Author Topic: Question About Contract Engineering Work  (Read 3747 times)

purplepants

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Question About Contract Engineering Work
« on: November 06, 2014, 12:37:38 PM »
Recently, I have been thinking about leaving my full-time job and looking for work on a contract basis.  I'm wondering if anyone has any insight into the pros and cons of that type of employment.

Here's the deal.  I'm an engineer, and while I'm capable of doing the work, I really don't enjoy it.  I've changed jobs four times in the past four years (either changing companies, or changing roles) and I usually feel OK in the first few months after the change.  I've got new processes to learn, new challenges, new ideas.  But after a couple of months I burn out hard.  I start to feel really apathetic and distracted, and spend more of my time on the MMM forums and less time working.  The fact that nobody even seems to notice whether I'm doing work or not makes me feel even more apathetic as I realize that most of my job is busywork that nobody cares about anyway.

I'd leave engineering altogether if it didn't pay so much better than anything else I'm qualified for.  My hair is still on fire to the tune of about $50,000 in student loans and I want to get those paid off before I change careers. 

I don't need the benefits offered through my company, as my husband has very good benefits through his career.  I'm wondering if starting to look for shorter term contract engineering positions through contract houses such as Aerotek might be a little more lucrative and provide me the opportunity to change roles more frequently.

Thoughts?

Retireme32

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #1 on: November 06, 2014, 12:59:30 PM »
purplepants.  Aside from the fact that your screen name is featuring my favorite color, I feel that we are definitely kindred spirits.   I am right there with you!  I am an engineer as well and have faced the same issues - I am not quite ready to say I don't want to be an engineer but more-so that I am very discontent with the types of projects I've been given mainly b/c they are profit driven and not necessarily the more community-based and innovative stuff I'd like to do.  I too thought of going to contract work.  I think ultimately the answer is being a part of the MMM community, retiring early from your 9 to 5 as soon as possible so that you can figure out what you really want to do with your life.  That is my plan as well.  I am currently deciding between two jobs to make sure that I can get to that finish line as soon as possible. HOWEVER - when you are young, and the finish line might be a little further away than you can handle from a boredom and apathy perspective, you also have to make the present time as pleasant as possible which means, like you said - looking for different opportunities.  Contract work may be an answer.  And I agree that the engineering salary is hard to give up if you're looking toward FI.  I recently saw a website for contract work called flexjobs.com - had some interesting engineering jobs on it.  The other thing is if you do that, maybe build up a clientele and possible do consultant work independently then maybe you can afford to choose what you do more -again, being aware of how that affects FI.  Good luck.  YOu are not alone!

pzxc

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #2 on: November 06, 2014, 01:01:41 PM »
I'm going to assume you are a software engineer / programmer.  I don't think you will be very successful as a 1099 civil engineer freelancer.  :)

Sounds like you are very young. When you say, "The fact that nobody even seems to notice whether I'm doing work or not makes me feel even more apathetic as I realize that most of my job is busywork that nobody cares about anyway", you *almost* got the right conclusion.  The right conclusion is that MOST PEOPLE's jobs are busywork that nobody cares about anyway. Or, to be more accurate, most people's jobs are about 20% real work that is actually productive, and 80% doing stupid shit like having meetings, surfing the net, chatting at the watercooler, sending emails, filling out paperwork, etc etc.

Your boss has already figured out that most people waste a lot of time at work - it's the nature of office work.  And it's especially the nature of "knowledge" work like IT -- productivity comes in spurts, when you're "in the zone".  Nobody can be productive 40 hours a week unless they're on Adderall.  Your boss knows this, so he doesn't hassle you when it seems like you're not working because most of your coworkers aren't getting that much work done either.

One thing you've got going for you, is that it *bothers* you when you're not being productive or when nobody cares whether you are or not.  I'm the same way.  All you have to do is make sure your boss is aware of what you're producing/delivering.  CC him on those emails where your customer thanks you for the good job you did, etc. Let me tell you -- it won't take much to impress your boss because most people spend a lot of the day playing games on facebook, or surfing the net, or even just sitting at their desks doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.  And the opposite works too, after a while of people figuring out that you are actually one of the more productive workers, more work will end up landing on your desk, and then you can start CC'ing your boss on requests that come in so your boss knows how busy you are and can play interference if needed to keep you from getting overwhelmed or burned out.

