Outsourcing

Why are you an independent consultant?

Does freedom, money, status, adventure, or something else drive you to be an independent consultant? Let us know by taking this poll.

 A friend of mine, Kevin Sigl, used to consult under the name RYU Consulting (the domain has since been recycled). When I asked him about the name, he joked that it should be YRU instead, as in "Why Are You Consulting?"

Indeed, that's a question worth asking. Independent consulting is not an easy career compared to full-time employment. To survive in the wild, the consultant must constantly hunt for new opportunities, refine and update skills, market themselves, manage a business, provide their own benefits, and deal with multiple clients who often possess starkly different personalities, styles, requirements, and payment patterns. Even the smartest or luckiest of us will eventually suffer for the risks we take. It isn't a question of whether we'll fall into a hole and break our legs, it's a question of whether we'll be able to climb back out.

So why do we do it? What is it about this career path that attracts us? I've been independent for almost 19 years now, so I have a few observations on that point.

Freedom. Many consultants operate independently because they like independence. They enjoy being their own boss, even though they have to manage aspects of the business that may not be their forté. An independent does not put all their career eggs in one company's basket -- they have multiple clients, and if a relationship isn't working out, they can reduce or eliminate their interaction with that client while focusing more on others. The independent can work whatever hours fit their style, though most who stick with it find that they work more than they did as an employee. Nevertheless, no consultant is entirely free to do what he/she pleases. After all, pleasing your clients is what the business is all about. Money. If planned and executed well, an independent consultant can take home a lot more money than an employee. But you have to do it right, or you could end up earning a lot less. Here are three things I've learned:
  • You must not undersell your services, making the mistake of comparing your rate to an employee's hourly wage.
  • You should hire a good tax accountant to avoid giving a much larger percentage of your income to the tax man.
  • You must learn to budget and keep a hedge amount set aside against the inevitable downturns.
Status. Anyone who tells you that they don't get a little ego buzz from owning their own business is lying. It's nice to be known as an expert in your field, and have the respect and admiration of your peers. There's no better equipment for attending a party or a class reunion. On the other hand, only the worst consultants aren't aware of their own shortcomings, so it's easy to fall prey to the feeling that you're faking it. You have to keep a level head, accurately assess your own strengths and weaknesses, and bear yourself humbly and honestly. Adventure. Most consultants never need to worry about dying from boredom; you can find a wide variety of projects and problems that require your ingenuity to solve. Some engagements may include travel to all sorts of interesting places. If you do start to feel like you're in a rut, remember that an independent can decide to change things up a lot easier than an employee can.

Some IT pros don't like being independent and would rather have the security of employment; these techies sometimes do part-time or interim consulting to supplement their income between regular jobs. With the current state of the economy, a lot more of this type have entered into the consulting market.

What's your story?

Why were you drawn to being a consultant, and why are you still doing it? Answer the poll below and give us the details in the comments.

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About

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 b...

85 comments
len.porzio
len.porzio

Industry in my area will not hire seasoned professionals. They prefer to contract IT over maintaining the proper staffing levels and mix for their shops. The result is young inexperienced shops riddled with amature code where maintenance issues eventually paralyze the shop. In order to get anything accomplished the company is forced to bring in consultants to start new projects or replace systems.

lim.chong
lim.chong

I had no choice, originaly had a fixed employment contract for 3 years, it came to an end and due to budget constrains, wasn't renewed but changed to an independent contractor contract renewable every year even though we have projects planned for longer....

jpcote
jpcote

I started as a consultant after my job ended over 10 years ago. The only places that were responding to my resumes were consultant firms & places saying I was overqualified. Unemployment ran out & I had to feed myself, so I started self-employment & even that hasn't been easy

stephanisat_z
stephanisat_z

I was underpaid and underemployed in every office job I held. As a consultant, I was able to start my business with the primary focus on training, but because of the freedom, I have learned so many other aspects of the industry. Now I work with users in the designing of marketing materials, databases, contact management, and efficiency, as well as working in multiple areas for back end users and administrators. With two young children at home, the freedom is great because I set my own schedule and am able to balance work and not miss out on any of the milestone moments in my family.

