On Episode 35 of The SQL Data Partners Podcast, I talk with Philip Morgan of The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms. Philip’s book has influenced my work at SQL Data Partners, so I wanted to bring him on and share his insights with the rest of you on the SQL Trail. You’ll want to listen to this one, because the benefits of positioning are numerous.
The benefits of narrowing your focus include:
- Delivering more value to clients and to the organization.
- Becoming an expert faster in your chosen problem or technology.
- Gaining control in over how you’re perceived by employers.
- Going deep into interesting problems you didn’t know existed.
- Gaining prestige as a solver of expensive problems.
In this episode, I pose your positioning questions to Philip:
- Won’t positioning as a professional ruin my career?
- How do I position effectively? What do I focus on?
- What’s the risk to positioning?
- Won’t I be bored?
- What if I’m “found out” to be not as good as I say I am?
- How do I deal with recruiters?
- Won’t I be pigeon-holed into a legacy application?
- How do I continue to evolve as a technologist while also focusing?
First, Philip and I talk about positioning as a tool to create more value through a narrowed focus. Philip discusses how to apply positioning to your SQL Career, even if you’re a W2 employee. Philip and I go over three ways to narrow your focus and how it affects the direction of your career. Then, we talk about how to use positioning to talk to recruiters and get the kind of job you’re looking for. I also ask him about how to turn unwanted work assignments to your advantage using the leverage grained from positioning. He also points out the risk of focusing only on a technology, as opposed to a specific problem. He then gives specific advice for talking to corporate leadership about the value you bring to the company as an IT professional. Philip addresses positioning fears like loss of flexibility, boredom, and being pigeon-holed and balances them with the benefits gained from positioning. Philip points out the scenarios in which narrowing your focus might not be the best solution and I share my experiences with positioning and project work. We then talk about how to pivot and “tweak” positioning over time and how to gently make your expertise known.
Philip Morgan is a positioning strategist who started his career as a Microsoft trainer. He’s the author of two books: The Positioning Manual for Technical Firms and The Positioning Strategy Guide. He’s helped consultants and technical firms focus their brand and position themselves for success. Philip sells several productized services, My Content Sherpa and Drip Sherpa and Agile Marketing. For more advice on positioning, listen to him on the Consulting Pipeline Podcast.
Carlos L Chacon: This is SQL Data Partners’ Podcast, Episode 35. I am Carlos Chacon, your host, and I welcome all my Compañeros to the show. Thanks for joining us on the SQL trail. This podcast is dedicated to SQL Server related topics. Designed to help you become familiar with what’s out there. How you might use those features or ideas and how you might apply them in your environments. You know from time to time we like to mix it up, and today we are going to do just that. We are going to talk about “Positioning.” How you might position yourself and your career. My guest is Philip Morgan, who is the author of “The Positioning Manual For Technical Firms.” While his book is directed towards businesses, I thought it might be interesting to explore how this positioning idea can influence the number of opportunities that come our way, and the types of opportunities that we can get. Today’s episode is brought to you by “SQL Cruise — Learn. Network. Relax. Grow. Just add water.” Check out sqlcruise.com for more information. Again, it’s always good to have you, compañeros, welcome to the show, let’s get to it. Philip thanks for being here.
Philip Morgan: My pleasure, Carlos, really excited to talk to you.
Carlos: Thanks, I wanted to reach out to you, as I mentioned, you are the author of the positioning manual. You want to take a minute and tell us a little bit more about yourself and what you do?
Philip: Yeah. I’ll keep it pretty short. In the ’90s I got a job and ended up as part of the job, working as a “Microsoft Certified Trainer.” During the first dotcom boom, when money was being thrown at the training industry, I got my start in technology. I was an MCT and MCSE for a number of years. That’s how I got into technology.Overtime that changed into a focus on marketing. Nowadays I help custom software development shops, get more leads for their business. I do that using things like positioning, education based content marketing and marketing automation. I got so interested in positioning, I ended up writing two books — I think I’m toying with the idea of merging them into one — but two books on positioning. I love talking about the subject because it’s terrifying and powerful, all at once.
