Dreamweaver and FrontPage) and will work for 1/10th of what Developer Y asks for. The see the bottom line, the dollar, and not the product.
So what does that mean for me? Well, I already knew that the market for "web designers" (meaning anyone who can put together some sort of band website or small company website) is saturated everywhere. If someone posts a job like this on an internet forum like Craigslist, they get about 1000 responses; 99% of those responses are going to be tech guys in India, recruiters, or people out-of-state wanting to do work remotely. Obviously, with my New York rent, I can't compete with that. Nor do I wish to.
So when people ask "What do you do?" I'm faced with a dilemma. I cannot say, "I do web sites" because that puts me in the camp with the legions who wield the Dreamweaver sword. What I usually answer is that "I develop web applications." This better defines where my talents lie. I don't do websites for your local bands or your local dairy company. What I do is develop applications for business processes: inventory tracking, medical record systems, financial data, billing, etc. It's the same sort of thing that most desktop programmers did ten years ago, but now it's all moving to the web.
Contacts in these industries are far more difficult to make then your usual brochure-type website. They are, however, far more difficult to do and therefore tend to weed out the hacks that don't know what they're doing. I say "tend to" because, in truth, businesses often entrust their own internal processes to hacks and often suffer the inevitable meltdown later in the game. If you want stories about that, simply talk to any freelance developer or visit Worse Than Failure. Whenever I see a business post an ad on Craigslist for an extensive application offering $10/hour, I am tempted to write down the business name so I can call them a year later and be the hero that fixes all of the stuff that the $10 hack left in horrible shape.
I believe that the market here for good developers is good. You have to be able to differentiate yourself from the crowd (which can be difficult when you're targeting people who know nothing about web security or software development) but if you can manage that, then I believe that the demand exists.