Trading off Time and Money by Consulting
How one engineer is taking retirement in installments - Part-Time Profiles in Tech #009
👋 Hey all. It's the 9th edition of Part-Time Profiles in Tech.
Sam Bleckley was a software engineer I actually hired for a six month engagement at a previous role. He was one of the most effective engineers I’ve ever worked with. Despite only being a temporary engagement, he brought expertise and an infusion of knowledge and culture that was invaluable. I also loved his approach to both his craft and intentional lifestyle design. I think you’ll really enjoy his perspectives that are applicable to engineers and non-engineers alike.
Would Life Be Better if You Worked Less? - In addition to spotlighting yours truly, the WSJ is doing a lot of reporting around changing work norms. I love that it highlights that it can be a competitive advantage for businesses as well.
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Sam Bleckley is a consulting software engineer, designer, and artist working out of Grand Rapids, Michigan.
What’s your experience with part-time work?
In 2017 I was working at an agency, doing what they called "software consulting" but what was more realistically staff augmentation: clients needed people to write code, and we provided. I enjoyed the work and the people but was growing more and more frustrated by trying to use code to solve problems whose root cause was design, management, or process. I looked at the rates the agency charged clients for my time and determined that if I went out on my own, I could charge less and earn more. I quit and went freelance.
My work now is properly "consulting" -- I still write plenty of code, but I also improve processes, make product recommendations, and guide managerial practice. I try to work with teams that are small enough that I can have access to the entire hierarchy, from boots-on-the-ground developers to the CEO. Being present at each level lets me see and push back in moments where fear, pride, confusion, and other murky sentiments are driving team behavior rather than relying on effective and sustainable processes.
I don't take long contracts. Contracts shorter than 6 months allow me to be focused and intense, with a clear deadline for truly resolving clients' problems rather than implementing stop-gap after stop-gap. I tend not to return to the same client for multiple contracts unless they start new initiatives or face new issues. My goal is always to provide as much value as I can in the first go-through, and not need to go back.
That means I have to do more sourcing, but it also means I get great word-of-mouth recommendations, which has made the work pretty easy to sustain at the rate I need it.
Why is working part-time important to you?
It is very important to know who you are without your job. Spending time not working is the easiest way to find out.
My original motivation to go freelance was for the power to choose my clients and the freedom to advise those clients more broadly than I could as "just" a software developer. One of the other major benefits, though, was the ability to tune the trade-off between time and money with nearly perfect granularity.
Time is anyone's most precious resource, by far; past a certain standard of living, I think it's unhinged to sell more of my time to get more money. Many people who are lucky enough to work part-time manage that trade-off by working more or less within any given week but still taking only a few weeks of vacation every year.
I do it differently; I know myself well enough to know that I am not capable of putting down a problem after working exactly 20 hours on it. Instead, I book enough full-time work each year to earn what I need to live comfortably and save for the future, focus on that work fully while I am doing it, and when that work is done, I stop working entirely. It currently works out to working around six months each year and spending the other six months drawing, painting, hiking, reading, puttering in my workshop, and generally taking my retirement in installments.
What does your compensation look like?
I've increased my rates consistently, and now make more in 6 months than I did working full-time; but it's less than the total compensation of someone with similar seniority with full-time employment today.
What are the tradeoffs to working part-time vs one traditional full-time job for you?
Not everyone is cut out for the sales part of freelancing, or the stress of not knowing where the next contract will come from. For me, the benefits far outweigh the costs.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to work part-time like you?
Know how much money you want to earn to be comfortable. Don't waste time earning more than that.
Any tools or services you'd recommend for people who want to go part-time?
I built and use https://quotes.vistimo.com/ to do project estimation.
I use https://velasciences.com/ notebooks for notes.
I use https://www.playbook.com for a morgue of design assets.
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