In my last column, I talked about how work in the modern economy is becoming more specialized and I laid out some of the factors that have led us to this point. I talked about how efficiency gains led to the atomization of work, how much of that work began to be outsourced to many different specialists, and how online recruitment platforms have coaxed these specialists down an ever-narrower vocational path. In this article, I want to talk about that specialization in action: what the upshot of all this has been for workers on the front line today.

When I talk about specialists, I mean skilled knowledge workers more than anyone else. The reasons for this are twofold. First, because (generally speaking) there is greater diversity in the range of activities required of participants in advanced knowledge work than in manual labor. Stem cell research throws up more new problems and therefore demand for specialized solutions than does, let’s say, carpentry. Second, because the effort needed to acquire a competitive edge in delivering those solutions forces knowledge workers to spend an awful lot of time focused on one very narrow intellectual pursuit at the expense of all others.

Nowhere is the rampant desire for specialization more evident than in the tech sector, where the range of the problems that need solving is a function of the constant march of innovation and the venture capital that funds it. Corporations see fast tech adoption as a must, so there are great rewards for any scientist, engineer or developer able and disposed to invest a significant amount of time in mastering that latest new technology before anybody else can. And with every passing year there’s something new. Along with demand for specialists in areas like cybersecurity, machine learning and data science, job boards saw a sudden spike in 2019 in calls for developers with expert knowledge of new programming languages like Solidity and Houdini, Google Cloud solutions and, of all things, DropBox APIs. Next year’s flavor of the month is anybody’s guess. 

You see the deep commitment to these vocations in the dedicated ‘fan groups’ they accrue. Much like old-fashioned professional associations, these groups enable specialists in very niche domains to exchange ideas on the technology at hand. But besides their very niche focus, what often marks these groups out from their twentieth century forerunners is their truly global reach. Take Facebook’s Python Programmers Group. Its 80,000+ members are drawn not from single townships, counties or states, but from across countries, continents and oceans. Skill is the identity that binds them, not nationality or postcode.

Suffice it to say, this broad base of talent – able to work from anywhere with high-speed internet access – is changing the face of modern recruitment. Fifteen years ago, it might have been tricky for a company in a small town in the American Midwest to hire an IT professional with the requisite level of expertise to integrate some new, complex technology into their stack. Today, because developers can so easily be employed remotely, the same company would likely have no difficulty at all in plugging that gap. For pretty much any specialism you could name now, hiring managers have a global pool of talent at their disposal.

With their huge databases of freelance workers, online recruitment platforms have flourished as the gatekeepers to this workforce. No matter where the hiring manager is based, access to these platforms means it’s easy to find capable people quickly and hire them under simple, standardized contracts. On the one hand the system serves to rectify shortfalls in local talent; on the other it helps distribute much-needed wealth and opportunity to untapped (and often under-served) professional communities.

Of course, it’s a dog-eat-dog world out there and to get lucrative contracts you have to be prepared to compete. Any freelancer must adopt a salesperson’s mindset, and it really helps to cultivate a personal brand. Most of the developers in the Adeva network have their own websites where they tout their services, and it’s interesting how often these sites will mimic the look and feel of corporate websites. They have an ‘About’ section, a blog, a way to ‘Contact Us’. 

The recruitment platforms are another great place to get noticed, and they do a great job of promoting the profiles of gig workers who get positive reviews. Write a well-received piece of web copy for a client and the algorithms will ensure you’ll be more visible for that specific kind of task the next time somebody searches for it. UpWork has also started to foreground select freelancers in curated, window-shop style pages on their site. Want that specialist in DropBox APIs? Here are our ten top-rated experts for your perusal. 

All this is great for those top-rated few, but it does make life hard for new entrants to win work and gain notoriety. The result is a winner-takes-all situation and a race to the bottom for the rest on pricing. To some extent, the same is true for applicants to the exclusive developers’ network that I run. We reject 99% of applications to our community because we need to be able to guarantee clients a faultless service. For a hiring manager with a million things on their mind, half-baked solutions simply won’t do. CTOs want to be able to wash their hands of tricky technical problems and the person they turn to must be able to manage whatever comes their way from beginning to end. As one of our Gurgaon-based developers put it recently: “if I claim to be a Python engineer, I better be damn-well sure I can deliver”.

It can also be tiring to stay on top of your vocation as a developer because the technology is constantly changing. Re-training takes time and effort, but it’s an essential part of the process for anyone who wants to make a living as a freelancer. Those who are unwilling or unable to keep pace on the treadmill often decide to leave the profession altogether. 

When all is said and done, I think the picture for specialized workers is exciting. Especially in the developer community, there is abundant opportunity for talented individuals who want to make money by leveraging deep expertise in emerging technology. On the flip side it takes grit and resolve to succeed and, as in many other walks of life right now, there is an emerging pattern of ‘winner takes all’ that should be monitored carefully.