Carlos: Yes, I agree. Of course I look at it from the business perspective. Some of our listeners might be thinking that same thing. Well, “Hey, this is more of a business thing.” You actually used the word ‘marketing.” Like, “Well, I’m not a business, why would I need to market myself?”What types of benefits might come to an employee who wants to position themselves? Why would you look into that?
Philip: Yeah. It is very much a marketing term. If you go on Amazon, for instance, and search for the term positioning. All the books that come back, and there’s not a whole lot of them, but for…or on the subject they are basically marketing books. I do think the concept is applicable to employees. I think we should spend just a moment giving a working definition what positioning is.I think of positioning as a tool for creating more value, and I think that that is something that both an employee and a self-employee person, or small business or large business can all use that. They can all use tools that help them create more value. The way that tends to work for…especially for a small company as solo freelancer or an employee, you create more value by becoming more specific about what you do. You narrow your focus. For the folks at home listening to this if they want to think as positioning as the same thing as narrowing your focus, I think that’s a pretty good definition for the purposes of our conversation.
Carlos: Now, you think that that is use synonymous with choosing a specific technology to focus on? Or can that be like a specific type of problem that you might focus on? I want to be the networking expert on my organization or a database expert in our case?
Philip: You know, it can be any of those. There are basically three ways…three axes along which you can narrow your focus. One is certainly the problem that you become expert level at solving. That’s one. One is the technology platform, or maybe it’s a subset of a platform, or maybe it’s a tool-set or…but basically the techstack that you focus on.Then the third would be, the audience that you serve, and as an employee I think that third is perhaps the least relevant or the least likely way that you would narrow your focus. Really those first two that we mentioned are how you might narrow down your focus. I think there’s more to benefits that come with narrowing your focus. Earlier we said, doing so help you to leave more value. Generally, the way that happens for most people is they start to become expert level much faster when they narrow their focus to a specific problem or particular technology. You gain experience faster and again you’ve got to remember that a lot of my thinking about this comes out of the world of self-employment, where you have maybe a little more of attitude to make choices about how you are going to spend your time and so forth.
Philip: That has to be tampered with the idea that you have a job description and if you don’t meet that job description you may have problems. I think there still is some latitude for an employee to say “You know what? I’m really interested in this problem.”
Carlos: Yeah, and then focusing on that, I agree one of the very simple ideas even is just blocking off some time on your calendar to dedicate to that whatever you decide that your positioning should be, because inevitably everyone needs to increase their understanding in that and they’ll need to spend some time with it.Giving yourself that time obviously I think is an important ingredient there.
Philip: Yeah. I mean one of the things that’s a theme that always comes up when we have a conversation about positioning is, you start to move out of a passive reactive place and you start to take control over how you’re perceived. Again, I think there’s very good crossover there between self-employed and W-2 employees.You want to be perceived as having a lot of value to the organization, because that translates usually within limits to job security and higher pay, right?
Philip: When you take control of how you’re perceived, in essence, you are positioning yourself. The caveat that comes along with that is you don’t get to decide what’s valuable to the organization that you work for. They decide and then you have to look at what they’ve decided is important and make a choice about where you want to potentially specialize or narrow down your focus.Unfortunately, you can’t say, “Well, you know, I think that the priority here is performance,” and if the organization doesn’t value that, then good luck getting them to value it.
Carlos: Right. I think even so taking that and saying that’s what I know that I want to work on, then in things like your yearly performance reviews, or talking with your manager, that then becomes a focus, “Hey, you know, I’ve noticed this, or we’re not doing these things, I’d like to do them. I want to take responsibility for them.”You’re offering, again, some value. If you can spend a little time in there and can deliver a win, then you’re providing that value and all of a sudden it may come to light. Again, there’s no foolproof way, but that’s an idea.
Philip: Yes. If you start to take the long view of, “OK, I want to look beyond just the next yearly review. I want to look beyond just the next raise,” you can I think start to make a name for yourself as the person who gets hired to solve a particular type of problem or…If we think about it from the technology perspective, you could change jobs based on the strength of your track record with I’m the person who can integrate SQL Server with this other technology. Maybe you have that technology focus. You can start to shape the direction of your career I think through positioning through choosing a focus, and maybe that’s not your only focus. Maybe that’s not the only thing you do. You develop a strength in that area. That can carry you where you want to go even if your current employer doesn’t have the upward expansion you’d like to see in that specialty.