kemis
kemis

i was under paid before.

bus66vw
bus66vw

I do it for a non-profit organization. They do have pros but at the ground level there is only people like me.

pbaeg0n
pbaeg0n

For me it was the need to avoid being under incompetent boss who barely understood the consulting.

lastnitescurry
lastnitescurry

Freedom first, then the others. Also flexabilty. Can work hard when work is there and when no work, not have to go into an office a pretend to work. Did that for 18 months, drove me nutts

vz44rb
vz44rb

For many age prevents them fron being hired so consulting is the only answer to continue working and having income.

tssi
tssi

Shortly after going independent I realized that when I was an employee I had a job, as a consultant/independent developer, I had a career! The difference is huge! (at least to me) As an employee, I too easily slipped into the "just good enough" mode and I didn't feel good about my work. As an independent, I have to stay a step ahead of my clients. I always try to bring my clients up to my level and that forces me to learn more (take one more step ahead). I guess you could classify this as freedom... freedom to choose what direction that next step will be. That was the primary reason I started independent work over 19 years ago. What I discovered is that the money will follow. Enjoy what you do, do it well and you will be able to command higher rates. I view the higher rates as an added reward, not the goal.

Gumguy
Gumguy

I am just entering the consulting/contractor job area as I find there is simply less politics.

ram1901
ram1901

Retired in 2009 BUT want to keep busy and keep using the skills I've learned and practiced while having the freedom to work and travel on my schedule. Besides, who doesn't love being paid for doing their hobby.

Peleg
Peleg

I have worked hard at it, and I am proud to call myself a Geek. I spent 25 years working hard at becoming a good programmer. I spent no time at all trying to be a good manager. I have nothing against management as a profession, it's just that I never was much interested in doing it myself. All I ever wanted to do was write programs. When I got to about 25 years, I hit a wall. There wasn't any way to promote me(read: reasonable raise) unless I wanted to be management. And of course, I was never offered a management position because, well, I've got no talent for it, and it shows. But no boss ever had anything to say except praise for my skills as programmer. They just didn't know what to do with me. As I got more senior, I found, more and more, I also didn't get along with with my bosses. Very few of them seem to have the technical knowledge and skill nearly as good as I had. (You quickly find out those things when you sit in your first technical meeting with them.) So, they go and ask me how to do something, I tell them, they disagree, I know their idea is wrong (been there, done that, paid the price), I tell them it not a good way to do it and why, and they get mad at me for not taking direction. I didn't refuse to do the project, I just insisted in doing it right. I could never understand, if they didn't think I knew something or had some good experience, why they didn't trust me. I wondered why they hired me in the first place. Or, since I'm just a Geek, I never understood the politics of the situation. I get it now, but a little too late. See, what I learned is that it is not being good that counts, it was being a good boy. Being good gets you nowhere; being a good boy gets you everything. Not a game I could play then, and it's not a game I'm ever gonna play. I've been independent for over 10 years now, it's been tough, but I won't go back to a 9-5. I'd rather live in a box under a bridge.

kingsborh
kingsborh

I enjoy the independence, the adventure and the cash it brings to my pocket

chrisgoodhew
chrisgoodhew

For me it has a lot to do with my family life. My daughter has various complex needs and I find that the flexibility of being an IT consultant allows me to support my wife and family better.

dba88
dba88

Been independent for eleven years. Got tired of the crap from employers and it's worse today! Don't like at will employment or current employment laws for that matter! Employees have far fewer rights to protect them. Downside is that it's much, much tougher to land engagements given the current eco-climate.

nealk3nc
nealk3nc

After working 5+ years for CIOs with very questionable morals and personal attack styles, I don't plan to rejoin corporate life again. I can operate like a person who sleeps well at night as opposed to being berated for having a sense for truth, honesty and valuing other peoples' contributions.

andrescontilde
andrescontilde

I'm really new at being an independent consultant but it's just what I needed. I voted for the All of the above choice because for me there is not a single reason, I can say that almost every day I find reasons that make me realize that this is the path that I shuold take. I'm 26 so I have lots of stuff to learn but that's the interesting part of it.

