Note: this post comes to you with a light heart and a warm smile. Some of my closest friends are contractors and they are fantastic at what they do. Therefore, please keep an open mind to both sides of the story when reading this.
…Also, I originally intended to do a single post on the subject. However, after pestering two of my contractor friends to death, I thought I would approach this differently. Therefore, Part I is written from my point of view and Part II will be in their “own words”. Enjoy!
The Contractor (a.k.a. “independent” or “subcontractor”) can be a hotly debated role. Some clients associate negative feelings with this career path. Others are happy to have lighter wallets. And those that get the right combination of skill sets and price feel like they’ve hit the Holy Grail with Contractors. In the end, just like with Consultants, Contractors can be hit or miss.
But let’s back up a second. Some of you may be wondering what a Contractor is…and how do they differ from Consultants?
In a nutshell, a contractor is an independent consultant. Most of those from America (note that I’m intentionally excluding offshore contractors from this post, as that is a whole other animal) exhibit the following traits:
- Do not work for any multi-person company (although most of them are “incorporated” for tax and liability purposes)
- May work under 1099 forms (self-employed), if they are not incorporated
- Are responsible for their own work or subcontract through a firm
- Do not get the benefits offered to those working for a multi-person company (holidays, PTO, 401K, health, etc.)
- Get paid more than your average Consultant, per hour, for the same job
So how do they find work? Some Contractors develop a strong bond with a single client and stay there for years. I’ve worked at plenty of clients where it was hard to distinguish the Contractors from the employees – some had even been there longer than the employees. Those Contractors are really like the employees – they have their own cubicles, badges, bosses, computers, etc., except that their hours are capped since they are paid on an hourly basis. Sounds like a perfect gig, right?
Why would clients pay more for a Contractor (vs. an employee)? Contractors, like Consultants, offer a specialized skill set that is hard to hire. At several of the government clients I’ve worked for, Contractors were plentiful. Why? My theory is that government firms don’t traditionally pay well for these roles. They may offer great benefits, but the wages are generally low. So Contractors are hired to supplement skill sets that these firms simply can’t hire in at the established (“fixed”) salary ranges. And since the market demands these specialized skill sets, it’s a win-win for Contractors.
I’ve also known many Contractors who subcontract through consulting firms. Yep, you read that correctly. In this highly competitive world of talent, consulting firms don’t have every skill set for every project at all times. So Contractors are treated like temporary employees – hired to ramp up the workforce when demand is high…and not utilized when demand is low. These are called “subcontractors” at consulting firms. As the consulting season is often unpredictable, this staffing model becomes a necessity. But subcontractors come at a premium price, so consulting firms have to use them sparingly. I would imagine that the margin on a subcontractor ranges from 10% to 33%, whereas the margin on a Consultant can be upwards of 33%.
When Contractors are hired through a consulting firm, do clients know whether or not their Consultant is a subcontractor? More than likely not. Subcontractors are often asked to act as if they are part of the consulting company’s firm and they may even have their own email address at the firm. I’m sure there are firms that disclose this information to the customer, but there are many that do not. In all of the firms that I’ve worked for, this has been an off-limits conversation. Consulting firms don’t want to be known for hiring “outsiders”, as they are selling their own experience in the industry and “outsiders” would not be part of that track record.
Discussing Contractor skill sets is where this post becomes a bit tricky to navigate. Contractor skill sets are truly hit or miss, just as Consultant skill sets can be hit or miss. Because Contractors are independent, they don’t necessarily have a company watching them, assessing their performance, and vouching on their behalf. This is why it’s so important to get references in addition to Contractor resumes when hiring one.
In addition, Contractors can lack some of the important benefits that are otherwise gained when working with a company. For instance, if the company has formal partner access to vendor resources, a Contractor would not benefit from this relationship. Consulting firms are often partnered directly with software companies (at least in the line of work that I’m in) and this partnership can create valuable benefits to the employees of that firm. Software demo drives, partner training, and valuable resources are available to partners, in addition to preferential treatment for consulting engagements. Independents don’t have access to this information unless they’ve got a vendor contact “on the inside” or consulting friends who have access to that information and are willing to share (which is generally against the consulting firm’s policies).
Finally, Contractors may lack a couple of key elements that make consulting firms great:
- A methodology built from many hands
- Knowledge sharing
A methodology is a strategy for approaching a project and it usually incorporates standardized methods, processes, documentation, and successfully proven solutions. The methodology at consulting firms is generally built from the experience of many. This is not to say that Contractors don’t have their own methodology – it’s just that theirs may not be as deep (experienced) or wide (diverse). Sometimes this has minimal impact on a project, and yet sometimes this can make a big difference.
Knowledge sharing, put simply, is the act of sharing information with a group of people. The level at which knowledge sharing occurs is truly different at each consulting firm, but it can be the most valuable asset for a consulting firm. Knowledge is power, and the more knowledge you have, the more efficient you may be able to be. For instance, some firms keep internal databases on commonly known software bugs and/or common solution design approaches. To make this knowledge sharing successful, this information has to be crowd surfed from lots of different people, as there are way too many variables for a single Contractor to keep track of. But wait…can’t a Contractor just ask their consulting friends for that information? It’s generally considered “rude” for Contractors to hit up their industry peers for knowledge that is proprietary to their friend’s firm. And in some cases, this can lead to a lawsuit – it breaks the contract that the Consultant has signed with their firm related to intellectual property and confidentiality. Yes, there are other creative ways that contractors can knowledge share (through blogs, for instance)…it’s just not as direct.
