Monday, January 26, 2009

Why Consulting Might Be For You

Last week Greg Raiz and I did a half day version of our workshop on being a design consultant, which we call "Getting Started in Consulting: Being the Best Boss You Ever Had." In this economic climate, I wasn't entirely sure we should be recommending striking out on your own, but there are still some themes that work whatever the current job market.
  • Vacation Days: I don't believe in the American corporate two weeks off per year. Between family commitments and personal days for home emergencies, we are left with almost no time to recover from working hard here in the US. Beside comparable countries, we have the least vacation time of any of them. I know plenty of consultants who never take real time off, because they're too nervous to have down time between jobs; but I think they're not being good bosses for themselves when they live like this. (They would agree.)
  • Skills Development: Employers often talk a lot about skill development, but it's certainly secondary to the job that needs to be done now, or the job an employee was hired to do. Long term, I don't think it pays to stay in one company in the same role. Especially as an interaction designer. The resume looks best with a lot of types of design, lots of products on different platforms, and up-to-date technical skills. Now, as a consultant, one still has to pay for classes or software or take time off to do training -- but it's part of being a good boss for yourself to realize how critical it is to stay up-to-date.
  • Software Purchases: I can't tell you how many employers have quibbled about software I needed to do my job efficiently. Perhaps it's because I'm often doing both statistical work and design work, and that means a bunch of tools, many of which aren't cheap. If you're working for yourself, you don't have any arguments about tools that are necessary, and you're even more motivated to learn to use them well after paying for them.
  • Conferences: Somewhat related to skills development, going to conferences to keep up on hot topics, and just as importantly to network for future work, is a requirement for a consultant. It's not cheap, but with clever planning, it can be combined with vacation time for a less expensive trip. A good small business accountant will yell at a consultant for taking vacations that are not part of work trips.
  • Freedom to Fire Your Client: While you can definitely fire your employer by quitting if you're an employee, your level of freedom to move on from bad work situations will feel much greater if you're a consultant. In interaction design, the level of client and company understanding of what good design means and what processes allow it to happen varies tremendously. One colleague at a Big Name company I interviewed with told me, "The people who don't do well here are the consultants who expect everyone to just want good design, and to want to hear what they have to say." I laughed - I've been in her shoes at companies like that as an ignored employee, and why go back to a bad environment? I'm not sure why she's there, either.
  • Setting Your Own Goals: If you work for yourself, you are forced to do a much more frequent reset on what it is you want to be doing. You have to reinvent yourself more often, and that means checking in on your level of job satisfaction and on what you're interested in learning and doing. I think this is healthy, but some people really just want to pay the bills and aren't interested in introspection, which can be frightening.
  • Staying Fresh:Less obvious than working in multiple design domains, creative types need to re-charge by switching problems around. If you're cranking out specs for the same old stuff year in and year out, you're probably losing your design edge. You have a job, not a career. Do you want a career with legs?
There are good reasons to be in permanent jobs, especially now, but if you're interested in more freedom and constant career growth, consulting might be right for you. It's worth remembering that even if you work as an employee, you're still in control of your career long-term. Don't stick with something miserable just because you've been there a long time. And I'm not saying a good permanent job isn't a wonderful thing too: long-term relationships with a good company cannot be replaced, like family or old college friends.


Boon said...

How does this compare with freelancing? Do you think they're both the same, or do you think consulting is less of a 'hands-on' role?

Lynn said...

Hi Boon,
It is the same, more or less. There are a few different words for things that are more or less similar - freelance, consult, contract. One local colleague distinguishes consulting as "less defined, more open-ended, you go in and help them define what they need doing and also usually do it." He says contracting is "go in after they know what they need and execute for them." Because of that distinction, he says consulting is usually more senior, better paid. But clients don't always think in these terms. is a good site for freelance folks in the web world... check it out.

Anonymous said...

I've been nominally a consultant for the last few years, but this year I'm taking it more seriously - sort of an acccidental resolution. Food for thought, this post.