Carlos: That’s a fair point. Again, if we were to use that marketing term, when recruiters call us or other people come in contact with us since again we’re in the database, people are mostly the ones who listen to this podcast and they say “Hey, we have this great job. Are you interested?”Then assuming you’ve taken some positioning to even say like “OK. I want to work for this type of company that does these types of things, then you can say “Does this job offer these things?” You can have that conversation with the recruiter, and in theory you establish relationships with them and they now know “OK. I’m not going to call Carlos unless it has some features that he wants that’s going to meet his criteria.”
Philip: There’s that, and I think you gain the ability to build up sort of a track record or a body of work that you can show potential employers or you can show recruiters and be like not only am I interested in this, I have a documented track record of helping my employer achieve the kind of victories they want in this area.If you’re just reactive, then that doesn’t really happen unless it just happens by luck.
Carlos: Sure. Some of that I think, as we talked about, means that you are taking on some responsibilities that you may not want or you have to handle them in a certain way. How can someone deal with receiving work assignments that they’re not super happy with but potentially turning them to their advantage?
Philip: I was never good at this when I was an employee. Here’s why is because I think that I did not realize how much leverage I had. I think part of it is not that you’re at odds with your employer but I think you can try to increase the amount of leverage you have. Part of that is by building up some area where you contribute a whole lot of value to the organization.Maybe that’s a useful tool in that situation. I think the key in all of this is seeing it from the organization’s perspective or your supervisor or your boss’ perspective and just saying what are they trying to accomplish here. Maybe there’s a better way. Maybe I can work together with them.
Philip: My crappy track record with that in the past was just because I didn’t really realize that I think I had more agency and more leverage than I knew at the time.
Carlos: That’s a great point. Again, being able to identify what it is that you want to do will then help shape the discussion in other settings.
Philip: One of the downsides of picking a technology over picking a problem is that the technology changes pretty fast.
Carlos: Changes so quickly.
Philip: At first, that’s fun and exciting. Then you get some years on you and you’re like “Ugh, do I have to learn yet another library or yet another tool set.” Picking problems, I think, is potentially more valuable and potentially less frustrating over time.
Carlos: Sure. I think because ultimately that’s what the managers or that’s what the owners of the organization are trying to do. They didn’t start up a law firm, for example, to run SQL Server or do this development work to run a certain technology. They want to solve this problem and to provide value to their clients and so you can try to do the same thing.
Philip: One of the things I’ll be honest that I miss about having a W-2 job is that in a lot of jobs you can just…At the end of the day, you can go home and leave the job behind. It’s much harder to do that as a self-employed person running a small business or solo business.
Philip: I guess what I would encourage people, even if you’re in that W-2 situation, even if you just love the fact that when you leave the office whenever you leave the office you don’t think about it until you show up the next day.Even in those cases it might be worth speaking to people who are closer to the ownership of the company or talking to someone who’s responsible for a profit and loss sheet that is somewhere above the hierarchy in where you are. If you’re in IT, talk to the CTO who’s potentially responsible for a P&L sheet or talk to the CMO and, if you can, ask them what are your priorities, what are the things that you’re trying to make happen. It can be very enlightening and then you can start to understand how you have value to the organization and how you might be able to increase that value.
Carlos: Are you saying we have to start reading those company bulletins now, Philip?[laughter]
Philip: Far be it from me to tell you to do something you don’t want to do, but I think there’s some value in that, yeah.
Carlos: I think with like anything this will take effort. There is no “Hey, I’ve decided to position myself. By the way, manager, like I’m only going to do these things now.”
Carlos: Episode 35 we talk with Bruce Van Horn about the time that you spend in education. I think because we’re technologists if we want to stay technologists we’ve made a commitment to continue to evolve because if not, we fall out of favor pretty quickly.
Philip: Even if you’re a manager, you still have to stay fluent with the language.
Carlos: One of the fears that people have about this positioning, or about trying to take on some of this responsibility, is this idea of being pigeonholed like “Now that’s going to be the only thing that I do.” I think a potentially good example is they have this legacy application that nobody wants to touch with a 10-foot pole but needs to stay alive. It’s like you just caught the hot potato.Why should we I guess be less afraid of instances like that? Why is positioning not being pigeonholed?
