Consulting vs. Employee-hood, or “How to consider your options”

Before recently taking on my current two contracts, I flirted briefly with a position as an employee. In the end, I decided not to take the job on the grounds that they didn’t want to hire me and it made me feel better about myself to assume that everyone there is just a bunch of big jerks and I wouldn’t have liked it anyway. As a hint for you job seekers out there: when they fly you in for a three-hour technical interview, you really should bone up on your basics.

What made this a blog-worthy journey was the thought process I went through while I was still a potential candidate. After six years as a consultant, was I ready for employee-hood?

It seems like a no-brainer on the surface. As a consultant, I enjoy considerable freedom, especially with my free time which, as I age, becomes more and more important to me. Prior to my current contract, I hadn’t worked full-time in a year and a half. Mind you, that implies I’m working full-time on my current ones but between new babies, sick older children, spousal holidays, and Xmas, that’s not accurate either. But again, the fact that I have that freedom is why I love consulting.

And because all my contracts are remote these days, I’m usually even flexible with when I work. This depends on the contract but for many of them, as long as I’m available for meetings, the rest of the work can be done whenever I want. Furthermore, I can take time off for conferences or vacation almost whenever I want. I say almost to account for times when the client really needs me but alas, I haven’t been quite that indispensable yet.

“So,” sez you, “why give up all that and more to become an employee working 9-5 on a lower salary with 2 weeks vacation?”

“Don’t interrupt!” sez I, “I’m getting to that.”

There’s a certain fallacy to consulting that we don’t like to talk about. It’s the Hear No Evil syndrome. If we don’t talk about it, it won’t happen to us. It’s related to the “I decide when I want to take a contract” argument. In my experience, this argument is true only about half the time. Because the fact is, when a contract ends, there’s often some level of panic involved. No matter how much money you have squirrelled away to allow for this eventuality, there is always a sense of “what if I can’t find a contract when I’m ready?” Depending on how much panic you feel, you might just end up taking a contract you don’t like. This is especially true these days when the money isn’t flowing like water so much as it is oozing like pus.

Naysayers will argue that employee-ship is no more secure than consultancy. Those people are liars and, very likely, smelly. Employees can be let go, yes, but in my experience, they aren’t the first to go. At my last contract, when the hammer fell, the contractors felt the brunt, not the employees. (Well, at least not directly. The rumour mill suggests that there is a “let’s see how many quit after we introduce THIS policy” program going on there these days.) The contract before that, there was also a mass layoff. I believe a few employees were included in that but again, the rumour mill claims it was pruning talent just as much as cost.

The upshot of this is that in most cases, contractors will get booted before employees. Maybe it’s just a brief respite since laying off all your contractors is rarely a sign of growth but it’s a respite nonetheless. Anecdotal evidence aside, contracts are generally shorter than employee terms and in the end, it’s just plain stressful looking for them. Especially ones that allow you to work remotely 100% of the time. So the prospect of being relatively secure (judging from the effort put into hiring process, the company was one that put a lot of value in its talent) in a position that promised interesting work and still allowed me to work remotely did hold some appeal. Maybe it’s a false sense of security but there’s a reason we still don’t know how placebos work. Perception is a powerful thing.

That said, I’d by lying if I said I didn’t feel a sense of relief when they said they weren’t interested. As much as I freak out when work isn’t handed to me, I’ve been eerily lucky in my consulting career. Even when lengthy involuntary breaks do come (the longest to-date being four months), it ends up leading to more interesting work in the long run because of what I work on and blog about in the interim. As a case in point, one of the contracts I’ve grabbed now is a direct result of my involvement with Sharp Architecture, which, in turn, followed from my delving into MVC two years ago when I was “between contracts”.

I’ve been careful not to explicitly say “being a consultant is better” because I’m almost positive the roundabout way I’ve arrived at the current point in my career is atypical. But here I am and all I can say is that after going through the reflective exercise, I have to conclude that luck was once again on my side when the employee-ship opportunity passed me by. Maybe I’m on borrowed time because I do know a couple of excellent consultants who are actively searching for work (ping me if interested) and in markets that have traditionally been very lucrative, both with the type of work and in the compensation. But until then, it’s time to stop yakking and get back to billable work.

