If you didn't need the money, would you do the same work that you're doing today without pay?
I would scale back to only the work that I do for free already, like posting code on Chip's Tips or being a member of the RSS Advisory Board. I would also explore projects that really excite me. For instance, I'd spend way more time working on open-source programming platforms. My need for income means that I have to devote a lot of time to projects that wouldn't be my first choice (even if they are interesting).
Think about nonmonetary motivations
Many people think of IT consultants as outsiders who aren't really interested in the success of a project except in terms of how much money they can squeeze out of it. Employees often don't realize that independents hardly come close to netting as much of that fat hourly rate as their salaried counterparts. They only see all those dollar signs (or pound, euro, etc.), coupled with the perception that the consultant can easily walk away from the company when he or she is done — even though finding new business can be just as difficult as seeking new employment.
Early in my consulting career, the money was extremely important to me. It was hard to make ends meet, so I'd take any engagement that paid. The formula for my attention was simple: A = r / n, where A is attention, r is the hourly rate charged, and n is the number of weeks the client took to pay. Whoever had the higher A value got my attention regardless of what they wanted me to work on. I took a lot of jobs that didn't capitalize on my strengths — to put it nicely. It's like in relationships: When you're desperate, you say "yes" a lot more than you should, and the situation usually ends in a royal mess.
Money is still important to me, but lately I've been paying more attention to other motivations as well. Here's a sampling of questions I ask myself before accepting work:
- How interesting is the problem I'm being asked to solve?
- How meaningful is the cause I'm helping?
- How does this work improve me (and I'm not just talking about a bullet on the old résumé)?
- Is this technology something I want to pursue, become fluent in, or perhaps even master?
- Are the people involved going to make my life hell, or will they possibly become valued colleagues and friends?
Take the first step
When you start working as an IT consultant, it seems like you have to take the work because you need the money. But I find that if you acknowledge your desire to take things in a different direction, you'll notice those opportunities for change when they do arise. And if you can take one small step in that direction, do it now. One step leads to another, even if you can't see the entire path yet.
Here's one simple step: charge more for work you don't like to do. Charge enough that either you don't have to do it, or the money makes it agreeable.
Chip Camden has been programming since 1978, and he's still not done. An independent consultant since 1991, Chip specializes in software development tools, languages, and migration to new technology. Besides writing for TechRepublic's IT Consultant blog, he also contributes to [Geeks Are Sexy] Technology News and his two personal blogs, Chip's Quips and Chip's Tips for Developers.