Saturday, September 16, 2006


Contracting vs. Employment

My career change from employee to independent contractor had a lot of thought behind it. Here, I try to explain what I was thinking.

I'll first dispense with the money question. Yes, contractors generally make more per hour than employees. But that doesn't mean contracting is a way to get rich. While junior- and mid-level contract programmers often do make higher per-hour pay, an employee's pay is more stable. Also, if you put in the time and rise through the ranks in an organization, one can make a lot more money than a contractor.

Money wasn't the motivating factor for me to switch from employee to contractor. What I really wanted was the opportunity to work with other people. I've been a professional programmer for about fourteen years, and I feel like I'm just starting to get good at it. I'm not going to get better working with the same people on the same applications. My old employer didn't provide much variety—in fact, they were striving to eliminate variety. So, working as a contractor gives me the opportunity to work on a lot of different kinds of tasks and to learn some new things.

One thing I'll miss as a contractor is the feeling of being part of a long-lived team. Contractors do become team members, but they are never quite the same as "real employees." It's expected that they will move on, so while their contributions are valued, it is recognized that they are just passing through. No matter how closely they work with the other team members, they are always viewed as outsiders.

The primary motivation for becoming self-employed was the desire for more control over my work and my career. There is a big difference between being assigned work by one's boss versus actively seeking work. As a contractor, one wants work, and has extra incentives to do an especially good job, so that one will be asked to do more work.

Contracting seems like a more "honest" form of labor to me: if the boss likes you, they keep bringing you back; if not, your contract doesn't get renewed. I've worked in several organizations where the known-bad people kept getting shuffled around from manager to manager, with higher-level managers asking "Can you do anything with this guy?" Contractors just don't get invited back if they are no good. The good ones are invited back time and time again. I hope to receive a lot of invitations.

It's also fun to think of oneself as a "small business owner" as opposed to an employee. I am the majority shareholder of a corporation, and I am also the CEO, CFO, and Chairman of the Board. I don't understand why so many people work so hard to try to rise to top of a corporation; it only costs $170 (in Georgia) to get all those titles. I have dreams of hiring employees and becoming a big business, but even as a one-person company, I enjoy the freedom of setting my own hours, setting my own expectations for performance, and setting my own vacation policy (which is very liberal).

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