Is it better to be a consultant or an employee?

I ran into a former supervisor from many years ago at the local Home Depot this evening. We had a pleasant discussion. It reminded me of a question I asked, right around the time he and I last talked. I asked whether it’s better to be a consultant or an employee.

Here’s what I would say to my 2005 self if I could, somehow. I present it here since I know someone else must have the same question.

For what it’s worth, I was a “permanent” employee for 8 years, and I’ve been a consultant now for 7 years. “Permanent” gets quotes because jobs that last decades are pretty rare these days. It’s not impossible to take a job somewhere when you’re in your 20s and stay there until retirement, but of the 100 or so IT workers my social networks tell me I know, I’d say only about a half-dozen have stayed in one place for the last 7 years, let alone a full career.

And when there are cutbacks, it’s the consultants (or contractors, whatever you want to call them) who are the first to go. I inadvertently started my contracting career working for a large cable company that I may have mentioned before, but it will remain nameless here. The company had some severe financial difficulties, and one of the interviewers said that explicitly during the interview. But they were hiring and I needed a job, so I signed on with them as a right-to-hire contractor. Four months later, the company got a new CEO, and the CEO cut a whole bunch of the contractors, including me.

I landed at a contracting company and that gig ended up lasting three years. It could have lasted even longer, but the company lost the contract I was on, and the company who won the contract wanted me very badly. It seemed like the path of least resistance, in some ways, to sign on with the new company. I turned in my badges at the end of one workday and outprocessed. Then I inprocessed at the new company the next day, got another set of badges, and went back to my old desk like normal. I turned over some proprietary information to my former company, but other than that, didn’t have to clean out my desk or anything. Most of my colleagues did the same thing, so one day, we just all showed up wearing lanyards with another company’s name on them. It was a smooth transition.

A handful of my colleagues stayed at the old company. That proved fortuitous. Sometimes I even ran into former colleagues in the parking lot. One afternoon, I ran into a former colleague, and he told me about an opportunity at the old company. I applied, he vouched for me, and I went back to the former company, and pocketed a cool 25% raise in the process.

That transition changed my life and career. The work was very different from what I’d done before. I was qualified to do it, but it challenged me in ways I hadn’t been challenged before, and it forced a mindset shift. I wasn’t a sysadmin anymore–in fact, I no longer had administrative rights on any system–but instead, I was a policy guy, but being a former sysadmin, I could coach sysadmins on how to implement the applicable security policies correctly.

But beyond that, one of my coworkers was a CISSP. And he rode me to become a CISSP like him. Then he abruptly quit his job one day, and when management asked him if he could recommend a replacement, he said my name. I took the job on the condition that I’d become a CISSP like him within six months. I did, and I got another heavy raise. Not 25% this time, but enough to make the pain and suffering of studying for that test worth it.

That was the coolest job ever. But after about nine months on the job, I left. Another opportunity came along that suited the stage in life I’m in right now. It was closer to home, no travel, and it let me work from home sometimes. Maybe later in my career, I’ll have the opportunity to go back, and if that happens, I’ll have a very difficult decision to make.

These changes presented opportunities that wouldn’t have come up if I had stayed in one place for the last decade and a half.

It can be a bit unsettling. When contracts expire, there are always questions. I left that job that forced me to become a CISSP mere months after the contract got renewed, and that bid was a grueling process. Now I’m on a contract that expires at the end of the year. Some people can’t handle the uncertainty. But I know that nobody knows the contract like the incumbents, so even if the incumbent company doesn’t win, most of the contractors will get the opportunity to continue with the new company. The new company may put its own management in place, but they also need people who can do the work.

And the incumbent company will usually try to keep as many of its people as it can. They’ll bid on the contract when it comes back up again in a few years–I’ve seen it happen–and chances are they have some openings elsewhere on other contracts, and it’s cheaper to fill those vacancies with the contractors it has than it is to get new ones. The worst thing about the end of a contract is having to write the new proposal, and that’s not something most contractors are asked to do.

I was nervous at first. But I’ve had nearly as much stability as a contractor as I had when I was a so-called permanent employee. What upheaval I have experienced actually turned out to be great opportunities for growth. I don’t think consulting is for everyone. But if you have a lot of skills and keep them sharp, you can do extremely well as a contractor.

I only have one regret, and it’s minor. If I could change anything, I would have taken the CISSP exam sooner. There are more than enough opportunities out there for CISSP-toting consultants to ride out the storms in the contracting world. The only unemployed CISSP I ever met was just watching for the right opportunity. It took less than a month. He ended up taking my old job. Technically he had a job when I met him. So I guess I can say I still have never met an unemployed CISSP.

So is it better to be a consultant or an employee? In my experience, it’s certainly no worse to be a consultant. And I think I’ve done better for myself as a consultant.

I never really wanted to be a mercenary, but that’s the world we live in today. Careers aren’t like marriage today. It’s more like high school and college. You might take the same date to more than one dance. But you can just as easily end up taking a different date to every dance.

For the right opportunity, I would take a so-called permanent full-time position again. But then again, if I’m still a consultant in 20 years, I don’t see myself crying about it.

Update: I did eventually make that transition. Being a good contractor led to a job offer. Here’s how to use experience as a contractor to make the transition to employee.

4 thoughts on “Is it better to be a consultant or an employee?

  • October 16, 2012 at 8:48 pm
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    What happens to IT’s when they hit forty?
    Working class people have a hard job finding employment because there are always young people standing behind them in line, willing to work for less.
    During the Reagan recession, the Houston UPS would only interview oilfield geologists if they had a Phd, and this was for delivery trugk drivers. 80’s joke but no one was laughing at the time.
    Hopefully, next year will be better for everyone.

  • October 17, 2012 at 7:34 pm
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    I don’t think age is nearly as important as skillset. From 2009-2012 I worked in a shop where I was the youngest person, and I’m not much under 40. I suppose if all you know is Windows administration or how to swap motherboards, competing with 20somethings becomes harder the older you get, but if you can manage people and have at least one other IT skill, you’re probably OK. If you can administer mainframes, or Unix boxes, or databases, you’re probably OK. Keep your skills in demand and don’t burn any bridges (IT is a frighteningly small world), and you do OK. As I approach 40, I get more and more questions about my management ability, so that’s one thing I’m working on. So, I guess paying attention to the questions people ask and making sure your career has good answers to those questions helps, too.

    • October 18, 2012 at 6:37 pm
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      At various stages in my life, I’ve resembled that article. A lot of my former journalism classmates resemble it even more.

      I do see some upside to the article. Do what’s profitable to pay the bills, then do what’s fulfilling with the time that’s left.

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