September 26, 2013

So you wanna be a Consultant, eh? (Part 1)

In this multi-part post, I will talk about how Contract Consulting can be a welcome change from a more traditional Full-Time Employee job... And I will share how Contract Consulting can allow you to lead a more balanced, happier, engaging life of variety. I'll also get into some of the nuts and bolts of getting started. Enjoy!

Why Contract Consulting? (Part 1)

Part 1: Why Contract Consulting?
Part 2: Making The Mental Leap
Part 3: The Most Important Rule To Follow

When I quit my full-time software consulting position at the beginning of the summer and began road tripping and farming, I kept getting one question from people over and over:

"Oh - wow - you quit your job? You're going to be farming all summer? Are you going to become a farmer?"

At first, it seemed like a perfectIy logical question. But the more times I was asked this question, the funnier a question it became. Why? Because asking this question implies that we're only allowed to do one thing in terms of work… People assumed that if I left my software consulting job and was working on farms… That must mean that I'm going to become a farmer to the exclusion of all else.

It occurred to me one day… Why limit myself to just ONE type of work? In fact, why should YOU limit yourself to one type of work?

When I left my job, I'd maintained a good relationship with the consulting company I'd worked for, and they offered me a crack at a project with one of their clients in Minnesota. I went into it thinking that it'd be a good way to make some extra cash to support me on my next farming and/or other adventure. But when I started the project, a funny thing happened…

Goddammit, I actually was enjoying the work!

What?! How was this possible? How was it possible that I was enjoying work that had previously resulted in me being depressed, angry, and so stressed? The answer was really quite simple, and came down to these two points:

  1. Contrast.
  2. Being a Contract Consultant rather than a Full-Time Employee (FTE). 

First, it was the contrast between farm work and software consulting that brought me satisfaction. I'd spent the summer on the open road, working in the dirt, on my feet all day, and doing all kinds of physical work. I LOVED it. And having had that experience allowed me to enjoy the mental work of sitting at a desk because the two types of work contrasted with each other so much. Having both types of work in my life allowed me to enjoy both of them much more deeply. It was like having jelly introduced to my peanut butter sandwich! Yum!

The second point - being a Contract Consultant rather than a FTE is what I want to talk about today.

My whole working life, I'd always been someone's employee. In fact, it was the only thing I'd ever really been told about and told to aspire to. The world of being an independent contractor seemed dangerous, insecure, and frankly, scary. Why would anyone want to do contract work when they could have a secure, full-time job? For many years, I was fine as a FTE. I got raises, praise for a job well done, and satisfaction from this. Before I got into consulting, I was a FTE at an Ottawa software company, and I enjoyed it. But then, we got acquired by a much larger company which sadly ruined the fun, collaborative, rewarding company culture we'd had before the acquisition. I got tired of working really hard and getting promised more money, promotions, etc. but never actually receiving anything I was told I would get.

I left that job and company and got into software consulting… First as an independent contractor, and then as a FTE at a mid-sized consulting firm. The salary was great, and I was happy for a while initially…. But the familiar dissatisfaction I'd felt in my previous job started to creep back in. I liked the new company, and I was learning new stuff every day. I didn't understand why I was still unhappy...

Until now.

See, after having a summer of absolute freedom, I realized that what I needed more than anything was a sense that my time and my life were MINE to use as I wish. For the course of the summer, I got to experience that. I got to decide what I wanted to do at any given moment. It was satisfying for me at a soul-level. I'd never experienced this before, and let me tell you - it was so liberating!

I realized that for me, being a Full-Time Employee means that I've handed over ownership of the vast majority of my time and energy to someone else. As a FTE, my employer decides when I work, what projects I work on, how hard I work, how much I travel, etc. Yes, I know that technically I can say no to things - but I'd been conditioned to always say "Yes" to my employers out of fear of getting fired. I also have to work full-time, even if I don't want to or need to - and I only get three weeks of time off a year where my time is truly mine. Three weeks isn't enough - we all know the feeling of being on vacation long enough to forget about work… Which always happens to be just in time to go back to work.

