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I'm trying to work something out which isn't quite covered in any of the other "contractor vs employee" threads. In a nutshell: Is there a natural (possibly even hard-wired and inborn) tendency for people to be meant for one or the other?

A bit of background: I suffered a serious burnout over the past couple of years and am taking a sabbatical this year to think things over. With all the reflection I'm coming to the conclusion more and more that I'm just not cut out for the permanent, salaried kind of life. Essentially, I think I just don't have the "employee mentality". No matter how good a job is, I just seem to have some visceral, deep-seated need to move around and not be tied down to the same scenery. I'm great in the first year or two when things are fresh, but after that, it just starts to feel really boring and obnoxious to be stuck in the same routine, looking at the same code base, etc, no matter how good the job seems on paper. Most people seem to get into a groove where the stability compensates for any "contempt of familiarity" or boredom, but for me it's almost the opposite.

This answer to one of my other questions (broadly related to this subject) really got my attention: it feels like I could basically be what they call a "hunter" type, a kind of "slow motion ADHD" case. I'm great at focusing on things I'm really interested in, and I'm not afraid of working hard. But it has to come packaged with a beginning, progression and end - on a short to midterm time frame. The typical salaried environment, which in software development generally means open-ended "maintenance mode", very quickly does my head in, after the first year or two in a new job. I start losing motivation and focus, and eventually slide into burnout.

So basically what I'm asking is - do you think this farmer versus hunter theory is real? Not necessarily in a formal clinical psychiatric sense, but just from your subjective experiences? I'd especially like to hear from contractors, or people who have done both. Are you doing it simply because the opportunity is good, and you could do the same job permanently everything else being the same. Or do you have this feeling/mentality like me - that being tied down in the same scenery would drain your soul?

Related question: Do people generally stick with one or the other? Or do they do both? It seems to me that most people are either employees or contractors/consultants for most of their careers, and that an overlap who do both at will is quite small. I can't find any data to back this up, it's just an impression I've got - and I find it very curious - because it seems to lend support for this idea that people just naturally/viscerally seem to have tendencies to shine in one or the other "model" of working.

EDIT: Thanks for the responses. I think it's quite true that what burns me out is an underlying feeling of dissatisfaction with working for someone else in a typical "command and control" business environment. All the jobs I've ever had were permanent gigs which basically fit that pattern - developers treated like factory workers (some places worse than others, but always essentially true) - eg. doing what you're told without much autonomy or self-actualizing purpose. That said, I think I'll still look into doing contracting to see how it works for me compared with permanent gigs. It's probably not perfect, but I think the independence would at least keep things interesting - it took a long time in the same rut before it got to this point where I burned out and became too dysfunctional to work at all. Constant lateral movement may at least keep it under control.

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closed as off topic by Yannis Rizos Mar 7 '12 at 5:57

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I have seen plenty of contract jobs last more than two years...but I suppose you could always turn down really big jobs. –  Pemdas Apr 10 '11 at 2:30
    
You can 'take a year off'?! Nice. I think if rent or even food was at stake your opinion might start to change quickly. Yeah working often sucks. That why they pay you. We'd all like to be doing more fun stuff than most of our regular jobs, even if we like them :) –  junky Mar 7 '12 at 6:26
    
@Yannis Really? This question is off topic almost a year after it was asked? Serious? –  Chuck Conway Mar 7 '12 at 7:02
    
@ChuckConway Career advice is off topic, and we are cleaning up questions as part of the career structured cleanup. –  Yannis Rizos Mar 7 '12 at 7:04
    
@junky: I'm a bit of a "simple living" nut. Not a hardcore hippy or anything, but I live pretty simply by first world standards. So after 10 years of being on a professional salary while living on essentially minimum wage expenses - I had some savings. As well as some investments which I could liquify. :) –  Bobby Tables Mar 14 '12 at 3:36

4 Answers 4

up vote 7 down vote accepted

It is not the same scenery that drains your soul, it's slavery of working for someone else's profit, in a typical business environment. If regardless of your productivity your master leaves you only a fixed part of your product, you are neither hunter nor farmer, you are a slave.

