Thinking about quitting your full time job and changing things up a little? Here’s a quick explanation of the differences between IT roles.
Full Time Employees (FTEs) of Regular Companies
You show up for work on Monday at 8AM, and you know exactly where you’re going to work, and who you’ll be working with. You have lots of water cooler conversations with the same people every week.
You’re frequently called into meetings that you can’t refuse, and they waste your time for hours on end. That frustrates you because you’d rather be out doing real work.
You’re on call (either all the time, or in a rotation), but at least when you respond to an alert, it’s a system you’ve probably seen before. You sometimes have the power to improve that system so that it doesn’t go down as often.
Every year you have a salary review meeting, and because you’re not really in the “business” of IT, your managers struggle with how to measure your success. Your raise basically comes down to negotiating techniques, and you’re lucky if it’s 10%. You rarely get work-related performance bonuses.
If you don’t like your job, you go get another one. You get to choose who you work with – to the extent that the job market lets you.
Contractor Who’s a Full Time Employee of a Contracting Company
A quick definition of the difference between consultants and contractors:
- Consultants give advice about what the client should do.
- Contractors show up and do what they’re told.
Being a contractor is a lot like being a full time employee – you develop close relationships with other people who work in the same physical location. (If you work for a contracting company, you might be surprised at how much closer you are to your clients than you are to your contracting company coworkers.)
The downside is that you don’t usually get to choose who you work with, and you don’t get to complain about your coworkers. You have to suck it up and take it until your contract is over. If you’re surrounded by abusive assholes, your contracting company probably isn’t going to swap you out for someone else because someone else is going to be just as disappointed. They’d rather have just one of their employees suffer – and make things look stable in front of the client. (No contracting company wants to tell their client, “Yeah, Fred left because he was sick of your crap.”) Plus, you’ll gain the wrong kind of reputation at your contracting company.
You get paid by the hour, which makes meetings a whole lot more tolerable.
You may still be on call, but you have a lesser capability to permanently fix the issues that caused the alert. Often the client will say, “Yeah, you can’t change that system – you just need to keep it up and running.” This can be frustrating when you know exactly how to fix the issue for good, for free.
Rather than a salary review, your annual stress is what happens when your contract is up. Your contract’s renewal depends on your political savvy, and your client’s stakeholder’s political savvy. Your contract renewal rarely has anything to do with your technical skills. Even though you technically work for the contracting company and not the client, this can be stressful because they may not have other contracts available for your exact skill set, and there’s a high pressure to keep you in the field rather than on the bench.
Depending on your employment agreement with the contracting company, they may take care of your health insurance, computers, training, vacation, sick time, and so forth. The more of these things they take care of, the less money you make. (There’s no wrong answer here – it all depends on the risks you’re willing to take.)
Consultant Who’s a Full Time Employee of a Consulting Company
You get called in for advice on how to relieve a specific pain point. You do some fact-finding, build a report, and give the report to the client so they can act on your advice.
These advisory, hands-off gigs tend to be much shorter than contractors – just a few days to a few weeks with any given client. You don’t get to build close long-term relationships around the water cooler because you work with different people every week or month. You may return to visit them again, and they may be excited to see you, but it’s very different than working with the same team every day.
On the plus side, if the client is a bunch of jerks, you can grin and take it because you won’t be working with them very long anyway, and you’ll be laughing at them when you leave.
True consultants are typically sent out in very small groups (1-5 people), for short bursts, in different groups of people each time. This means not only do you have a hard time building relationships with your clients, you may also have a hard time building a relationship with coworkers at your company.
Because you’re in the business of giving advice, you don’t get the satisfaction of getting your hands dirty and building something – unless it’s for yourself. This can be great if you’re self-motivated enough to build your own things, and you’ll need to do that anyway in order to stay at the cutting edge of your field. (There’s not a lot of work available for consultants with no real-world expertise.)
Independent or Freelancer
The job is whatever you make it – a mix of long and short gigs that keep a roof over your head.
If you want to be a contractor, you just need to find a company that needs your skills for a long period of time, and convince them to sign a contract with you.
If you want to be a consultant, you just need to find companies that need your advice, and convince them to pay you for that advice.
But the length of these engagements means something else that has huge impacts on the way you do branding, marketing, community work, and sales:
- Contractors may only need 1 contract signed per year.
- Consultants may need 20-50 contracts signed per year.
- Full time employees don’t have to hassle with this at all.
So how much work is it, really, to get 20-50 contracts signed per year? Here’s all the parts to getting a contract signed:
- You have to find a pain point that a lot of people need advice on
- That pain point needs to be expensive enough that your time looks cheap in comparison
- You have to build a process that can reliably relieve that pain in a short amount of time
- You have to get the word out to the public that you’re qualified to relieve that pain
- When someone calls you, you have to convince the technical stakeholders that you’re a good fit
- You then have to convince the business stakeholders that you’re worth the expense
- Your lawyers and their lawyers have to come to terms on a deal
- Your schedule and their schedule have to line up quickly
Every single one of these is a hurdle for consultants and contractors.