A GigaOM blog post that Gene Becker tweeted about today reminded me that many of those who were "traditionally employed" in past years are setting up their web sites, starting their blogs, joining the ranks and giving the "independent" way of life a try. According to MBO Partners there are over 16 million freelancers, consultants and other independently employed people in America today. By 2020, the number is expected to quadruple to approximately 65 million.
Who are these people, I ask myself? The CEO of MBO Partners (quoted in the GigaOM blog) reports that seven out of ten of those interviewed in a survey believe they are "experts in their field" and have advanced skills and education. Unfortunately, this statement is not supported with hard data or a report.
In my opinion, only clients (i.e., those who hire consultants) are in a position to decide if a consultant is an expert worthy of their fee. Are these people who MBO Partners interviewed successful? To be a successful consultant requires a lot of focus on clients while, at the same time, being vigilant, reading the tea leaves, to detect emerging trends and to explore new directions.
After 21 years working as an independent, it's a topic about which I am qualified to have opinions.
The most important qualifications of an independent in any field are to be passionate about a domain, to pay attention to detail, to be discrete about what is said (and what is omitted) and, for a consultant, to have a strong desire for the client to succeed. The last of these, to prioritize the client's success, is an essential component of a consultant's character that carries risk. Often clients can describe what they need and, together, the goal can be reached, the product shipped, the service proven valuable. But sometimes the client fails for reasons outside a consultant's control, regardless of the consultant's contribution to a company or project. Sometimes the client succeeds but doesn't recognize or feel the need to acknowledge the role of the consultant. Few of the other consultants who I've helped get started and with whom I've worked can live with these and other risks of being independent.
Having grown accustomed to managing risk (and balancing other aspects of professional independence that I won't go into here), the title of "consultant" no longer reflects how I feel, who I am. To me, the title of "Spime Wrangler" captures better the element of uncertainty with which I am comfortable and the strong desire to pursue the unknown, to tackle or wrestle with the Spimes.
How many of those who decide to hang out their shingle between now and 2020 will share the sense of adventure that makes me leap out of bed each morning? I hope that those who do, whoever they are, will assume the title of Spime Wrangler as well.