In which we discuss our ideas about software development & technology consulting.

Follow up on 'Consultants vs. Employees'

Back in October, my post on estimating the hourly costs of employees and comparing them to consultants got some traction on Hacker News. That was cool, and of course lots of people took issue with my un-scientific (did I ever bill it as anything but?) approach. As always, having an opinion on the internet is a dangerous game, and making a nuanced argument all the more so.

Consultants (apparently) have a bad name, and as a sensitive soul, the exposure has made me very self conscious about what I do for a living. So please, without further ado, accept my lame justifications for being me.

In no particular order, here are my responses to some of the issues people had with my argument:

1. "But consultants DO charge for bathroom breaks!"

Oh man.

My original post was written from my perspective as a Rails developer with a nine-year career starting or working in technology consulting firms. I started my first company, Mako Interactive, before I graduated college. I haven't done much differently since. As a result, I apparently live in my own little bubble.

And in that bubble, we just don't bill for taking a shit.

This response, however, taught me that lots of folks out there think consultants are exclusively interested in money - so much so that they'd be dishonest in their pursuit of it.

My career as a developer has always been driven as much by a desire to make a living as it has by curiosity and a love of engineering. Consulting is fun and profitable for people who just want to code. People who want to be the next Steve Jobs are fundamentally different from us, and they take different paths (for more of my thoughts on the subject, see my earlier post about risk profiles of consultants vs. entrepreneurs).

2. "But people don't get 20 paid vacation days in the US!"

Again; bubble. We like it in here. It's warm!

3. "But consultants don't care enough / don't have skin in the game!"

I assume by "skin the game," people mean their living is on the line. But it's a fairly well-understood precept that money is not, by itself, a motivator.

Even if it were, why would you expect money to motivate employees but de-motivate consultants?

But maybe people meant "skin in the game" as a sense of ownership or pride in your work. In which case, much like 1. and 2. above, I live in my polite little bubble where we do our work because we take pride in creating value for our clients and we love what we do. If we didn't, we wouldn't do it at all.

A lead developer, which is what I was laying out costs for in my original post, is someone who is personally invested ("intrinsically" motivated, you might say) in the client's project. They spend time understanding the why and how of a feature request, and if they're really good at their job, they'll also push the client to rethink some of their assumptions about those requests. They'll provide more than a technical perspective; they'll become a "why is this important?" foil for the choices a client has made before too much money has been invested in those choices.

Simply put, a consultant that doesn't have their own skin in the game will never be a productive consultant, and probably won't last long in that career as a result.

4. "But consultants bill for meetings, too!" and "but if you don't have meetings / plan stuff, things will go wrong!"

Excellent point! And it really solidifies for me that I have to, someday, write down my thoughts on project management.

Truth: consultants absolutely do bill for meetings, but ideally we bill for one project manager to attend a meeting and not for the three or four other developers who will be involved in implementation to attend the same meeting.

The goal for the rest of the team is to be able to take a story off of Pivotal or Sprintly and implement it even if they don't understand the system they're building it in. I realize that's a radical notion, but I've worked on projects operating that smoothly. In my experience, a very well-run team is capable of being productive without burning a lot of time on explanations. That all comes down, however, to project management.

Which brings us to my favorite criticism, #5:

5. "But consultants shouldn't be your whole company!"

"I'm not saying you shouldn't hire an employee to help build your product," reads my conclusion. But I don't blame you for skipping nuance, The Internet.

Instead, let me say that if you don't know A. how to code, or B. how to manage a development team, you really don't have a choice. You need to pay someone to manage your team and you need to pay that team to build your product. Anything else will end in tears.

6. "But you have a vested interest in consulting!"

Duh. I posted a blog post on my company's blog, guy. Did you think I would tell you not to hire consultants? More to the point, do you think I could really co-run a company where I felt like hiring us wasn't a good idea?

At some point along the way, we all seem to have agreed that "turning a profit" and "being a human" can't go hand-in-hand, and that's a real damn shame.

Yes, I write interesting blog posts because they create visibility for my company. They also demonstrate that we're the kind of company that thinks about lots of things and, hopefully, assures people who are worried about employing a consultant that we're not evil; just a company that plays by everyone (except the Hacker News startup pundits') rules, which is to say, we have to turn a profit and it's not because we want to impress investors.

7. "You're wrong because interest rates in France are different from that thing you said!"

My bad.


I opened my post with a rather un-subtle reference to the Tragedy of the Commons in an attempt to make it clear that I know fleecing people is an unsustainable way of doing business. That was an ... idealistic choice.

But thanks everyone for the feedback all the same! And if you'd care to share more, follow the conversation on Hacker News .


Flip Sasser

Flip is a principal and lead designer at Back Forty.