January 11, 2007
Ten years ago this month I became a consultant. The first thirteen years of my career had been spent exclusively as an employee. Sure, I've been the employee of several consulting firms, but the mental shift that comes with being a consultant, of being an outsider, alters your view of your employer as well. Most of the past ten years have been good for me professionally. I've had the opportunity to move and to grow technically. In an era when technology shifts happen so rapidly as to appear continuous, I have been able to adapt and incorporate paradigm shifts into my skill set with relative ease.
Recently I have been surveying the employment market and there are some excellent opportunities worth consideration. And for the first time in a very long time I am considering full-time employment as an employee, not a consultant or an employee of a consulting firm. I don't remember how long the mental shift from employee to consultant took ten years ago, and I am not sure I'll ever stop thinking of myself as a consultant. The attitude embodies a certain independence, a reliance upon self rather than others, an expectation of excellence and professionalism, a willingness to stand by your work, your opinions, your beliefs regardless of popular direction.
To be honest there are some stresses that come with the free agent aspects of consulting, and you develop a thick skin for being treated as an outsider or second class citizen. Some would argue that consultants are more mercenary than patriot, and there is a nugget of truth in that statement. However, I feel that the last ten years have seen a stead erosion of the paternalistic employer-employee model that existed when I started my career in the early 1980s. Gone are the days of two or three decades of loyal service resulting in handsome retirements. Individuals now have to actively prepare for retirement, and moreover, have to expect to work at more than one employer in their working lifetime.
When I took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation's basic rider's course many years ago, the statement was made that, "by throwing your leg over the seat of a motorcycle you are telling the world you are willing to accept some risk." By working as a consultant you are telling the world that you are willing to accept total responsibility, not just for the work you perform, but also for all aspects of working. Consulting is riding a motorcycle, employment is driving a car. I happen to enjoy aspects of both modes of work, just as I enjoy aspects of both modes of transportation.
The real trick is deciding what the career weather is going to be for the next year or decade, and choosing the right vehicle for the next leg of the journey.