Friday, November 2, 2012

On being a professional services contractor

I am a contractor (or, more fancily , a consultant) by trade. I mostly work on standards, compliance and policy focused business writing projects. In the 18 months I've been doing this, I've worked for 7 different clients, on a total of 19 projects both small and large. The shortest took a day; the longest, which wraps next week in fact, has been going for just a touch under 6 months. I didn't have much work last year, but from January 2012 onwards it's been happily quite steady, rising to probably a bit more than ideal from early June until now.

Most of my work is a combination of research, writing, comment and feedback management, and collaborative document production. Some of it involves content that is interesting to me personally, and some doesn't. Some has covered areas I have prior familiarity and comfort with, from my 10 years in policy in the public sector; others have been very new frontiers for me. A clear majority of my work has been able to be performed from my home office, which has enabled me to work a lot of hours without needing to increase my 3 year old's childcare time beyond 2 days.

After 18 months as a contractor, I have some thoughts about the pros and cons of it, as compared with being a salaried employee, for a person with significant family and community responsibilities. I've also learned a few lessons the hard way and made some mistakes I don't intend to repeat. Here's my take on that.

- As a contractor in the professional services sector, I can work predominantly from home, which mean I'm much more available to my family than if I worked the same number of hours in an office.

- I can plan (to some extent) my workload around peak times with family and community commitments (for instance, I have ruled off January in my job book and will not accept any projects for that month, so I can have that time with my girls).

- I get to work on different projects and in different organisations, which keeps me interested and engaged and also means I'm always learning new things.

- People treat you like a professional, rather than a minion. It's a refreshing novelty after years of salaried miniondom.

- The wax-wane nature of project based work suits my work style. I get a real rush from completing things and handing them over, then definitely need short fallow times in between to reset my energy levels. Contracting mostly allows for this.

- The pay rate is pretty good.

- Because I have three young children and want to give them my time and attention when they are with me, I end up sacrificing evenings and weekend time (when their Dad takes them) to work. This means very limited downtime or social time when things are hot.

- As a contractor, particularly when working for a new client, you always have to have your game face on and put your back thoroughly into it. Because you don't have a relationship akin to an employee / employer one, your client doesn't have to care (and usually won't) if you're sick, tired, in a bad mood, or having children troubles. It can be exhausting to have to keep soldiering on and not letting any of that seep through.

- Related to that, the contractor is always the last stop on the derail train when things start to diverge from the plan. If everyone else was meant to get something done by Wednesday, but it ends up being 5pm Friday, guess who's working Saturday and Sunday? That's right - you are.

- It can be a bit lonely, because if you are a sole trader, you don't have colleagues, you have clients. I miss office camaraderie sometimes.

- There is no pay if you don't work - so don't get sick! - and no super, and you have to do your own tax. (Bor-ing).

- Quoting job prices is harder than it looks. It really helps to have a rubric of some kind to use, to make sure your pricing is consistent across jobs and within the market rate.

- Following on from that: Do not give a job price to a client who is vague and fluffy about scope and / or timelines, unless you also build in a requirement for a price variation in the event of scope creep. Vague clients get hourly rates!

- Think carefully about your costs of doing business in establishing your rates. Remember that you can't claim all those wonderful home office expenses as a tax deduction in the same way that salaried employees do, so your rate has to cover your outlays as well as your time.

- You may not technically *need* professional indemnity insurance, but it sure helps when you are bidding on sensitive / confidential jobs.

- Juggling more than two projects at a time is never, ever a good idea. Do not do it unless completely unavoidable.

- Follow rabbits down holes. Work arises in the most surprising of contexts and via serendipitous chances sometimes. A casual conversation over brunch with a friend or acquaintance, or a random chat to a person you meet in the corridor at a client site, can lead on to opportunities to quote on interesting things. Some of my work has come about through conventional channels, but a lot hasn't.

- Goodwill and reputation is your bread and butter as a contractor. You have to not only do great work - preferably, better than they could have produced in house - you need to manage the client relationship so that they end the project with a good taste in their mouth. That's how you get referrals and repeat business.

- Decouple your personal Twitter / blog from your work identity, unless you primarily blog or tweet about things relevant to your field. I don't mean hide it - just don't draw a lot of attention to it. I don't list my blog in my work resume, and my Twitter handle is not either my legal nor social name. Of course, linking the two things to my real identity would not be rocket science, but I don't draw client attention to my personal online presence, because it's not relevant and may be distracting.

(The other approach is to carefully constrain what you blog and tweet about so that it's more or less a marketing tool for you professionally. That's cool too, but I have a loud mouth and opinions, and I am not about to stop expressing them anytime soon. For me, decoupling is the middle ground between saying nothing / being anodyne on social media, and burning off potential work).

I like contracting at this point in my working life, although I don't rule out a return to salaried work at some future point. It's definitely not for everyone.

This is post 2 in NaBloPoMo. 2 down, 28 to go!

No comments:

Post a Comment