My first post on this topic raised some great discussion points. I’ve wanted to revisit the topic for a bit, but have been pressed for time. I didn’t want to rush this post as I didn’t want to be redundant. There are a couple of points I wanted to address.
Before I do, some definitions for this discussion. These are not absolutes and just generalizations for the basis of discussion. There are shades of gray that I am not going to focus upon because I want to finish sometime this year.
- Contractor: Hired for their expertise for a particular project. This is typically “body-shop” work. The take-home pay is usually based on an hourly rate for the project that they are working upon and they typically have to provide their own benefits. Business development efforts are more focused on getting on the next project.
- Consultant: While this person is hired for their expertise, they typically are representatives of their company’s expertise. They look for opportunities to expand a project to include other resources. They typically receive a paycheck and benefits, though there are variations here (owners may not receive paychecks, benefits are not a given in small companies). The company is looking for opportunities on which to place both existing and potentially new consultants.
The focus of this post is not those terms. It is on those roles.
Contracting for a Career
There were a lot of comments that focused on the fact that being an independent consultant didn’t mean that you weren’t focusing on a career. Every example provided was a great one. I thought I had allowed for those examples, but looking back I did not make it very clear. As Lee pointed out, mixing terms didn’t help.
I stressed motive. Being a contractor can advance your career. Typically, the earlier you are in your career, the more it can help. The question is motive and what you are getting out of each contracting engagement. Are you performing a job for the experience, or just because it pays well? Will the job help your long or short term goals? These aren’t the only things that define if an engagement is a job or a career, but they are starting points.
The best example I can give is the following. I review a lot of resumes. Many of them show several projects, each one for a different company. The last two or three listed typically are Documentum-centric and differ primarily in the version of the product. Each project invariably mentions the cool new features from that Documentum release. I rarely call these people, unless I am looking for some sub-contractors. Why? It is simple really…it is often a waste of my time.
When I call those candidates, which I do on occasion, they are focused on the next project. How long is it? What is the rate? Often, but not always, the candidate has trouble articulating how their work fit into the big picture. They don’t fully understand the business problem they were trying to solve, only the technical problems. If they do understand the business problem, I try and convince them of the benefit of joining a team and advancing their career. It usually doesn’t work. They know that they can find work at a healthy hourly rate and keep on moving.
The reason I don’t call isn’t that the person can’t do the work. The problem is that I someone upon which I can build, not someone that will only be there in a supporting role.
The person is running in place. They may be learning the latest version of Documentum, but they don’t seem to comprehend that understanding how ECM can solve business problems can actually be more rewarding in the long term, both financially and personally.
Then there was the posting by Virginia Backaitis over at BrilliantLeap. She explores how today’s environment has changed and it is advantageous to be a free agent. Before I comment, a quick look at viewpoints.
Virginia is a recruiter. She makes money by helping place people. More industry turnover leads to more money. To be fair, my angle is nearly the exact opposite. I look for people that want to stick around for a while. It is in my best interest to convince you that her viewpoint is extreme. [Edit: Please see Virginia’s comment and my response.]
That being said, Virginia is right on pretty much all points. I don’t buy into the conclusions, but the points are solid.
When looking at any position, look at the employer. Interview them. If you don’t see a commitment to people and growth, you may as well be a contractor. While no company can promise continued employment, looking at the level of commitment is important.
You need to look out for yourself, but don’t sacrifice your growth just to remain a free agent. If you see that commitment, go for it. If it doesn’t work, you can always go be a contractor. Good opportunities for career growth are harder to find.
Career of Pie
I’ve had many jobs in my career. Some helped me grow. Others just paid the bills. The ones that helped me grow were the most rewarding. I was never a contractor, but that was a timing thing. When I was at the perfect point in my life to be a contractor, my skill sets didn’t match the ones I wanted to base my future upon. Later, when I was at that point skill set wise, I needed a steady paycheck and benefits and couldn’t. So I took a few jobs that didn’t do much to advance my career but helped give me the stability I needed at the time.
I finally reached a point where I needed to expand beyond delivery and the technical. I looked for, and found, opportunities that would allow me to grow. I’m in one now but it took time to find. I still have potential growth here, so I’m not looking, even if there is more money on the other side. What I learn here will allow me to go somewhere else, get that big raise, and put me in a position to grow even more.
Where will I be in five years? Probably not consulting. I hope to be working as a CTO/CIO somewhere. After that, I hope to be a history professor and chronic story teller.