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Ways of working

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This is not a post about Agile ways of working. The title could have been: ‘Oops I did it again’: because yes, I recently resigned. again. This post is about my relationship to work and might be of interest to you if you are considering different ways of working.

journey made with a line of sticky notes and arrow below
academia, then primary teacher, then self employed teacher, then software developer, then UX designer, then permanent service designer, than consultant service designer and finally contractor with an ?

What do I want?

I’m not the type of person who, as a kid or a teen, knew what they wanted to be when they grew up. In fact, I think I often make my decisions based on what I do not want, rather than what I do. I remove options I know are not for me, and then look at what’s left to pick from. It’s becoming easier as I’ve tried many things now and learned about myself in the process.

My initial education background

same journey, only the first sticky for academia

I was into sciences and maths at school. After studying engineering in the 90s, I picked computing sciences (even though I never owned a computer at the time) because I wasn’t too sure what to do next, and this seemed like a subject that would open a lot of doors.

Computing led me to artificial intelligence and then to cognitive sciences. I started a PhD, but very quickly realised that research and academia was not for me. I stopped after a year and had to reassess what to do with my life.

The French part of my professional journey

same journey, with a new sticky for primary teacher

I studied to become a primary school teacher while working in a shop. It was distance learning at the time, not online yet, so you’d receive the lessons and submit your exams by mail. I did become a teacher, but it was on and off for 8 years as I took maternity leave and parental leave when I had my kids. I enjoyed that role, but I don’t think I would have lasted long because it was taking over my life, I was struggling to switch off at weekends and during the evening. At the time in France, you didn’t really have a weekend anyway, as we had class on Saturday mornings and were off Wednesdays.

Moving to Scotland – Becoming self-employed

same journey, with a new sticky for self employed teacher

We moved as a family to Scotland in 2005. With no support network, I stopped working until my youngest kid started primary school. I considered teaching in schools but I didn’t feel my English was good enough, plus the school system was very different from France. So I became self-employed and taught French as an out of school activity, for kids, and for adults too.

Pros of being self employed

  • freedom of working the hours I wanted and how I wanted
  • could work around my kids
  • control of when I would stop and take time off

Cons of being self employed

  • I underestimated how much time I would spend on administrative tasks, answering queries, finding rooms to host my classes and promoting them
  • doing my accounts and learning about the UK tax system took more time than I thought

What I’ve learned

  • sometimes, you need to say no: initially I didn’t want to turn down any work, but this can become too much very fast
  • the time spent in front of students of all ages, which is what I was paid for, is not even half the time I actually spent in administrative tasks, answering queries, promoting my classes and preparing them.

Software developer – Working for the public sector

same journey, with a new sticky for software developer

While advertising my French classes, I created a website. This reminded me about how much I enjoyed computing. But my computing degree was 20 years old already … things had evolved a lot since then.

I looked at the Open University for a few modules about web design, and really liked studying that way. I ended up doing a whole new computing degree and becoming a graduate software developer at 46!

I applied to many IT roles. I could have worked for a bank or a start-up, but I got a role for the Ministry of Justice. That’s how I started in the public sector space in Scotland. I was assigned to a digital transformation project where we had no designer to start with. We did have a user researcher, and I’ve learned from them and from the GOV.UK service manual

Switching to design

same journey, with a new sticky for UX Designer

I started to enjoy design much more than coding. As a developer, at the time, I could not get training to learn about design through my work, so I turned again to online learning, in my own time with the Interaction Design Foundation. I also learned from others, thanks to the UX Glasgow meet-up

My first design role was for a Local Authority. I didn’t stay long but I learned and built a lot of experience in a short period of time. My role was mainly about improving the customer experience, but I was unable to focus on the delivery part of the services which was really frustrating. That’s when I realised that service design was actually what I wanted to do. 

Becoming a service designer – Permanent

same journey, with a new sticky for permanent service designer

Finally, at nearly 50, I had found a role I really liked where I could be involved in all the aspects of a project, looking at both the people using the service and those delivering it, online and offline, with opportunities for me to make things better on a big scale.

I got a job as a service designer at Scottish Enterprise where I learned a lot from others, worked at various phases of projects and started to feel I knew what I was doing.