From the way you write -- I can feel the frustration in your words -- it sounds like you and I are a lot alike.  Although many people would consider it arrogant of me to think that I am one of them (and I do), when it comes to programming there really are the 5x, 10x or more guys that can just code circles around most of their teammates, even the ones that have been programming for decades.  It's just part of the game, there are some people that are naturally good at it, to the point where they can outproduce "normal" workers by orders of magnitude.

You have to find your own ways to keep yourself in balance.  I've been at this a while, and figured out how much time is wasted by most people who work in cubicles, and so I don't feel a shred of guilt that I'm on the clock while I'm sitting here typing out this reply to you.  Because no one can work at full speed all the time, you need breaks, plus you need time for your subconscious to work on difficult problems that your conscious mind is having trouble grappling, plus you need time to stay up-to-date and familiarized with the latest tools and techniques of your craft, etc etc.

There are some days when I literally get ZERO work done.  Sometimes that's because other people need my help, or want my opinion and so request I attend a meeting, or whatnot. And sometimes it's because I am working on a really difficult project and am stuck on a particular infuriating part of it (or debugging some especially devious bug) and need to let my subconscious work out an elegant solutions.  And sometimes I just don't feel very productive, and end up spending the whole day reading MMM and HN (hacker news).

It's okay. Take a deep breath.  If you work in a cubicle farm, listen to your coworkers -- how many of them are typing right now?  I bet it's a small percentage of the number of people in cubicles near you, and you can hear them if they type, they're just not working.  Even if they're programmers. (Especially if they're programmers).  Don't sweat it.

I have come to the realization that my brain is valuable for my employer to have on tap. That doesn't mean it has to deliver output for 40 hours a week.  It just means I need to be *AVAILABLE* for 40 hours a week.  Fortunately, I have bosses that used to be programmers themselves so they understand, and they don't watch what time I show up at the office or what time I head out.  There *are* good bosses like that.  If you have a shitty boss or a shitty job that just demands too much of you, look for something else.  Programmers / software engineers are in extremely high demand right now, it won't be hard to find a better job if you really hate this one.  But just make sure the job you have is actually shitty, don't just leave simply because you've become used to it (hedonic adaptation) and so the "newness factor" has worn off and it's no longer exciting because it's no longer new -- then changing jobs will, as you've found out, only make you happy for a few months and you will end up right back in the same spot.

And if you're an electrical, mechnical, civil or aerospace engineer, ignore everything I just said. As it's not really the same. :)

Hope this helps you!

pzxc

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #3 on: November 06, 2014, 01:06:43 PM »
Oh, I forgot to address the freelancing part.

It's toughest at the start -- building a list of established clients that will keep feeding you more work.  Once you have a decent client list, you will never run out of work.  If you quit your job without a list of clients that are *already* giving you work, you will find it very stressful to try and pay the bills during the months you're building up your clientele.

I *strongly recommend* you get at least 3 clients, who like the work you do and have given you multiple projects that they were happy with and who intend to give you more in the future, before you even THINK about quitting your W-2 employment and becoming a full-time contractor.  And really 3 clients is too low -- you should probably get to the point where you have at least 10-20 hours per week of work ON THE SIDE (outside your job), before you quit.  But if you're really going insane with your employer, and think freelancing might be your next thing, definitely get at least 3 clients first MINIMUM.  And not just one-off clients, but clients who will keep feeding you week after week, month after month.

Even better, is to gradually slide into the role -- get a few clients, then see if your employer will let you alter your schedule, either doing 40 hours in four days instead of five, or even going down to part-time work -- then getting more clients -- then finally quitting your regular job once you no longer have time for it because you're so busy with the side projects.

