In this ProductTank talk I give a view of how being a contractor can change the types of roles, responsibilities, companies and skills required of (or available to) a product manager.
This is based on my very personal experience (as a hiring manager and a product manager myself) and on conversations had with fellow contractors and recruiters in this space. Although of course your mileage may vary, I hope these experiences can provide some helpful insight for those wondering whether they should jump into the contracting world, as well as for hiring managers hesitating to take on contractors.
Impact on Roles and Companies
Compared to other digital roles like developers, project managers, designers and so on, there is a lot of reticence to take on product managers as contractors because we have such a pivotal role to play in the team. In start ups especially, where we sometimes take over the day-to-day product ownership from the founder, the feeling is that they need someone with more ‘skin in the game’.
Adding to this the general rule a contractor will often be more costly than a permanent hire, and therefore will increase the ‘burn rate’, I have found it (unfortunately) far more difficult to find opportunities with startups since I started contracting.
Overall, contract positions represent about 10-15% of product manager roles available, so don’t expect the phone to ring as often when you are looking for a new job.
It is even more difficult for managerial positions, so you’d better be ready to go back to ‘hands on’ product management (unless you are ready to wait longer for the very senior opportunities).
Skills & Requirements
As a contractor, because you are not looking for an internal promotion but for quick transitions to new roles at the end of your contract, you need to constantly ‘promote’ yourself to the outside world and be visible to your network, which is not suitable for everyone’s temperament.
On the positive side, with the variety of roles that a contractor accumulates, there is probably less need for formal training, which is handy as I would need to pay for it from my own pocket. However, coming to ProductTank meetings is a great way for me to ensure I keep abreast of new ideas!
From a hiring perspective, getting a contractor on board will usually give you a highly skilled team member, productive immediately, who will not require so much coaching or training. In fact, they could become a ‘trainer’ for your existing team, bringing in fresh ideas and methods.
Given that contractors are typically brought on board to fulfill very pressing needs, the role is often going to be mostly about delivering and not so much pure planning. So be ready to roll up your sleeves and forget about PowerPoint!
Finally, I have found that I have to be even more agile and responsive about building trust with my teams and stakeholders, working against possible perceptions that a contractor does not ‘care’ as much about their work or the company.
If you are a product manager, I suggest you run a quick compatibility test on yourself: do you prefer to have very clear deliverables, want to embrace changing challenges, and are not too worried about uncertainties in your own future? If that sounds like you, then you might enjoy contracting! If that sounds deeply unpleasant, then you should probably stick to permanent roles.