Balancing IT with life

John Goodhue earns a six-figure income, takes eight weeks of vacation each year and devotes time to his local Oracle Corp. users group. Doug Soquist alternates intense work periods with lighter stretches, home-schools his four children and is building his dream home in the country.

Both IT consultants exemplify how independent consulting can empower IT professionals to strike a unique work/life balance that’s difficult to achieve as a full-time employee. But even among IT consultants, Goodhue and Soquist are exceptions to the rule.

Like many IT consultants, Goodhue set out on his own because he wanted more time and money. During the past three years, the Maple Grove, Minn.-based Oracle database administrator has carved out an atypical consulting workstyle that gives him the best of two worlds: the freedom of an independent consultant and the comforts of an employee.

Best of both worlds

As a W2 employee at consultancy services firm Database Group Inc. in Dallas, Goodhue gets full insurance benefits and participates in a retirement plan that allows him to save as much as US$24,000 annually. He doesn’t have to fret about paying estimated quarterly taxes or whether clients will pay his invoices.

“I work, and two weeks later, I get paid,” he said. “Typically in consulting, clients often don’t pay for months, if ever, but I don’t have to worry about that.”

But Goodhue has never met his “boss” at Database Group, and he’s not obligated to work for the agency’s clients. He secures his own gigs, sometimes working as a subcontractor through other agencies. On all of his assignments, he sets his own hours and gets his full hourly rate of US$125 from Database Group. His paycheque is almost double what he earned as a full-time employee.

He uses his extra freedom and income to plan a major trip once every two months. In the past two years, Goodhue has taken his wife and two children, ages 12 and 14, to Paris, London, New York, Orlando, Las Vegas, Washington, New England, Iceland and Scotland. “I would never have had the time or the money for that kind of travel if I had a regular job,” he said.

“It’s so much easier to take time off when I’m not being paid for it,” Goodhue said. It’s a statement that might seem ironic, given that the nature of consulting is that time equals money.

“It’s easy for consultants to get into the mind-set of, ‘Oh, if I were working, I’d be making $100 an hour,'” he said. But he refuses to look at it that way. “That would drive you crazy every minute,” Goodhue said. “I like my time off, and it’s hard for a client to object because I’m not taking paid time off.”

Goodhue said he gives his clients three to four weeks’ advance notice of his trips, and they have never complained. In between trips, he works six- to 14-hour days, as needed.

Since Goodhue’s work isn’t as deadline-driven as other types of IT projects, it’s easier to set his own schedule, he said.

“In a consulting niche that’s more project-oriented – like developing a new order entry system with a specific project plan and deadlines and definite start and end dates – it would be much harder to do what I do,” he said.

Prior to consulting, Goodhue was a database administrator on the order entry system at Fingerhut Cos. in Minnetonka, Minn. He had to work a scheduled maintenance shift every weekend, from midnight Saturday to 6 a.m. Sunday. Every third week, he was on call. That left him very little time with his family.

“My relationship with my kids has changed since I started consulting,” he said. “Trips are a good way to enhance the family experience. There’s always some sort of problem that crops up when you’re travelling, and we work through it as a family. We’re much closer than when I only had two weeks’ vacation a year.”

The biggest challenge to his new-found freedom, Goodhue said, is the possibility that he may find himself with too much time on his hands. Although he’s had only one week of unanticipated bench time since 1998, there’s always the chance that he could have a dry spell.

“I could be on a gig for months, but it might turn out to be only a week – that’s the chance you take,” he said. “So you have to have nerves of steel.”

Clumps of projects

Soquist, the sole proprietor and enterprise Java developer at Sunetos Inc., in Xenia, Ohio, started consulting in 1998 because he “didn’t want to end up with a compartmentalized life,” he said. “I want to weave together my social, spiritual, professional and family lives – both for my benefit and so I can be of service to others.” To that end, Soquist schedules projects in “clumps,” he said. He alternates concentrated work periods of several consecutive months with a less-demanding month of half-days. The schedule effectively serves his clients and sets a well-rounded example for his four children, ages 8 to 13.

“My children see ‘work’ as well as other things about me,” Soquist said. He works from home three days per week and frequently opts to program in the mornings and evenings so he can spend afternoons with his family. When Soquist is in half-time mode, the family travels, or he tackles personal projects like wiring his new home. If friends or family need a helping a hand, he adjusts his schedule to pitch in wherever he’s needed.

His workstyle isn’t without its challenges, Soquist notes. He frequently works out of town, and last summer he was on the road for six weeks between May and September. “It was a lot more travel than I would have agreed to if I had thought through the contract,” Soquist said. Even though his children are home-schooled, it’s not always possible for his family to join him.

As an employee, Soquist said he frequently worked overtime.

“I didn’t mind some of that, but sometimes I felt like it was overboard. I wanted to get paid for all the hours I worked.”

Moreover, as a developer, Soquist said he finds it difficult to take full vacations without his laptop in tow, but he manages to mix work and play on the road. For example, depending on his deadlines during a trip, “We may stay a few days longer in a spot, and I’ll spend half of the time working, the other half playing.”

Goff is a freelance writer in New York.