From my personal experience, consulting firms dislike working with Contractors (minus a few notable exceptions). They make less profit off of them and…unless they’ve worked with the person before, they’re just not sure what they’re getting. But it’s not even the unknown and profit issue that drive this dislike…there really are just so many bad stories to tell about Contractors. The firms that I have worked for have subcontracted out many jobs before and out of all of the Contractors used (dozens), only a few are repeatedly staffed. I can probably count them on one hand. Unfortunately, it’s the bad Contractors that give the good ones a bad name.
Why Would Someone Want to be a Contractor?
Being a Contractor has its good and bad. On the positive side, you can take off as much time as you want. I’ve known Independents that literally work half of the year…they make enough to last a full 12 months so they travel a good portion of it.
And, of course, all of my Contractor friends love the money. They may be the sole breadwinner in their household (it’s nice having a stay at home spouse when you’ve got kids), so they work full-time and make enough money for two incomes. Think about it – if the average Consultant in your line of work makes $75/hour (take home) and you charge $125/hour for the same job, then you’re better off (even after taxes, corporation fees, etc.).
Finally, all of my Contractor friends love the freedom. Not only do you have the freedom to choose your projects and your travel destinations, but you also don’t have Big Brother consulting firm breathing down your neck. You can do your own thing, as long as it keeps the client happy. And, if you don’t want to be on a project, you can just say “no” – assuming you have a great reputation. You are in control of your destiny – project technology, travel destinations, project team, etc.
Why Would Someone Not Want to be a Contractor?
Sounds like a good gig, eh? Well…not exactly. And below are the reasons why I have never ventured to become a Contractor myself. Again, the good and the bad…
Contractors have to find all of their own work. And if you’re unknown, this is hard to do. You have to have proven yourself before, have people vouch for you, and you have to be able to adapt to a variety of styles. This can be daunting during turbulent times. During the recession, work slowed in my particular line of work…I saw several Independents convert to formal consulting roles because it was just to hard to find gigs. The uncertainty of finding work can be very daunting.
In addition, many Contractors are responsible for all of their taxes, health care, retirement plans, etc. One of my Contractor friends keeps a separate bank account just for her taxes, as they are quite high. She also has to find affordable health plans for their family when her husband is not working. I sometimes worry about some of the risks she’s taken in the past, due to constrained, “affordable” health care.
Next, you have to handle everything yourself. And when I say everything, I mean everything. This is an overlooked area about Contractors that newbies forget about. As a Contractor, you potentially play every single role on a single project – the sales rep, the project manager, the architect, the junior consultant. This is a very unique skill set that not everyone possesses.
Finally, it’s recommended that Contractors incorporate themselves for liability and tax reasons. This means that you will most likely need a lawyer and have to file paperwork every year. But these two items are minor compared to the real issue here…protecting yourself from liability. Let’s say that you have to back out of a contract early or a project goes sour that you’re on. You can potentially get sued. And if you haven’t incorporated yourself, your client has the right to sue you for your personal assets. If you work for a Consulting firm, you are protected by your firm and, generally speaking, you are not subject to being personally sued. The legal aspect of contracting frankly scares me, and for that reason I prefer to be work under Big Brother.
Why Would a Client Hire a Contractor?
Most of this time this comes down to 2 reasons:
Contractors are cheaper than Consultants, unless your reputation precedes you in the industry (which, in that case, you may charge as much as a Consultant). Think about it this way…although a Consultant potentially takes home $75/hour, their firm may charge $200/hour for them. As a client, you may be weighing that against a $125/hour Contractor. If you’ve got a tight budget, a $75/hour difference is huge. A 3-month engagement results in a $38K difference! Those are not just pennies anymore…
The other common reason is old-fashioned networking. I’ve been told countless stories of Contractors who work for years at a firm because their friends are executives there and are throwing them a bone. In the stories I’ve heard, this does not always end well. Contractors are still more expensive than employees and will have to be cut one day…
If You’re Going to Hire a Contractor…
If you’re a client who’s looking to hire a Contractor, here is my simple advice:
- Ask for references - at least 2
- Interview them well.
- Ask about their experiences on both the technical and soft skills sides. Anecdotes about challenging situations tell a lot about their personality and approach to conflict.
- And…if you’re hiring for a technical gig, find someone who can grill their technical skills well – thousands of dollars can be saved with a simple half hour technical assessment phone call to find out if this candidate really does know their stuff.
- Ask them about similar projects they’ve worked on. Ask for specifics – technology versions, team make-up, specific industry challenges, etc.
- Make sure they’ve been working in this industry for at least several years.
- Ask for examples of past documentation and/or other project work.
- Write up a contract that protects you. If you work for a medium or large sized firm, this shouldn’t be a problem.
- Don’t forget to have them sign an NDA (non-disclosure agreement).
- Do a background check. This is critical.
- Do a drug test. Not as critical, but you’d be surprised…every now and then someone doesn’t pass (Consultants and Contractors alike).
- Provide your own computers, security, and email for them (assuming the gig is long enough). The last thing you want to do is have a Contractor waste unnecessary time trying to get their laptop up to snuff on your environment.
If you’re not able to do the above (or feel uncomfortable about it) and can forego a few dollars, then have a Consulting firm spec out your Contractor for you. And yes, this does happen in real life and probably more often than you think. The better Consulting firms are hard interviewers and they have the experience and expertise to drive a good interview.