Kyle the Unemployee

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  • Dmitry Pavlov

    Don’t Be Fooled: The Real Cost of Employees and Consultants –

  • Nancy

    4 years later… and I am adding my 2 cents. I just recently entertained full-time employment after I have been an entrepreneur and consultant since 1992. Of course, I applied for this job specifically with a company where I felt that I would wake up each morning eager and excited to work. I did not look at any job openings with other companies. It is not the company per se which will make me wake up eager and happy each morning but what I would be working on. I also imagined that the employees of this company are dynamic.

    But after I interviewed, I started to realize that this company which started as a darling start-up is now too big for its britches. They guy who interviewed me, reminded me of people I used to work pre ’92 with big companies when I was an employee. He was asking me technical questions on how to manage projects given hypothetical situations which quite frankly I was never asked in the many interviews that I have done to get work contracts (again since 1992). And I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say that I am a successful consultant. Most alarming is that the guy who interviewed me also reminded me why I quit being an employee in 1992 and turned into a consultant. This guy had no life in his eyes. And I wondered why and how such a person can work for X company. Honestly, I am also a bit relieved when they called and told me that they will not be continuing my interview process. Before they called me to give me the ‘bad’ news, I already started thinking that working with this guy will not make me wake up each morning eager and excited to work.

    So after a brief disappointment into my foray into full-time employment, I will once again wake up eager and excited to go to work as a consultant working on projects for companies who are most of the time appreciative of what I do. And my freelance jobs allow me to earn twice as much compared to the job I applied for.

  • Mac G. Anderson

    The best part of this for me was the first paragraph. I recently went job hunting after being in a position for at least 10 years. It was sometimes a confusing and embarassing experience.

    Despite the fact that I’m pretty good.

    But flub a couple easy questions or they hit me hard in an area I just don’t have experience in (“You’ve never used NHibernate? Well, guess we can cut this interview in half.”). And you get the “We just feel that you need some more maturing as a developer.” Says the VB-Access guy who just learned “patterns” to me. Hurts.

  • Bob Mc

    I’m one of the naysayers that say employee-ship is no more secure than being a contract employee.

    Consultants are usually let go first in lean times because it’s simply easier to do so than with employees. With a contractor you tell them when their last day is, shake their hand, and send them on their way. With an employee there are rules and regulations, both internal and governmental, policies to adhere to, and often severance to be paid. So it’s far simpler to reduce head count by releasing contractors first.

    That being said, try being a middle manager that is 50+ years old making a significant salary. Even in good times you’re an immediate target for removal. A 20-something will work longer and harder for less pay despite their lack of experience so the aging middle manager is ripe for dismissal. I won’t debate the wisdom of it – it’s strictly business.

    So I contend that the seucrity of being an employee is an illusion. Depending on the circumstances, everyone is vulnerable. Your vulnerability just depends on the particular circumstances.

  • Kevin Rodrigues

    Both consulting and full time jobs have their own advantages and disadvantages. Consulting sure gives the benefit of working at your own pace and being your own master. Working full time provides with a steady income though not as satisfying as a consultant.

    Perhaps the better way for achieving some stability is beginning with a full time job and being a part time consultant. Then depending on how we want to advance further we can increase our time and efforts on our preferred choice.

  • dnndev

    just to clarify from my earlier comment -> i took the job.

  • Bob R.

    Man, I am constantly on the edge of taking the jump to consulting, but am just too damn scared! Especially with the market how it is. I wish I had the gumption to do it.

  • dnndev

    I was in the same situation 2 years ago. Have the pro’s out weighed the cons? absolutely.

    less stress, work remotely and still have flexible schedule.

    my wife and I volunteer our time outside of work for the local community and it has been a perfect fit!

    guess it all depends on what your priorities are.

  • KimKman

    Think you will be happy the ship passed you by. Keep at it! Worked as consultant for 6 years, boarded a ship for 3, it sunk, and now back to consulting. Actually, although a bit painful at first it’s much better now :)