OldER Mycroft
OldER Mycroft

But wasn't surprised to find I was in the top bracket of the survey. My main reason was the FREEDOM.

eternal_life
eternal_life

From my opinion is the independance increase my abilities and add skills in every single area I develop, as able to view the problem or whatever is the topic from a not-topic related view, it mostly gives the best outcome for the topic to let be influented by a complete different area. Fact is that one have to be independent and skilled Pro in a varity of areas to practice this very good solution.

DanSulzinger
DanSulzinger

The independence and Continued challenging environments drive me to get out of bed for new engagements. Been at this for 20+ years and it's still fun.

Randy Hagan
Randy Hagan

A couple of reasons, actually. I do like the freedom and, when I'm making some, the money. But mostly, I work as a consultant so I can find rewarding work that doesn't seem to be available to me as an employee. As a technical type in his early 50s, there doesn't seem to be many employment opportunities for someone with my expertise. The few I've run across want to make full use of my specialized talents but only want to pay entry-level wages. As a consultant, I can get market rates for the services I offer. So while I enjoy working as an independent consultant, it's as much or more a matter of necessity than a burning desire to work on my own. In short, it's easier for me to find rewarding short-term contract jobs than it is for me to find a full-time job.

tmpfilemgt
tmpfilemgt

I have been a consultant for 18 years and love it. I love the variety of projects and each new challenge is like the entrepreneurial experience over and over again.

info
info

Because crappy companies keep laying me off! ;-)

rchamber
rchamber

Too old and experienced to get hired!

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

I can take or leave jobs as I judge them, depending on how fun they might be, or how profitable they might be. Since my business is spread over many clients in many different industries, my fortune isn't tied to a single employer or economic sector. Compared to many of my corporate-bound friends and relatives, it turns out that I am far more "secure" than those who had supposedly "secure" jobs. Since I am solely responsible for my benefits, retirement, and insurance, I am a slave to nobody. My time is my own. I can take time in the middle of the work week to do personal business or engage in my volunteer activities. On weekends or evenings, I can be billing out time even as I watch a ball game in the background. After over 25 years of doing this, I couldn't imagine going back to a corporate setting.

david.szymanski
david.szymanski

new projects to work on or the ability to lend a new view or strategy the team has not considered.

beechC23
beechC23

I'm not an independent consultant yet. But I am thinking about it. One, while I hope to retire in about 8 years, I'm not sure I want to quit cold turkey, I'd like to keep some work going to help make ends meet, and to keep the grey matter occupied. But the second reason, perhaps the biggest, is all the BS that is the pseudo-science of "human resources", that continue to treat a 51 y.o professional as if he were a kid in a sandbox. I have just been exposed to my 10th "performance management system" in 30 years, this apparently being "THE" performance management system. Same was said about all the others. None of them worked. And I can spot the flaws in this one a mile away, the worst one being inadequate flexibility built in to handle rapidly changing priorities. The mechanism for changing a "goal" is so unwieldily and time-consuming, I'll bet my last dollar that within a year or two people will just give up.

moabrunner
moabrunner

Well about 7 years ago I got laid off as a Software Developer, there were no jobs in the industry at that time, I was sick of being the next in line for the job. I used to be an I.T. Director before I because a Software Developer, so I feel back into that industry, I have been doing it for so long and have so many customers now I can't see doing anything else. The money is good at times, but it can be feast or famine at times. My company is based out of Utah, where technology is growing. I enjoy the job but it is very hard to take a vacation.

socratec
socratec

The challenge of new requirement and to provide solution to customers. Being able to explore new technologies, not stuck to maintain systems or applications. I'm an independent consultant for over 14 years and always enjoy different projects. I am alwasy open to learn new technologies to keep myself marketable.

lbasnigh
lbasnigh

I am an independent consultant because some time earlier in my career, it occurred to me that many large technology vendors decided to outsource or contract services focused on specific projects, rather than retain Full Time Employees over the long term. I am wondering whether or not any other Consultants have noticed this changing paradigm.