Becoming a senior and a consultant

same journey, with a new sticky for consultant service designer

Being a senior means different things in different roles. In my mind, this was something you would become once you had years of experience in a specific role. As I had changed roles so often, I had never felt like I qualified as a ‘senior’. But I started to realise that even though I had not stayed in a specific role, or organisation, for years, I did have a lot of experience of working within multidisciplinary teams, in the digital transformation space, in the public sector. So I became more comfortable applying for senior roles. 

For a long time, I had a low opinion of consultants because of a previous negative experiences when I was a permanent member of a team. Consultants felt like people who would come in, promise the world to our manager, produce complex reports and make sure we felt like we needed them for the next phase of the project. So when I finally became one myself, I really wanted to make sure that I was passing on my knowledge, explaining what I was doing and leaving a report which would provide a firm foundation for whoever was taking over.

Pros of being a consultant

  • you gain a lot of experience in a short time because you can work on many different type of projects at various phases with different people
  • deadlines are tight, you need to trust the people you are working with and focus on the work, whereas in my experience as a permanent, we were spending a lot of time speaking about the work instead of doing it and people sometime would also waste time on checking that others in the project team were doing the right things as trust was low
  • it’s easier to put your points across with stakeholders: as a permanent, your team might not always value your input whereas a consultant, people tend to challenge your decisions much less, maybe because you’re expensive so people/stakeholders think you must know what you are doing?
  • compared to a contractor, you don’t have to look for work or deal with administrative tasks, and if there is no work for a while, you don’t have to worry and can contribute to internal projects instead
  • you have support from other people in your organisation

Cons of being a consultant

  • you often have to deal with two calendars and sets of meetings: your own organisation and the one your project is with
  • the project coming your way depends on choices made by your organisation, you can sometime push back but in practice, you don’t have much choice, so if the project you are assigned to doesn’t align with your values or might trigger some past trauma, there is not much room for you to say no
  • you have to deal with the internal politics of your organisation and the one for your project, this can be a lot
  • your organisation only makes money if you are working on client projects, so anytime spent on something else is not as valued as it should as it doesn’t bring in any money; I like to be involved in the community and creating trainings or presentation about inclusion and accessibility and there is never enough time for this, so I end up doing this on my personal time

What I have learned

Consultants working in government can actually really be worth the money they cost when the attitude is right: they bring a wealth of experience from all the projects they did elsewhere, will know what to reuse and who to talk to and speed things up.

I remember my first 6 week discovery as a consultant. I didn’t think we would manage to do all we were supposed to, but in the end, we did and I was really proud of the work done as a team, everyone supporting each other and the resulting report was really good: easy to read, with all the info needed for the next phase, so even if we were not involved, I knew the next team would be on the right track.

Giving a go at contracting

same journey, with a new sticky for contractor

I know a lot of contractors who have been working that way for years and who seem very happy. Every so often, I would see their post on LinkedIn or Twitter saying they were looking for their next contract. I felt like as a contractor, you spend a lot of time looking for your next job and interviewing.

But lately, I’ve also been going from one permanent job to the next just the same, but everything is a bit harder: looking for the next role, wondering if this one will be the right one, multiple rounds of interviewing, waiting for answers, and then for a start date, a longer notice period, then lots of admin from off/onboarding.

From where I stand now, contracting makes way more sense. I’ve been talking to other contractors, and reading some helpful blog posts about it by Benjy Stanton.

Here are the pros and cons I can see for now:

Pros of contracting

  • changing job is quicker: short notice period, on/offboarding phases and interviews are shorter
  • you make more money (when you are working)
  • you don’t have to deal with organisation politics as much (and only from one organisation)
  • you can pick the project you want to work on (might not always be true if there aren’t a lot of contracts to chose from for a while)

Cons of contracting

  • making sure you deal with your tax correctly
  • the short notice period works both ways: your contract can be stopped from one week to the next if the project is cancelled or else
  • risks of staying without work for months so need to have savings
  • if you are sick or need time off work then you have no money coming in
  • need to keep up your networking to hear about opportunities or where NOT to go
  • you are often not really part of the team or the community in your organisation (not true everywhere)

I’ll share more about this in the future, to help others thinking about contracting too. For now, I’m still learning a lot about IR35 and other tax subtleties.

Thank you to Dawn Kofie, who had reviewed parts of this post in a previous version. Any spelling mistake or weird grammar left in this post is on me.