After experiencing a whole summer of having complete ownership of my life and time, there was no way I could go back to being a Full-Time Employee.

What was the alternative?

The answer for me came in being a Contract Consultant.

Does your line of work lend itself well to Contract Consulting? If so, consider these aspects of contract work that, in my experience, have brought happiness and satisfaction:

  1. More money per unit time worked. When you work for someone, you're handing over units of your time and energy in return for an agreed-upon amount of money. As a contractor, you get paid for every hour you work. No more, no less. Hour for hour, dollar for dollar, I think it's the best way to be paid.
  2. No more working on the weekends for free. You're paid for every hour you work, so people who use your services tend to be more respectful of your time. They will generally think twice about calling you to work overtime or on the weekends because to do so will cost them a great deal of money. However, in a typical FTE situation, people won't think twice about calling you and making you work overtime or on the weekends because it doesn't cost them anything extra. Who ultimately pays when you have to work overtime or on weekends as a FTE? You do. 
  3. A sense of ownership of your work. As a contractor, you rely on your reputation and your ability to deliver good-quality work in order to be able to continue getting work. You end up feeling a great sense of ownership over your work as a result, and this contributes to a greater sense of personal satisfaction. You end up taking pride in your work, and in what you're able to do for your clients.
  4. You're working for YOU. Every hour you work is truly for YOU. It becomes harder to resent work because every hour you put in is money in your pocket - money for YOU.
  5. No more boredom! One of the most frustrating things for me as a FTE was having to put in a full 8 hours even if I'd finished my day's work in just 4-6 hours. I would rather leave after finishing my day's work in 4 hours and take home less pay than have to stay a full 8 hours, even though I have no more work or my head's foggy and I'm not being productive. As a FTE, if you finish your work early, you never benefit from your efficiency. You are either given more work for no extra pay, or you spend the rest of the day on Facebook attempting to "look busy". The latter is especially torture for me. Once my work is done, I want to leave and go do what I want, even if it's just to have a nap on my couch.
  6. Tax benefits. Unfortunately, working hard in a high-salary job as a FTE isn't really worth it because the more money you make, the more you're taxed. There are almost no tax deduction opportunities as a FTE. As a contractor, many expenses you incur in the course of your work become tax-deductible. And if you incorporate and plan carefully, you can end up paying corporate tax rates which are much, much lower. 
  7. More power to say NO. "No" is a powerful word. In my own life, I'm just now learning how to use it effectively. As a contractor, if you don't wish to take on a particular assignment, you don't have to.
  8. You get to choose whether you want more money or more free time. Want more money? Then work more. Want more free time? Then work less. Personally, I would rather have more free time than more money. After all, you'll pay tax on extra money you earn, but any extra free time you give yourself sure as hell can't be taxed! And think of the wonderful simple pleasures in life you can indulge in with more free time - you can have naps in the middle of the day, go for hikes, watch your favourite shows, spend an afternoon cooking up new food, or go play with your kids! Do this enough and you'll be thankful when you're on your death bed looking back on your life, for it will have been well-lived. No one has ever been on their deathbed, looked back on their life, and then thought, "Gee, I sure wish I'd worked more!" Check out The Top 5 Regrets Of The Dying for a good list of what's important in life.

Ultimately, contract work can allow you to feel more engaged and involved in your own life. It allows you to weave variety into your life, and allows you to structure your life in a way that is more in-line with your own personal values and priorities.

For me, working in a FTE caused me great stress because as I would sit at a desk, I would have constant thoughts that this was it - this desk and office were going to be my life until I retired. No variety, no colour, just an endless hallway of putty-coloured cubicle fabric until retirement.

Contract Consulting has shown me that I can have variety in my life, take breaks from work when it suits me, and lead a happier, more balanced, more satisfying life than I was able to lead before.

You know yourself better than anyone else could. So why not give yourself permission to architect your life in a way that really suits you?