joetass
joetass

I got laid off, and nobody hires 63-year-olds.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

And being a teacher to your clients is the best way to learn new things yourself.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... has become outdated. Some companies these days provide reasonable compensation for technical skills, valuing them as much or more than management skills -- but they're still far in the minority. I expect that will change, through competition, but slowly.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Working from home adds all sorts of flexibility, which comes in handy when you have a child with special needs.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

I agree. Getting away from most of the politics was part of my motivation. I guess I include that in "freedom", but I should have mentioned it specifically.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

You're young to start consulting, but I know others who have been successful at your age. If you've got the go-getter spirit, can learn quickly, and most of all concentrate on solving your clients' problems -- then you'll be OK.

jkpalmer52
jkpalmer52

Same here. It was a good idea in the 90's but then offshoring, spiking insurance costs, legacy knowledge transfer, and finally age - all start to work against us.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Even though there's always the threat of loss of income, it's a granular threat instead of the much-feared all-or-nothing doom of losing one's job.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, not only because of your expertise, but also just because you're a pair of fresh eyes without the baggage of internal politics.

Peleg
Peleg

For about the first 10 years of so of my career, when I applied for a job, I usually first spoke with someone in "Personnel". Later in my career, I found myself speaking to someone in "Human Resources". Interesting change of terminology. We've all gone from being "people" to "resources". I think this change in terminology also reflects a change in attitude of corporations toward their employees and I don't much care for it. When a desk or a computer is no longer useful, they junk it and get another one. When a "Human Resource" is no longer useful, say you need to improve the bottom line this quarter, they junk it just the same. Since we are now "Resources", we don't have feelings, needs, loyalities. And then these corporations can't understand why their "Human Resources" no longer work as hard, have no committment to the company, don't deal ethically and honestly with the company, steal from the company, and they can't understand why their retention rates are so low. Who started it? This is one big reason why I opted out of the 9-5 rat-race.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

That's a great line, and it's been true for a long time. Anyone who thinks that human issues can be boiled down to a formula hasn't spent much time working with humans.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

Yes, those are challenges for all of us. I manages the f/f OK by layering my clients, but I haven't had a decent vacation in years.

blhelm
blhelm

Projectising IS/IT work loads allows executives to ramp up and ramp down their resources according to WHAT they WANT to spend versus what work load an existing resource base can accomodate. I noticed this paradigm shift starting in the early 90's when some very aggressive marketing types from India sold several companies on the idea that they could get turnkey applications custom developed for them at a substantial savings by utilizing offshore development teams. Communications and cultural differences affected the entire requirements gathering, project scope definition, analysis and design process. The pressure was applied, heavily, to loosen Visa restrictions on consultants.

Sterling chip Camden
Sterling chip Camden

... to keep me busy. It helps to have a niche that you're tops in, though. One of my selling points is that I'm easy to fire -- that being another advantage over hiring an employee.

Colonial_Boy
Colonial_Boy

ditto with me,Joe, except in my case, it was the entire IT department that got outsourced. I had joined the company, and was trying to work my way up through a user department (because I didn't know anything about the industry) and was going to then transfer to the IT department. Once I was ready to, the IT department when away. Now, with the world economy in tatters, who are they going to hire? A 52-year-old who last worked as a systems analyst 15 years ago, or a recent graduate from the local university? I had gotten a certificate in analysis, relatively recently-but it hasn't done much good. I've basically got to find something else to do for a living, because being self-employed IT contractor isn't working. I'm not sure why one of the vote choices wasn't "IT was outsourced" since it's certainly common enough.

