Consulting versus Employment

April 18, 2008

There are any number of differences between working as a consultant and working as an employee.  And there are some similarities.  Today I ran across an unexpected similarity.  The company I work for now, as an employee, has undergone significant growth in the past couple of years and they are going through all the growing pains you might expect as a result.

The group I joined in January 2007 no longer exists.  The project we were slated to drive forward architecturally no longer exists.  The manager, and my three peers, have all moved on to other opportunities.  Since December I have been in a bit of a holding pattern, waiting for various reorganizations to be announced, so that I can make a decision between two divergent options.

I've continued to work in the architecture role on a new project while waiting to learn more about a potential new position, in a new group being formed as a result of the latest reorganization.  Now that the group is public knowledge I can talk with its manager to determine if I have a role there and, moreover, if I want that role.  The other alternative I've been weighing was described to me as "lead developer."  This position would have design responsibilities for a project as well as development responsibilities - picking up the requirements from business analysis and driving them through design, construction, and implementation.

What I didn't realize until this morning, was that my current role, that of architect, is going away.  I don't have the option of passing on both opportunities.  (Well, I suppose I have the option to leave the company entirely.)  In the consulting world you spend a fair amount of time worrying about the contract; will it be renewed, what contract will follow this one?  Today I rediscovered the anxiety of changing jobs within your employment.  Today I'm an architect, tomorrow I'm a senior software engineer; today I'm a project leader, tomorrow I'm chief assistant to the assistant chief.

The emotions are roughly the same - anxiety, fear, uncertainty - for both.  Losing ones contract (expectedly or unexpectedly) casts you adrift.  Realizing that your career has come to a fork in the road (whether by your design or not) also casts you adrift.  As a consultant I was cast adrift several times, often resulting in cross-country moves.  As an employee in the 1980s and 1990s, I had various career changes within the same employment, that cast me adrift within the company.

My initial reaction this morning, upon realizing that staying in my current role wasn't an option, was to feel cut adrift again.  However, after reflecting for a while, I realized that in the past when I "had" to change roles within a company it always was good for me, and for my career.  I'm adrift, but it is known waters, in sight of the shore.  There is still some anxiety about which part of the shoreline to approach, but either will ultimately be good.

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Mark H. Nichols

I am a husband, cellist, code prole, nerd, technologist, and all around good guy living and working in fly-over country. You should follow me on Twitter.