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.