blhelm
blhelm

The answers to the "problems" associated with performance management isn't about the human performance. It is about gathering, tracking and accurately estimating project work. Too many people don't want to spend the time tracking and reporting what they do throughout the day. They think it is a waste of valuable production time. Trouble with that mind set is, unless you have a means by which you can accurately assess and estimate how long a project can take you are doomed to bust your timeline. A few years back, I designed and built a very successful work/task tracking application that freed up my network engineers from having to time track their production. Most all of their tasks were very repeatable due to the nature of the enterprise we were building out. One of the objectives of the program was to build out layers 1 thru 3 according to a strict set of architectural standards. It made for very repeatable and standardized work product. Pretty boring stuff for most CISCO certified engineers. So we automated most all of those repeatable tasks. The web based application designed to produce the configurations was also designed to track the beginning and completion of each task in the production work flow. Automated emails were sent out to notify the next person in the process that they had work ready for them. Alert messages would only be sent to management (me) in the case when someone didn't respond to the next task in a reasonable amount of time (within the hour). This threashold was variable and could be reset for each project depending on the complexity of the overall project. In the end, we had VERY useful historical metrics that we could prove to executive management what our department could handle over a given period of time. It made the case for me to be able to accrurately estimate (within +/- 2%) project workloads and head count requirement to meet demands. Granted, this works very well for repeatable project environments. When you are doing something like prototyping a new application or technology this practise isn't practicle. However, new stratgies like Agile and Scrum are far more human friendly.

beechC23
beechC23

Definitely agree with you. When I was 45, and had 25 years experience in the work force, I had to sit through a presentation about the 8th performance system I was inflicted with, given by a young 20-something HR boffin. Myself and another grizzled, battle-weary employee made minced meat out of her and her neat assumptions about how we would all react the same way to the same stimuli. The coup de gr?ce was when I asked her where she worked previously. was the reply. Did they have a performance management system, I asked? "Yes", was the reply. "Did it work", I shot back. "No" was the honest reply with a crestfallen look "but only if they had tried it would have" she shot back. After I told her I had been through 8 systems at that point, and none of them worked, and suggested that the "science" is perhaps flawed, she knew the gig was up... and she just gave up trying to convince us.

hauskins
hauskins

I have been working via the elance.com website. A new experience for sure. Since jobs in general are done without ever meeting the client, it presennts some of its own challenges.

blhelm
blhelm

Dittos Colonial Boy. In my case, I haven't had much choice. I started out in the Minneapolis-St. Paul market as an independant VAR back in the hay days of the micro computer boom. We sold a lot of accounting systems to small and medium sized businesses. Unix was new to the business world so those of us that had a lot of experience with programming, database administration, networking, and Unix system administration had VERY marketable skills. Even then some companies just didn't place a high value on technical skills - unless it was with the Big Blue technology and all its mystical magic that garnered tripple digit per hour billing rates. During the late 90's and early 2000's, HR departments were given the mission to reign in burgening IT budgets that had swelled due to the adoption of client-server architectures, conversion to web based applications and high speed/high capacity SAN environments. The only way to reign costs was to limit a) employee wages, b) limit technology purchases, c) utilize cheaper resources via outsourcing offshore. Most companys could not justify option "b" due to the pressure to accomodate business requirements. Executive bonuses tied to SLA's and cost containment strategies forced more IT departments into option "c". They found that by "projectizing" their application development and enhancement strategies whole IS/IT budgets could be ramped up or down depending on how much they WANTED to spend each year. Adding and subtracting resources based on lean budgets makes it easier to contain costs rather than level set project work across a consistent resource base of existing skills sets already on staff. Bottom line, for a lot of highly skilled, educated, experienced and successful IT people the choice of working as an employee versus as a contractor was made for them. NOT by their choice.

beechC23
beechC23

My experience with HR though, is that they will roll out a "one-size fits all" performance management system, and then expect everyone to use it: sales, development, marketing, support, etc. And usually the design of the system is driven by the type of organization that it is: for example a sales-driven organization will have a system that works fairly well for sales but is a disaster for R&D or more technical disciplines. Ditto for marketing organizations (which is distinct from sales), shareholder value organizations, you name it. Unfortunately one size does NOT fit all. Humans are highly variable. I often heard the saying "money isn't a motivator". Well for me now it isn't. Late in career, house paid off, etc. But when I was 30 and starting a family it darned well WAS a motivator. So not only are their basic assumptions that all individuals are the same flawed, those assumptions can even change as an individual's life circumstances change. In my case 20 years ago it was "show me the money". Now I would be more motivated by perks like better pension benefits, more time off, etc.