Philip: I think that that fear is legitimate, but I think it also involves a misunderstanding of what positioning is, how it works. I think a lot of it comes from the fact that most people don’t actually know any specialists first hand. They don’t know people who are at the top of their game and specialized in something.We don’t have a lot of data to go with. Certainly the fear of a loss of flexibility and a loss of control, which really that’s the fear that is behind this idea of pigeonholing like “I’m going to be stuck in this cul-de-sac and my career is going to become not very fun and it’s got no place to go.” I think the type of positioning where you run the greatest danger of that actually is when you focus on a particular technology stack rather than focusing on a business problem. I realize that not everybody can just choose to do one or the other. I will say that if you’re focused on a technology stack, that’s the one where you do run the greater risk of that kind of unpleasant pigeonholing. The other things that people fear are boredom, doing the same thing over and over again. They get so good at something that they get this ironic curse of being asked to do that thing all the time and then becoming bored. Another common fear is just you fear, the imposter syndrome, you fear being found out that you’re not really as good as you say you are. Those are all the fears. What I tell people is that going narrow is not nearly as monotone as they think it is because it usually uncovers new interesting problems that you were not aware of before. Instead of going broad but not very deep, you’re going deep and often going quite deep and uncovering new interesting problems that you did not know about. It’s not that the boredom can’t possibly happen. It is possible. It’s just so rare in my experience, especially if you pick an interesting problem to solve, an evergreen problem. The other thing I tell people is that when they fear that pigeonholing, they’re just looking at one side of it. They’re not looking at the side that is the prestige and the security that comes with delivering a lot of value. Whether you’re self-employed or not, when people understand that you can create value for them, they start to value you. They do so financially and in other ways. That’s nice.
Philip: I think there’s a little bit of a tradeoff, obviously. If you want to always be on some new learning curve, which for me has gotten old after a while, but I know some people that’s why they get into technology in the first place is they love the learning curve.
Philip: If that really is the most important thing to you, then maybe narrowing your focus and positioning yourself in a certain way is not right for you. For a lot of us who have gotten tired of that learning curve, it’s actually nice to have the security and the confidence that comes with a very narrow focus where we’re just not really surprised by stuff very often.At least in the self-employed world, clients really like that. They value you that and they pay for it.
Carlos: Sure. In a corporate environment, you might be past the flaming bag of poo, so to speak, but if you’re willing to take that time and dig into it, find out about it, again providing the value and the manager is not getting pinged any more about that application, guess what, you just provided value there.I had an experience similar to that where I took over an application. I didn’t want anything to do with it. It was old and busted. But got into it, dug my heels in and said, “OK. I’m going to try to do this to the best of my ability.” The next time that a project that the manager wanted to go really well, he came to me and said, “I want you to be on this team.”
Carlos: That’s right. I had positioned myself in the sense of I’m willing to take something and make sure that it runs efficiently so that you don’t have to deal with it any more.
Philip: That’s great. Yeah, that’s great.
Carlos: Sometimes our positions will change over time. We don’t necessarily or potentially don’t want to stay in the same position. Sometimes just because we kind of stake out a claim doesn’t mean that we’re going to do that for the next 20 years, right?
Philip: Yeah. Actually, your position will have to change, because very few of us, especially in the world of technology, very few of us are in a position that’s not connected to changing social forces or changing economic forces or changing technology forces. Those all force us to change our position and update it over time if we want to remain in a desirable position.Getting back to the idea of pigeonholing, I think that’s another misapprehension that underlies that fear of pigeonholing, which is “When I make this choice and I invest this effort into staking out this position for myself, that’s it.” That’s not it. That’s not it for all of time. Most small businesses that are in a changing economy are updating their position every 6, 12, 18 months. They’re making some kind of tweak. You should just be prepared for that fact that it’s going to change, it’s going to update, and that’s totally normal. What people say is “Aren’t people going to like kind of reference the old position and be confused by the fact that I’ve changed?” I tell people that most people have way more going on and are way too busy to do something like that. In fact, it’s one of my hobbies to go to use the Internet Archive Wayback Machine to look at old versions of people’s websites, because I’m just fascinated at how they change over time. They do. The successful companies do that. They find what works, and they stick with it. They also are tweaking and updating and experimenting.
