Many of us call ourselves independent consultants, but how independent are we? I can think of at least six measures of consulting independence.Number of clients: If you only have one client at a time or only one big client and several other little jobs, then you're dependent on that one client for a significant share of your revenue. The fortunes of your business become yoked to theirs, and if they drop off the map, then you need to do a full restart. If, on the other hand, you keep a few (or several) significant clients going all the time, then if one drops out, your business doesn't change all that much. Scheduling: Do you get to determine your own hours, or are you required to do certain things at certain times? Sometimes clients need to have activities synchronized, and emergencies require immediate attention. But beyond that, if your client is dictating your time clock, then aren't you more like an employee? Decision making: Our ability to make work decisions can never be 100% independent of our clients, nor should it be; after all, it's our job to provide what they want. But behind the "public interface" to your work, do you get to decide how it's designed and implemented internally, or does your client specify what methodologies and tools you must use? The work: Do you generally work alone or on a team? If you work on a team, how often do you communicate with team members? How often do you step on each other's feet? How independent from the rest of a project is your little piece of it? It can be a very good thing to work closely with a team, but it does limit your freedom. Contract terms: Did you (and your lawyer) write your contract, or did your client require that you sign their contract? If it's somewhere in the middle, how close is the contract to the terms you wanted? Finding work: Do you work through a consulting agency or service, or do you find business on your own? If it's the former, how much say do you have in what work you'll accept or refuse?
As I've suggested, it's not a simple equation of more independence = better. If we were 100% independent, then we wouldn't have any clients. Different engagements may offer varying levels of independence.
For each consultant, there is an acceptable range of independence, and there's probably also a sweet spot that feels just right. I lean towards the more independent end of each of the six factors mentioned above. How about you? Answer the following poll questions to let us know where you are in the range.
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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.