A beginning consultant brings skills, an experienced consultant brings value.
Early in a good career, you establish that you write the best code on your team, have the deftest touch in UI design, produce more good work more quickly than others.
You’re the person who resolves disputes about which typeface was used on an old poster. Or who knows more frameworks, has used more tools. Or who can fix the server when everyone else around you is panicking. Or all the above.
God is in the details. You sweat them.
You are incredibly skilled and you work to stay that way. You read design books and blog posts when your friends are out drinking or home watching TV. You keep a list of things to fix on your company’s website, and you make the changes whether anyone instructs you to or not.
Often, you make a site more accessible, or more performant, or easier to understand not only without being asked, but without being thanked or acknowledged. You do good in secret. You quietly make things better. You inspire good colleagues to learn more and work harder. Lazy or less talented colleagues secretly hate you. You’re the tops. You got mad skillz.
But the organization doesn’t treat you like the incredibly motivated, supremely talented, highly intelligent, deeply passionate professional you are.
The organization rewards something different. The organization looks for leadership, not among the most skilled, but among the most strategic.
The tragedy of great designers and developers
The tragedy of great designers and developers is when they get promoted to positions of leadership where they can no longer design or develop. And the other tragedy is when they don’t.
You can stay an ace coder, a design whiz, a brilliant copywriter well into your 40s and remain a valuable, employable team member. You will not go hungry. You will not be without work.
(By your 50s, finding jobs becomes tougher no matter how brilliant and experienced you may be, due to capitalism’s preference for hiring younger people and paying them less, but the multidimensional, interlocking problems of agism and economic injustice exceed the scope of this little commentary. Typically the solution to prematurely aging out of the market, even though you have much to contribute, is to go off on your own—hence the plethora of consultants in their late 40s. But here again, merely having skills will not be enough.)
To survive as an independent consultant at any age, and to remain meaningfully employable in digital design, you must bring something different to the table. You must bring value.
You must be able to demonstrate, in every interaction with management, how your thinking will help the organization recruit new members, appeal to a new demographic, better assist its customers, increase its earnings.
Consulting in a nutshell
As a professional with skills, you are a rock star to other designers and coders.
As a professional who brings value, you are a star to decision makers.
Both paths are valid—and, truthfully, a great designer, writer, or coder adds incredible value to everything she touches. But the value she adds may not be one management deeply understands. Just as developers understand development, managers understand management.
If you can speak that language—if you can translate the precocious gifts of your early, skills-based career into a seasoned argot of commerce—you can keep working, keep feeding yourself and your family, keep contributing meaningfully to society and your profession.