Jack

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #4 on: November 06, 2014, 01:42:54 PM »
Sounds like you are very young. When you say, "The fact that nobody even seems to notice whether I'm doing work or not makes me feel even more apathetic as I realize that most of my job is busywork that nobody cares about anyway", you *almost* got the right conclusion.  The right conclusion is that MOST PEOPLE's jobs are busywork that nobody cares about anyway. Or, to be more accurate, most people's jobs are about 20% real work that is actually productive, and 80% doing stupid shit like having meetings, surfing the net, chatting at the watercooler, sending emails, filling out paperwork, etc etc.

Your boss has already figured out that most people waste a lot of time at work - it's the nature of office work.  And it's especially the nature of "knowledge" work like IT -- productivity comes in spurts, when you're "in the zone".  Nobody can be productive 40 hours a week unless they're on Adderall.  Your boss knows this, so he doesn't hassle you when it seems like you're not working because most of your coworkers aren't getting that much work done either.

One thing you've got going for you, is that it *bothers* you when you're not being productive or when nobody cares whether you are or not.  I'm the same way.  All you have to do is make sure your boss is aware of what you're producing/delivering.  CC him on those emails where your customer thanks you for the good job you did, etc. Let me tell you -- it won't take much to impress your boss because most people spend a lot of the day playing games on facebook, or surfing the net, or even just sitting at their desks doing ABSOLUTELY NOTHING.

I've been hearing people say this for years, and I believe it but I have a hard time accepting it. I do a lot of slacking off and feel guilty about it. Some of the people in my office also appear to slack off, but others (including people who I'm sure know what they're doing) appear to be on-task pretty much all the time. Yet, somehow, both me and them get our tasks done mostly on time (and neither gets their tasks done super-early). I start to wonder if I'm just getting too much time scheduled to complete my tasks, but then when the next sprint planning comes around and I try to estimate lower I get told that I'm estimating too low. I just don't understand.

On one hand, I kind of like having all this time at work to read Slashdot and MMM -- and being a natural procrastinator, I might do so at the cost of my work if the deadlines were tighter -- but on the other hand, I feel like I'm not doing a good job even though nobody's complained. If this is "normal," how do I make myself feel better about it?

Mother Fussbudget

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #5 on: November 06, 2014, 01:55:34 PM »
Don't know where you're located purplepants, but in the Pacific NW, there are many consulting firms (Deloitt, iSoftStone, Accenture, HarveyNash, others) where you can work as an 'employee' of the consulting firm, and they farm you out as a contractor to other companies. I think of myself as a 'tech-whore' - the consulting firm (my pimp) bills me at $X, and I make 62% of $X for doing the actual 'wet work' ;-)   

The best points of being a consulting firm FTE are: 
a) full-benefits through the consulting firm,
b) hourly pay - you get paid some % or $$ amount based on your billable hours,
c) variety - you get to work for a broad range of businesses who are all having the same types of IT issues,
d) you make great contacts at various companies, and
e) you build up your understanding of the contracting field, and how you might DIY the process by forming your own company.

purplepants

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #6 on: November 06, 2014, 02:05:21 PM »
Don't know where you're located purplepants, but in the Pacific NW, there are many consulting firms (Deloitt, iSoftStone, Accenture, HarveyNash, others) where you can work as an 'employee' of the consulting firm, and they farm you out as a contractor to other companies. I think of myself as a 'tech-whore' - the consulting firm (my pimp) bills me at $X, and I make 62% of $X for doing the actual 'wet work' ;-)   


Yes!  This is the kind of arrangement I've been thinking of.  I was heavily recruited for these contract jobs when I was younger, but couldn't take them because I needed the decent benefits that came along with a regular full-time position.

MissPeach

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #7 on: November 06, 2014, 02:07:53 PM »
I have thought about this too. I have previously worked for a consulting firm. A few years ago I wanted to move to a place where most IT was on contract; there were very few full time jobs. I see a mix where I live now of both.

When you say contract there are a few variations I have seen (assuming tech work):
1. Working for a consulting firm/having a consulting firm
2. Taking 3-6 month+ contract work

For #1, I typically had to be on the client's site. I have seen very few WFH jobs. This usually involved a lot of travel which not everyone can/wants to do. I worked for a firm. When work dried up in my geographical area, I had to either commute across the country or quit and take a local job. If you have your own firm, you have to go in an close on these clients. One question I always ask consulting companies is what they do when there is no work for a consultant. Everyone handles this differently.