Carlos: Polishing, yeah. How does someone go about making a position change? They wouldn’t necessarily need to change their actual job to change positions, right?
Philip: Yeah, there are a couple of things you can start to do. One is you want to start by doing some amount of validation. If you have an idea that “Oh, I think this is valuable to the organization for me to become the expert in whatever,” then I think you want to validate that. You don’t want to just go on the assumption or the gut feeling.Again, if you could have a conversation with your boss like “Hey, I’m really interested in this, whatever it is, do you see a future for that? Is that going to be around a year or two from now? Is that important to the company, or is that just my personal obsession with whatever?” You want to do some level of validation. I think within an organization one thing you can start to do is become the guy or gal who is interested in that. I remember when I was working for a marketing agency who did a lot of work for Microsoft. This was when Windows Server 2008, before it came out. That was when Microsoft added operating system-level virtualization in the server product with Hyper-V. I became very interested in that. No one else seemed to be as interested. I set up a wiki on our SharePoint server and just started posting stuff there that came in from wherever, wherever I could find information that was relevant to Hyper-V. I would just post it there as a resource for other people. Like nobody asked me to do that. Nobody said I had to do that. I just did it, because I was interested and I thought it might have value for other people. It did. It led to me becoming the virtualization guy for that company. I think it’s not something where you’re going to change the sign on the door to your office or your cubicle. I think it depends on the culture of your organization, but there are ways to make your interest in this thing known to others. It doesn’t really take long at all to just kind of become like “Oh, that’s the person that you should talk to if you need help with this problem or this aspect of this technology.” You could start an internal mailing list and just mail out stuff via email that relates to this. There are lots of ways to do it. I guess the short brief answer to your question how do you change your positioning, you validate it and then you just start doing it. You just start acting as if you’re the guy or the gal. Reality catches up with you in about three months if you do that. It doesn’t take long.
Carlos: I think we have enough people in the workforce that are content to just do what’s given to them. You’re going to immediately create value by being the exception of doing something that’s not required of you or you’re not being asked.
Philip: People will notice almost, I mean not overnight, but very quickly you’ll be the nail that sticks out. There’s a saying about that in a good way.
Carlos: Sure. I think we have a couple of examples at least from the community. I think about Mike Fal who was on our podcast earlier. He made just a conscious effort to start communicating about PowerShell. He wanted to get into that and how DBAs could take advantage of that. I think a lot of people…He branded that for himself.Now I think if you asked a lot of people in the community “What do you think about when you think about Mike Fal, they’re going to say I think about PowerShell.” With Paul Randal, he does lots of different things, but I think his initial claim to fame was database corruption. He was a database corruption expert and could talk about that ad nauseam. They do other things. That’s not all that they do. Because he became known for that, people went to him for that. Other services, other ideas, he could present those as well.
Philip: I’ve got to say that that happens every time. If someone decides to specialize in something, whatever it is, they continue to get other work, other requests come to them. It’s not like they’ll never get a request to do something outside that specialty. I think that translates pretty well also to an employee.I just want to add that it is very common for people to say “Oh, God, I’ll never do anything other than this thing I’m specializing in again,” and that is almost never true.
Carlos: Companeros, your first positioning assignment is to position yourself so that you can get onto SQL Cruise next year. Tim and Amy Ford have put together a most unique training experience. If you’ve listened to this podcast before, you know that I’ve been on there twice. Listeners of this podcast get a hundred dollars off the cost of admission.You can get those details at sqldatapartners.com/sqlcruise. Learn. Network. Relax. Grow…Just Add Water. Check out sqlcruise.com for more information if you want to know more about that cruise. Philip, the SQL Server community we have what we call SQL Family, and now we’re going to welcome you into part of that. In this part of the program, we like to talk about you for just a moment and how you work a little. One of the things I like to talk about is how people get things done. I’d like to talk with you about your favorite tool.
Carlos: Generally, we talk about SQL Server tools. This can be any tool. What tools do you use to get things done to help you? This can be a free or a paid tool. Why do you like it? What does it do for you?
