Project Management

Do you have the right personality to be an independent consultant?

Meredith Little discusses the importance of taking a good look at your personality and your expectations before making the leap to consulting and contracting work.

 Almost every organization depends on computers, software applications, and networks, so IT professionals remain in demand in all types of organizations. When you hear rumors that consulting and contracting jobs exist, it can be easy to think, "Hey, why can't that be me?"

But before quitting your day job, you can't think only about the money — you need to think about whether your personality and expectations are a good fit with the contracting life. Before you look too far ahead, examine some of the more personal factors in going out on your own.

Take a good look at your personality

Can you keep smiling when everyone else is grumbling? Are you prepared to constantly network and market yourself?

As an independent contractor, you must keep in mind that you are not a regular employee. Part of your goal with every contract is to leave with a stellar reference that will help you land future contracts. This means you can't do a lot of things you may have done as an employee.

Don't gossip

For example, you are no longer at liberty to engage in office gossip. Besides, why would you want to? Because you negotiated a contract that includes certain provisions, you don't need to worry about the latest layoff rumors or who the next VP will be. Although you should speak to the right person if a situation is preventing you from doing the task you were hired to do, it's never appropriate to get too involved with your client, the people who work there, or how the company runs its business.

Aim high

Your standards must be higher. As a contractor, it's more important to be on time, all the time — whether it's to a meeting or turning in a project. It's not as easy to get away with having a bad day. To some extent, you're constantly selling yourself, even after you start a project.

Be outgoing and hardworking

You don't have to be an extrovert to go out on your own, but it sure helps. If you're a true independent, working without a full-service agency, you'll have to market yourself, make contacts, and meet with prospective clients. Sometimes, you'll have two, three, four, or even five jobs at once, so you need to excel at multitasking, directing others (including often uncooperative third parties), and communicating well every day.

What about dealing with change and insecurity?

As they say, change is the only constant. Every project will have different goals and expectations, and sometimes you won't have any work at all.

New people, new rules

Does the thought of walking into a new office, with new coworkers and a new manager, several times a year make you want to pull the covers up over your head? An outgoing personality can help here too. Of course, you don't have to (and shouldn't) make friends with everybody; you just have to work with them. But if you dread new situations, you'll find the start of each contract very stressful.

When the well runs dry

Will you be tearing out your hair the second week you don't have work? What about the first month? Although savings or project earnings may cover bills, not having a standard nine-to-five routine or a steady paycheck is not for the light of heart.

Of course, this dilemma has two sides. When you work for multiple clients, as most consultants do, you're better insulated from the economy's ups and downs. As a contractor, you're prepared for change and insecurity; as an employee, you risk being blindsided by it.

Are your expectations realistic?

If you think freelancing means taking a vacation whenever you want, never having another bad boss, and working at home, you're wrong.

Do projects always have to be completed your way?

Consultants must be flexible. This means you can expect, on occasion, to have to run or maintain demanding business applications on legacy hardware. Clients have specific goals and objectives but limited budgets. They don't always seek to complete projects "by the book," nor are they always able or willing to purchase the latest and greatest hardware. Rigid technology professionals unwilling to compromise and match clients' needs should second guess the decision to serve as a consultant, as the client's requirements always come first.

You aren't exactly your own boss

It's possible that instead of one difficult boss, you now have two — the measure of your own high standards and the jerk in charge of your current project. The good news is, unlike with a job, there's an end in sight when dealing with an unpleasant or unreasonable person.

As for vacation time, one fellow writer I know has been in business solo for nearly three years now and has yet to take a week off. When you no longer have paid vacation, how will you balance the fear of "out of sight, out of mind" with the necessity of taking some time for yourself?

Don't throw out your suits yet

In IT, it's unlikely that you'll do much work at home. But if it's feasible to do some work offsite and you want to do so, insist on it. A key part of being a contractor is that you say when and how you work — in fact, that's the IRS litmus test on defining an independent.

If you're disciplined, you may actually get more done at home. Plus, you don't need permission to take an hour or two to see your child's school play or go to the gym before it gets crowded. You just have to be willing to accommodate the time.

Ask yourself why you really want to do this

Being an independent contractor is about more than money. Being in business for yourself can be incredibly rewarding. Don't rule it out even if you aren't always an outgoing, punctual, ultra-disciplined person who's totally impervious to stress. Resourcefulness and flexibility are important, too. You'll be surprised at how much you learn about yourself and what you can accomplish when you're working for yourself.

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