Archive for April 13th, 2007

Without ever intending to, I’ve been a contractor or consultant for most of my adult life (What’s the difference? About $40 an hour, I like to reply). I’m frequently asked to become a full-timer, but I’ve developed a superstitious dread of accepting; the few times I have, the unsuspecting company has gone bankrupt within a year. Gradually, I’ve taken this karmic hint, and accepted that a Rolex for fifty years of faithful service isn’t in my future.

I might feel differently if I were an entrepreneur. People in business for themselves, I’ve noticed, will put up with boredom and worse. But my parents had the bad taste not to allow me to be born rich, and the few times I’ve contemplated a business more complicated than hiring a subcontractor, I’ve never had the collateral for a loan.

Anyway, quite apart from never being able to take business seriously (in the back of my mind, much of it seems a foolish way to spend your time compared to, say, excavating an ancient Roman villa or brainstorming a thought-experiment in cutting edge physics) I suspect that I don’t have the temperament for the human resources side of business. I mean, I could hardly bring myself to fail a term paper when I was an English instructor. So how could I fire or even reprimand an employee?

No, freelancing suits me better. I arrive as the person who will solve problems, with the promise of bringing order out of chaos. Usually, nobody knows what I do (if they did, they wouldn’t have to hire me), so I’m left alone to get on with my work and can be as friendly or unfriendly as I care to be. I get a chance to satisfy my curiosity about some new aspect of high-tech and, if a particular job threatens to leave my EEG flatlined, I can restrain myself from chewing off my arm to escape by reminding myself that it won’t last forever. And come the boring bits like maintenance and revision, I’ve already galloped off in all directions like a corporate Don Quixote in quest of new adventure and new managers in distress.

One of the major advantanges of consulting is that unfamiliarity breeds respect. When you come in as an consultant, company officers treat you with more respect that if you were on staff. Maybe it’s the hourly rate. But, whatever the reason, the same CEOs who would never learn your name if you were a lackey will respectfully ask your opinion and confide in you if you are brought in as an outside expert. After all, to treat you like you didn’t know what you were doing would be an admission that the contract with you was a mistake. The result is, you’re treated more as an equal — which suits me just fine, I don’t claim superiority over anyone, but I’ve never been one to give others respect because of their job titles, either. For one thing, moving from company to company, I’ve seen too much to defer automatically.

(Politeness, of course, is another matter. Everyone gets that, even the clerical staff. Or maybe I should say, especially the clerical staff. They’re the ones who really run most offices, so even if I didn’t respect them, I’d stay polite to them out of basic self-preservation. As an outsider, I need them on my side. As for executives, they’re not smarter than me, just more single-minded and less adventurous.)

Another satisfying part of consulting is that you get to the good parts sooner. When I was a technical writer, I was managing project and hiring a sub-contractors six months after I started in the business. If I’d hired on as a junior writer in a mega-corporation, after six months I’d have been lucky to be trusted with changing the toner cartridge in the laser printer. In the same way, moving from company to company, I’ve had more hands-on experience of high-tech than anyone staying at a single company could ever hope to get.

All of this explains why my dominant gig these days as a journalist is ideal for me. My interest in any one subject only has to last for the duration of researching a story, and I can question executives without any nervousness. Also, my knowledge of the business has provided dozens of stories, ranging from advice articles that are a summary of my experience to leads brought my way by ex-colleagues. It’s the ultimate work for a freelancer, so much so, that last month, for the first time, I made as much as a journalist as I ever had as a marketing and communications consultant. If I have my way, I won’t be back in an office except as a guest.

That’s not to say that my family hasn’t given up the wistful thought that I might one day settle down to a salaried mid-level position. But that’s not about to happen. When people ask me how I stand the uncertainty of being a consultant, I reply, “The main difference between my position and yours is that I know when my contract ends.” And it’s true — these days, consultants are more secure than a so-called permanent employer, if only because they have a contract and, in the worst scenario, a kill fee.

That’s the secret that all consultants share: the knowledge that all employment is temporary, and that there’s always a next contract. We’ve seen the worst, and it’s not nearly as bad as the full-timers fear. In fact, in every way, it’s more interesting than a 9-5 with unpaid overtime. It’s also a hell of a lot more engaging.

That’s why I’m better off without that Rolex. Why would I need it? My time’s my own already — and if I really wanted one, I could buy one.

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