Philip: Awesome. I imagine SQL Server is involved somewhere with this tool because software is a service tool. Maybe not Microsoft SQL Server but some kind of SQL Server. Anyway, the tool that has been just like magic for me is called Calendly, C-A-L-E-N-D-L-Y.com. Calendly hooks into your calendar. It’s got to be like a Cloud-based calendar for this to work.I think it works with Outlook and Google Calendar. It allows people to book time on your calendar. For somebody like me who is working with clients and appearing on podcasts and stuff like that, it’s a lifesaver because I don’t have to do the email dance back and forth to try to coordinate a time to meet.
Carlos: Time open.
Philip: There’s another one that’s similar. It works a little differently. I’ll mention it, too. It’s called assistant.to. Assistant like Virtual Assistant but assistant.to. It plugs into Gmail so it’s a little less flexible than Calendly, but it lets you propose times.It goes to your calendar and looks up available times, and then you can propose times to meet and someone just clicks a link and boom, everybody gets calendar invites. It’s amazing. [laughs]
Carlos: Yes, there you go. Scheduling that time can be very, very helpful.
Carlos: Philip, you just inherited $1 million. What are you going to do with it?
Philip: Oh, thank you.[laughter]
Philip: Where do I get the check?
Carlos: You can talk to our producers after the show. I’m sure they’ll hook you up.[laughter]
Philip: This is going to sound super selfish. I would pay cash for a house. I live in a place called Sonoma County, which is in California. The part of Sonoma County I want to live in would require most, if not all, of that million dollars to buy a house.[laughter]
Philip: I don’t think there would be much leftover. Selfish I know. That’s exactly what I’d do with that.
Carlos: There you go. You’ve positioned yourself. You want it. You know what you want to do with it.
Philip: … [laughs] that’s right.
Carlos: Philip, you’ve been in different positions, you talked about being a Microsoft Certified Trainer, now you’re a Consultant, written a book. What’s one of the best pieces of career advice that you’ve received?
Philip: [jokingly] The client is not always right [laughs] . It’s hard to say this without sounding like a jerk, but sometimes saying “no” to clients, “A”, when it’s going to be bad fit. That was something when I started out, I just was trying to find any way to say “yes” to any kind of client, that resulted in a lot of painful situations.If I had wanted to say “no”, really out of their best interests, that would’ve been a good thing. Then also, sometimes clients are just wrong about what’s the right technical approach for something, or what is the right strategy. That’s why they are hiring outside help, is they don’t know, but once they spent that money some clients can get nervous about the investment, and then they’ll get “micro-managey”, which is how a lot of us react to being nervous. Those are cases where you maybe need to start saying “no”, when you’re not used to. “The client is not always right”, is maybe one of the best piece of advices I’ve gotten. [laughs]
Carlos: I wonder if we could flip that back to our conversation about “positioning” and that is, I think that technology, the whole idea of being “pigeon-holed” for example, is that the Manger or someone will come to you and say, “We need this technology to work.” And like we mentioned, if we can figure out “OK, why do we need to do that? What’s the problem you’re trying to solve, right?”Instead of going so much where the technology, if you’re willing to tackle the problem instead. You can, potentially avoid that technology you don’t want to deal with, and potentially do something else.
Philip: Exactly, yeah. That’s probably the second most valuable question you could add, or first most valuable question. Maybe the second most valuable word you could learn is “why.” Why are we going to do that?
Carlos: There you go.
Philip: It generally leads you to a more productive conversation about what needs to happen next?
Carlos: Right. [pause] Our last question Philip. If you could have one Super Hero power, what would it be and why do you want it?
Philip: I’d like to fly. I hate driving.[laughter]
Carlos: Very nice, especially in California right? It can get backed-up pretty quickly.
Philip: It can for sure.
Carlos: Very good. Philip Morgan, thank you for being on the show today.
Philip: My pleasure Carlos, really enjoyed being here.
Carlos: We will have links to the content. We’ll have links to the Show Notes so the content we’ve talked about today at sqldatapartners.com/podcasts and of course, Compañeros. Hope you’ve enjoyed today’s session, I invite you to leave a review or comment on items or Stitcher. This will help others find our program more easily.We do appreciate you tuning in again, if you have specific questions, you want to reach out to me on Twitter I am at carloslchacon, or you can shoot me an email at [email protected] and I will see you on the “SQL Trail.”