3 Years of Consulting: Settling into An Unexpected Career
As of this week, it has been 3 years since I last earned a salaried pay check. That means that I’ve been an independent consultant for longer than I was ever a full time employee, which feels like an important milestone.
I figured it was a good opportunity to peel back the curtain a bit and offer a “behind the scenes” look at what life as a consultant has been like for me, and what I imagine the future looks like.
Before I Made the Switch
In the summer of 2013, I joined a startup called Burstworks as their first employee. I had some professional development experience from my time at HubSpot and attempting to build a few of my own companies.
Joining Burstworks with the two cofounders proved to be an excellent move, and I learned a tremendous amount in my time there. I got to work on a bunch of different technologies – building web applications using python, ruby, lua and PHP – as well as testing out a bunch of different frameworks.
But it wasn’t just vanilla CRUD web applications. We were an ad-tech startup which means we had high-performance ad servers doings thousands of requests per second, and we had tons of data that required a solid pipeline and data warehouse to manage, query and understand.
I also saw the engineering team grow, as we brought on some junior developers from a coding bootcamp. I got to practice some tech leadership and team building – I started a weekly “Tech Talk” series to encourage knowledge sharing. I also started working on some code style guides and git best practices to grease the wheels on the growing dev team.
Outside of engineering, I also learned about goal settings and product management. I got fairly good at the notoriously difficult task of estimating software project deadlines, and started realizing the value of spending time thinking about what you’re building before you write any code.
By January of 2015, I had been at Burstworks a little over a year and a half and we had grown the team to 7 people. Through a series of unfortunate events, we lost several of our sources of revenue around the same time and the founders had to make the tough call to lay everyone off.
It was definitely unexpected, but the timing worked out. My girlfriend had just left the company she was at and we decided to take some time to travel before settling back into the grind and looking for jobs.
I interviewed at several places and got some offers, but I kept thinking about this interview I had seen with Jeff Bezos, where he describes his decision to leave his cushy Wall Street job in order to start the business that would later become amazon.com
The framework I found, which made the decision incredibly easy, was what I called (and only a nerd would call) a “regret minimization framework.” I wanted to project myself forward to age 80 and say, “Okay now I’m looking back on my life. I want to have minimized the number of regrets that I have.”
I knew that when I was 80, I was not going to regret having tried this. I was not going to regret having tried to participate in this thing called the internet, that I thought was going to be a really big deal. I knew that if I failed, I wouldn’t regret that. But I knew the one thing I might regret is not ever having tried, and I knew that that would haunt me every day.
When I thought about it that way, it was an incredibly easy decision.
Because of this tech blog, I had gotten a steady stream of inbound interest for consulting projects when I was still at Burstworks. I had taken them on nights and weekends, but I always wondered what it’d be like to dive in full time.
I had read stories online about people making six-figures and working part time, on their own schedule, from anywhere in the world.
If they could figure it out, why couldn’t I?
I knew it wouldn’t be easy. There’s obviously no steady paycheck when you’re a consultant, and I had heard scary things about paying for your own taxes and health insurance.
But I also knew that if I went back into full time, salaried employment for a company, I’d always wonder what my life would be like if I didn’t give it a try.
And so, I turned down some great offers to strike out on my own.
The Consultant Lifestyle
That was three years ago now, and I haven’t looked back.
I spent the first 3 months of 2017 working from Southeast Asia and have had some months of income where I’ve made several times the amount I’d make as a market-rate, salaried employee.
But the lifestyle isn’t all rosy.
There are months that are tough because you’re overbooked and completely swamped. Then there are months that are even tougher because you unintentionally ended up with no projects or income at all. Being in charge of your schedule can be a blessing and a curse.
There’s a lot of social isolation that comes from not being part of a team that you spend 8 hours a day with. When you build something, you hand it off and don’t get the satisfaction of seeing it grow and mature over time.
Paying your own taxes means sending 4-figure checks to the government every few months which can be brutal if it comes at a bad cashflow time.
Forging My Own Career Path
At a company, there’s always the track of moving up the ladder (Senior, Principal, etc) or moving into management (Tech Lead). One of the tricky parts of consulting is that there’s no clear career path, no obvious “next step” or promotion on the horizon.
It’s also very easy to let your technical skills stagnate.
When I was at Burstworks, there were always new problems that needed solving and I was learning new things all the time since someone had to figure it out. But when a client brings you on, they expect you to already be an expert at what they’re asking you to do.
There isn’t as much room for trying new things or learning new technologies, since you’re generally not hired to work on things you don’t already have expertise in.
I’ve tried to maintain a few side projects to keep my tech knowledge up-to-date. I’ve been working on a few chatbots and machine learnings projects. I’m actively reading books on cybersecurity and web application penetration testing. I’m even offering discounts on my rates for that work to get more projects and experience under my belt.
Another avenue I’m exploring is building up more sources of passive income. I’ve had several ebooks, courses, twitter bots and personal projects that have brought in rent money for the past few years, with almost no effort on my part besides occasional maintenance and support emails (<1hr/week).
If I could grow those 3-5x, I could meaningfully consider walking away from consulting altogether and working on something totally different, even if it doesn’t pay well, knowing that my income level and lifestyle could remain as-is.
Current Plan for 2018
At this point, I’ve settled into a core niche that I’m very happy with: working with non-technical business owners to take their idea from concept to launch.
I’ve done it many times, and I can leverage the skills I’ve learned across dozens of different projects – as well as a common codebase – to get new projects up speed quickly, on-time and on-budget.
The work allows me to wear many hats (which I enjoy) and deliver a ton of values to clients (which they enjoy). Plus I get to work with passionate people and learn about new industries and topics in the process.
The difference between Hartley and the previous developers I have worked with is night and day. — A recent client
In the past year I’ve worked on a number of diverse projects including
- a patent application database for a lawyer
- a marijuana wholesale marketplace
- a psychology & neurology based productivity application
- a dashboard for fleet managers to track their drivers and vehicles
I’m looking forward to working on many more projects over the next year. Be sure to reach out if you think I can help your project or business!
I’m also running an Inner Tube Water Polo league that I recently started with a friend. It’s completely different from any other business or project I’ve been a part of before, and it has been really satisfying, fun work. If you’re in Boston, join us for a season!
After a long hiatus on my blog, I’m planning to write a lot more – sharing what I’m learning with the world. I have an article on personal finance for freelancers that’ll be out soon, and you can expect some more tech related articles as well.