For #2, this is your choice if you don't need benefits. You will get paid a higher hourly rate (and usually OT since it's an hourly rate) but whether it's W-2 or 1099 will impact your taxes and your options for 401K. Many of the contractors on W-2 (at least the ones I've talked to) don't give contractors access to a 401K so that impacts your taxable income as you will not be able to fund a 401K. Many tech fields pay too high to utilize an IRA/Roth so that may not be an option too. If you are 1099 you can create your own (i.e., SEP IRA) and stash away even more but you have to pay the other half of FICA (also called self employment tax). So you tax bill is likely higher from that.Other than that, you need to be comfortable constantly looking for a new job, interviewing, etc.


pzxc

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #8 on: November 06, 2014, 02:40:19 PM »
I've been hearing people say this for years, and I believe it but I have a hard time accepting it. I do a lot of slacking off and feel guilty about it. Some of the people in my office also appear to slack off, but others (including people who I'm sure know what they're doing) appear to be on-task pretty much all the time. Yet, somehow, both me and them get our tasks done mostly on time (and neither gets their tasks done super-early). I start to wonder if I'm just getting too much time scheduled to complete my tasks, but then when the next sprint planning comes around and I try to estimate lower I get told that I'm estimating too low. I just don't understand.

On one hand, I kind of like having all this time at work to read Slashdot and MMM -- and being a natural procrastinator, I might do so at the cost of my work if the deadlines were tighter -- but on the other hand, I feel like I'm not doing a good job even though nobody's complained. If this is "normal," how do I make myself feel better about it?

It's all in your head.  You can feel better about it just by giving yourself permission to feel better about it.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impostor_syndrome

Spondulix

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #9 on: November 08, 2014, 03:24:36 AM »
If you switch to contract, would you be working from home or still going into offices? Both DH and I have switched from employee to contractor and points in our careers, and if it the work isn't something you're really passionate about, it's even harder to stay focused from home.

I used to alternate from Energizer Bunny to burnt out. Like another poster mentioned, it is a question of learning to regulate your energy so that you can work consistently. Although, I'm sure the work varies from fun (when you're solving problems) to pretty monotonous when you're just fixing bugs. So it's good to know what it is about both parts that keeps you motivated and what drags you down. (A couple good books on this topic - "Your Brain at Work" by David Rock, and "Find Your Focus Zone" by Mary Jo Palladino)

Tyler

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Re: Question About Contract Engineering Work
« Reply #10 on: November 08, 2014, 11:33:55 AM »
I'm a mechanical engineer and have dealt with the same issues. For maximum variety, you have a few options:

1) Interview for new jobs every few years. Job-hopping used to be frowned upon, but for engineers specifically in places like Silicon Valley (where the average job duration at any one company is only two years) it's now the norm. The upside is the salary growth. The downside is burnout and never feeling settled.

2) Join a large company where you can switch departments regularly. Nice and stable, but the downside is the bureaucracy.

3) Join a small engineering consultancy where they do NOT farm out their employees. There are a few cool companies out there that larger ones hire to solve tough or creative problems. They can be hard to get into, though, and can often require long hours.

4) Join a placement company.  The upside is variety. The downside is that you'll always be on the bottom of the totem pole wherever you're placed and will probably get a lot of crap work the full-timers don't want.

5) Get your own clients and work for yourself. I've seen a lot of people make this work, and a lot that tire of always having to dig up new work. It can be very stressful if you don't have solid clients in place (although a more traditionally employed spouse helps a lot).

No matter what path(s) you choose (I've alternated between 1 and 3), it's important to keep a good attitude and to remember that your happiness is ultimately your responsibility and not your employer's. Learn to pace yourself when you're motivated but overworked, and to challenge yourself when you're unmotivated and bored.
« Last Edit: November 08, 2014, 11:55:01 AM by Tyler »