I am a bit exaggerating of course, but think about it: even though in the modern world fixed-pay jobs are voluntary and in most cases are satisfactory in terms of paying your bills and feeding your family, still from the evolutionary point of view you are a hunter (or a farmer) whose excess product goes to someone else.

I think in the end it's our lower-level animal/hunter/gatherer brain that revolts against this.

Something interesting AND rewarding can keep any hunter, gatherer, farmer, butcher, clown - whoever, busy for years at the same place. We, programmers, are a creative type (clowns?), but unfortunately for us the majority of software companies are built upon the principles of assembly line production. Many of us simply don't belong there.

I think a best response to the old world is startups. Join a startup, or better start a startup with like-minded creative people you trust, and share the profit with them.

Some background: took me about 20 years of working here and there, hunting for the job of my dream until I've come to this conclusion: creativity of workers dies where there is an assembly line controlled by a hierarchy of non-workers.

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You're right. It's kind of the elephant in the room - it's more about working for someone else, and getting the corporate drone treatment - than anything else. I guess what attracts me to contracting is that it's a bit of a mercenary style of working, so at least in that sense it feels like I'd be some kind of independent agent instead of a fully owned slave. I'm still on my post-burnout sabbatical, but I'll definitely be looking at joining/starting a startup next. Though first I'll probably look at doing short term contracts, just to see if being a short term mercenary feels better than FTE. –  Bobby Tables Apr 10 '11 at 20:58
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Man, I absolutely and wholeheartedly agree with you. I've come to the same conclusion after just a few years of having worked for somebody. I guess you had the happy time being at the start of many things many years ago when everything looked rosy. Nowadays it's lost its romanticism, it's become cold emotionless business. –  user8685 Apr 26 '11 at 22:41

Ask yourself what caused the burn out. Was it the work itself, the hours, or external influences like a sense that you weren't achieving life goals.

Next ask yourself what your goals actually are. That's a really really tough question to answer, so don't feel pressured if you can't list them all now.

The difference between a contractor and perm member of staff will not necessarily make the sources of your burn out easier to deal with. I've been both in the last few years and the differences are fairly minimal. If you think that switching jobs every 6 months will make you happier, there's a good chance your dissatisfaction is coming from somewhere else.

This can be complicated, but it could be life stuff; being single when you'd prefer not to be, living in a horrible house or area, not having as many friends as you would like. Things like feeling old, wondering what the point is of doing all this, what are you achieving.

I don't know what your money situation is like or how old you are, but that can be an issue too. If you have debts, make plans to clear them as soon as possible.

If you can, it's worth talking these things through with a therapist, that doesn't mean you're mad, but they will have spoken with dozens of people working through the same issues and can help with short cuts.

There are a lot of good books on burn out, but I'd probably recommend something like "How To Get What You Want And Want What You Have" which is by John Gray (The men are from mars book guy). I recommend it because it's quite light but will introduce you to the two sides of the problem. to wit, getting what you want, AND wanting what you have.

Try and figure out how long this has been going on for as well. It may have been longer or shorter than you imagine. It's probably worth getting an assessment for depression as well. Again it's the sort of thing that can affect you for years slowly wearing you down, it doesn't have to be a big smack in the face with a dead pony.

Finally I'll just say, it sounds like you're on the verge of something exciting, although it might feel tiring and scary. Don't try and deal with it all yourself, you need outside perspectives (well done for coming here). We can be our own worst enemy if left to our own devices.

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I think you're right about the dissatisfaction coming from somewhere else. I guess what attracts me to contracting (especially short term stints) is that it feels like I'd be a kind of "independent mercenary", rather than feeling like a fully owned corporate slave. eg. "If I don't like it, it's over in a few months anyway.". What mojuba said seems to be exactly what I've been subconsciously dodging - I suppose because it's just easier and safer to coast along in normal fulltime jobs than to make something of yourself (startup, own business, etc). At least now I finally know. :) –  Bobby Tables Apr 10 '11 at 21:25
    
Makes a lot of sense. Do be careful of the "Independent mercenary" mindset though. It's a good way to isolate yourself and that will make problems worse. –  Ian Apr 11 '11 at 10:02

I think I just don't have the "employee mentality". No matter how good a job is, I just seem to have some visceral, deep-seated need to move around and not be tied down to the same scenery. I'm great in the first year or two when things are fresh, but after that, it just starts to feel really boring and obnoxious to be stuck in the same routine, looking at the same code base, etc, no matter how good the job seems on paper.

