I have been a freelancer / IT consultant for the last 20+ years I still have trouble coming up with my brand or specialization. The closest description to what I do is some kind of a generalizing specialist.

The reason why I have trouble is that I want to highlight my expertise in cyber security, VoIP, virtualization, Linux and Windows DevOps, software development and rapid prototyping, complex networking, and more.

Just typing this makes me cringe because I feel shy and humble calling myself an expert in these fields considering the geniuses that I look up to in those fields. And yet, I feel like somehow I'm undervaluing myself because on some level I have proven myself to be an expert.

Let me give you one of many examples where this happened: I was working with a senior network engineer on a complex network architecture problem involving BGP, VSRP and VLANs, I successfully able to lead my colleague to a solution. If the senior network engineer left the project I would have finished just the same except it would have taken me 3x longer (because I would have to look up all the commands and router capabilities that my colleague had all memorized in his head). Anyone who gave me Cisco command test would conclude I had no idea what I was doing - after all, how can an expert not have all the commands memorized? Am I really a networking expert?

I have many similar success stories in other areas. My success always involves one of two factors. Either, patience from my client because they trust me that I will get to a solution by brute generalization and perseverance, or some domain expert that I can work with whose brain I can pick and lead them to a solution. I enjoy doing both (working collaboratively and by myself)

What do you call that kind of consultant? Can I call my self an expert? Yes, I was the one who was instrumental in leading my colleague to the goal, but I wasn't the one who had all the commands memorized. Or on another occasion, yes, I solved a really complex technical issue that no one else could, but I had to learn on the job. It's like an expert that doesn't know anything. Or it's like expert only because even though my peers could be more of experts than I can they don't use the same brute generalizing perseverance to reach the goal - they give up because they get intimidated by the problem. Can I still call myself an expert?

I'm not asking how I handle current clients. Once clients know me they know exactly what my value proposition is - they are all very happy. How do I communicate this to new clients? How do I explain that I'm an expert that has to learn the thing as he goes? It just sounds weirdly inconsistent.

Of course the natural answer here is that I'm simply a manager - except I tried that and I'm definitely not a manager type. I like to get my hands deep into the minutia of IT (and I absolutely have to because that's what makes me so effective). Also I'm not a manager, because I hate nagging people. Whenever I'm made a manager it's by title only - I still get my hands in there on a daily basis.

When I meet someone new and they ask me what kind of IT I do, I have a stupid blank stare, because I want to answer "I do it all and I'm also pretty darn good at it all" ... but I keep quiet because I know how ridiculous and stupid that sounds. And even if I could get over that, it still sounds like serious bragging. I can't brag because it's being humble that drives me to learn more.

I'm an expert learner I guess .. but again more cringes and more weird looks - this time from the person who I'm talking to. What the heck does that mean and why would anyone want to hire an expert learner? ... this guy really is a weirdo.

So as you can see that's why keep all these weird theories to myself :-) and try to act more or less normal. As a result I pick one of my many areas of expertise and talk to them about that ...but I feel like I'm missing telling them about all the other stuff I'm good at.

3 Answers 3


I think I answered my own question: The answer is continue to develop generalist skills while marketing myself as a specialist.
This article describes what I mean better than I can

  • While it's great you answered your own question, Link-Only answers are highly discouraged. Instead, please summarize the information you found, and provide the link as a reference of where you got the information. Please edit to include the relevant information. Thanks!
    – Canadian Luke
    Aug 19, 2018 at 18:07

First, you are not a specializing generalist - you are simply a generalist (with seemingly excellent problem-solving skills!). What you describe is the definition of a generalist! And that´s no bad thing!

So where or what to you want to be or get to?

If I apply for a programming job, I´ll highlight my development skills. If I´m after that Sys-Admin position I´ll empathize the relevant experience for that. If I want a management position I´ll do neither and concentrate on abstract problem-solution and social skills.

If you market everything to everyone you will be a good match for nobody!

Think about what you want to do, or what the client is looking for and how you fit in with that. Then sell exactly that!

  • So far I've been doing exactly what you suggest. I try to figure out what they need and then taylor my pitch towards that. As long as I know what they want ahead of time, it works almost every time. What I'm having trouble with is introducing myself to brand new clients. First impressions count, so if I pitch myself as a cybersecurity consultant then they will remember that and won't contact me for virtualization work - or vice versa. Even though I like being generalist, it's very unmarketable. It's almost derogatory given the whole "jack of all traded master of none" concept Jul 19, 2018 at 17:17
  • Do you have an example of generalist consultants that are proudly promoting themselves generalists? (now I'm hiding it) How have they build their brand and turn the mostly negative "generalist" label into something positive? (I know about: T shaped skills, generalizing specialist, and specializing generalist thing, but I haven't seen a pure generalist angle ... probably because there is no meat to it. Anyone can be a pure generalist. What's the difference between a veteran generalist or someone fresh from high school who happens to have a pretty sharp mind but almost no experience?) Jul 19, 2018 at 17:30

Picking up on @Daniel's response, what you call yourself should depend upon your audience's expectations as much as your actual experience.

Your audience's expectations are arguably more important for marketing than how you would describe your skills.

Take off of your "IT Hat" and think what your audience uses and expects -> having regard to your product(s), your service areas, the target audience, and the like.

For inspiration, you could try looking at:

  1. the terms used in comparable job ads (offered and wanted) within the area you're targeting;

  2. what is your competition calling themselves.

Otherwise, from the brief impression of your history, what you are using seems fine - "IT Specialist", "IT Consultant" (I personally am not a fan of freelancer - that is an employment status rather than a skills descriptor, but that is perhaps just me).

Also, it might help to add whether this is personal branding for marketing yourself in the freelance market, or if it is for your own business - but in either case it is the same process - What does your audience expect?

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