Consulting vs. Contracting

When I started contracting, it was by accident – the company at which I had applied for permanent employment after moving to London suffered a recruitment freeze. Two six-month contracts later I had had enough of a very long commute each day (my descriptions of the Piccadilly line are still recorded for posterity, if any foreigners out there want to learn some imaginative uses of the foulest English swear words ever heard this side of the Thames). After abandoning that I did a little stint in the city. After that I remembered another company which had turned me down two years previously. Would they be interested again, now that I had more experience?

They were. I’m here.

Working in a consultancy is very different to working as a contractor. Contracting is a lonely existence. There’s no support, and it’s hard to be emotionally involved in the projects with which you’re working. You have to be responsible for your own training, and you’re never allowed to admit that you don’t know something. You have to fight for your jobs. It’s a lot of work, and not that much fun. Also, I hate doing VAT returns each quarter.

In a consultancy, it’s not you who’s being hired – it’s your firm. You’re part of a greater whole; privy to all the benefits that the company can offer you. They sort out the jobs, and tell you where to go. They support you, giving you training, advice and tutelage (ideally in the form of pairing). You’re allowed, even encouraged to admit that there are gaps in your knowledge base, and although you’re still responsible for your own motivation, the opportunities are provided for you. If you don’t know about a certain type of architecture you can ask which book you should read. If you want to do a project on the side there are people around to help you, with no one fearing that it might detract from your day job. You have colleagues, fellow employees, lunchtime companions, even friends.

However, the biggest difference is in your reputation.

As a contractor, you’re hired to do a job. It’s never been part of my contract to point out that the customer might be wrong – my feeble suggestions in the past that “there might be a different way” have been summarily dismissed. You have the weight of one voice, and not always a well-respected voice at that. Permanent employees hate you because you earn more than they do, with no concept that you spend the time between contracts chewing your fingernails, worrying about the rent and trying to get your accounts together. Other contractors are too busy protecting themselves against the hatred of permanent employees to back you up, if they agree, and they don’t want to endanger their chances of a contract renewal any more than you do.

As a consultant, you’re part of a company which has often been hired in acknowledgement that the consultancy knows more than the customer does. Your opinion is respected. You can say things like, “Hey – these functional tests aren’t green-barring, and I think it’s more important to ensure that previous fixed bugs aren’t creeping back into the system than it is to fix your new ones.” You can say, “PicoContainer does what you want, and is very lightweight.” And the customer listens, because your company has made a success out of recruiting people like you. You have the weight of your company’s reputation.

That weight of reputation rests solidly on your shoulders. It’s important to carry it well.

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10 Responses to Consulting vs. Contracting

  1. anonymous says:

    More often than not I have had the exact opposite happen.
    Where the big firms have mediocre people that do a bad job… but hey the company has a good reputation so this must be good !

    Then I must step-in as a contractor to clean-up the mess that was left behind by the best company out there. And do all of this without being too critical of the wasted time and money already spent by the customer with the big company.

    – maestro

  2. sirenian says:

    Hmm. I like to think that my company’s reputation is well-deserved. From what I’ve seen of it so far, it is, and I haven’t been here long enough to be blinded.

    As for the other consulting companies who don’t justify their reputations – well, you know what happens to the house that’s built on sand.

    And on the pedestal these words appear:
    “My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings:
    Look upon my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
    Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
    Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
    The lone and level sands stretch far away.

    – Shelley, “Ozymandias”

  3. anonymous says:


    Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
    And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
    Tell that its sculptor well those passions read,
    Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
    The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed,

    The above lines might teach a different lesson about humility, openness to critique and a willingness to learn from others. After all Ozymandias presumably earned the title “King of Kings” and the collossal statue must have seemed quite appropriate at the time.

    It’s not enough to be good at what you do today one must manage to be better than tomorrow’s competitors. And that’s a much scarier challenge.

  4. sirenian says:

    Courage. Courage. Courage.

    It’s not enough to hire people with a reputation. The customers are trying to be better than their competitors, too. Their challenge is to find the good amongst the dross. We are the good. All we have to do is to keep that reputation strong, chase the opportunities and make them keep coming back for more.

    A consultancy which can generate repeat custom, and a contractor who can do the same, surely survive far better than those who can only land that first contract.

  5. anonymous says:

    Whilst the customers are keeping their eyes on their competitors who are the consultants competing with? The reason that many of the larger consultancies are often perceived as clueless and yet manage to keep making billions is because they realised that they only had to be slightly better than their clients (which were often government departments).

    Being better than your clients is profitable if you’re in a stable market or your clients are very risk-averse. However if you’re a small company (or an individual) then the market is never stable. New competitors are always entering the market and new innovations are fundamentally changing the market and of course your clients are gaining on you. All of this means that if you rest on your laurels then your market will disappear from underneath you.

    Instead you have to be your own most aggressive competitor so that you’re the one who, in Clayton Christensen’s terms, disrupts the market. Otherwise one day when your clients stop beating a path to your door because someone else has changed the market conditions (in IT consultancy this could be anything from outsourcing to MDA to CMM) you’re left wondering what happened and why you didn’t see it coming.

    In the immortal words of Rincewind: “don’t look back they might be gaining on you.”

  6. sirenian says:

    Hence “chase the opportunities”. Slow changers face an inevitable entropic death, unless they’re snapped up by a bigger fish. Only the swift and streamlined can survive. And yes – to do that, you should always be looking forwards, but not because you’re afraid of what’s behind you; just because you’ve been there, done that, learnt and moved on to the tasty things you see ahead.

    I know nothing about running companies, but I’m learning to manage my life along these principles. Does it scale?

  7. sirenian says:

    FMI: Dave Donaldson’s discussion here

  8. sirenian says:

    FMI: Steve Eichert’s discussion here

  9. sirenian says:

    FMI: Steve Eichert’s followup here

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