I have had been in software development for almost 26 years. I started out as an employee of a software firm that hired out their employees to their customers. After nine years of that I moved to contracting through agencies and then contracting as a fully self-employed worker. Finally I moved back to working as a salaried worker. Misfired with two jobs. But got third lucky. I have now been with that company for four years and have no intention or inclination of leaving.

All this just to lead up to: I was exactly like you: no "zitvlees" (sitting flesh / staying power). The four years with my current employer is an absolute record to date. The two jobs just prior lasted two years and all projects before that (including the ones through my first employed software development job of nine years) never lasted more than a year. And it suited me perfectly.

I might even say that you have more staying power than I have, because normally it would take only about 3 months before I had a good feel for the stuff I was working on and the boredom would start to creep in.

You could say it took me 22 years to find the right job...

You could also say that after 22 years I have finally settled down...

I say it took me 22 years to figure out what I find important and to recognize it when it came onto my path. I have found that I find the people, the atmosphere, and the general mentality / culture in a company way more important than my day-to-day activities. Doesn't mean I would be happy stacking boxes in such a company. I still have my "hunter" type mentality. The mental challenge and variety are a (very!) close second. Actually, they are on-par. I would not do without either. And therefore I count myself incredibly lucky to have found an employer where I find almost everything I find important:

  • a code base in which I can move around. After four years there are still many parts I haven't even seen yet!
  • a small enough team that I can express my interest in certain issues and usually get to work on what I am interested in. It helps that my employer believes in knowledge sharing, it means that I get a chance to work on stuff I haven't seen before instead of being restricted to the parts I have worked on.
  • many interesting, funny, kind, co-workers with a good sense of humor.
  • few "ego's".
  • a couple of direct colleagues that are way above average and are willing to coach / teach.
  • similar priorities when it comes to quality, maintainability, robustness,
  • a general mentality of always trying to improve the product, as well as the way we work.
  • a believe that there is no shame in making an error, provided that having made one, you take steps to learn from it and prevent that same mistake happening again.
  • ... more.

Knowing what I find important, I also know what "threathens" it. What has changed is that instead of running (like I have done in the past) I will address the (perceived) "threat" early and if I can't make it "go away", I will try to at least soften the impact it has on me. In that respect, yes, I have developed more staying power. Albeit perhaps out of necessity. Jobs that are such a close match as the one I have now, are few and far between and thus worth trying to keep them as much a match as possible.

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My career has been just about evenly divided between contractor and FTE positions. It seems to me that most contractors fall into two types. The first type are those for whom contracting is a better fit for their situation or lifestyle. For some, it is much like what you're describing with the need to not be tied down to one place. They like variety and frequent changes, much as you describe yourself.

For others, they don't have a need for the benefits that come from a full time position. They have a spouse that provides the benefits or they are single and young with little in the way benefit concerns. People in this group are those who prefer the convenience that contracting provides.

The other group, which I fell in to, are those who do it out of necessity. Most companies nowadays do not do direct hiring of developers. All of their new staff come via contractors that they convert to full time after they have "tried them out". They have no desire to be contractors but many times are forced to work their way through it because there are far too few other options available to them. Like myself, we must force our way through the time as a contractor in the hopes of a permanent position down the road. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't.

There are those who are open to either kind of position. But in my experience, these people are fairly rare. Most people seem to fall into the other two categories, and often that is determined by their situation. And people's needs and attitudes may change depending on their current situation and the time in their life. For example, a single person working as a contractor gets married and has a kid. Their situation changes, and while they once sought out contract work, they now find they need the benefits and long term stability that an FTE position provides.

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