I recently (within the last couple of months) took a full time job as a software developer. After two years of contract software development, I have found it to be quite a change. I think that both contracting and full time employment have good things to offer; if you can manage it economically, contracting is well worth doing for a while. Why? A number of reasons:
When you contract, you’re responsible for finding your own work and making sure you get paid. This alone is worthwhile, as it gives you a fantastic appreciation for sales and accounting. The networking to find your next gig is great experience for moving up the food chain in a company.
You also get exposed to different technologies and businesses. In my two years, I did work in 6 different programming languages, a number of different frameworks (both free and expensive) and build environments, and 3 or 4 operating systems. That was great–I grew technically and learned how to tell if another techie was competent (and what they were competent at!) relatively quickly.
But more importantly was the variety of business situations I worked in. I did work alone, with one other technical person, on a team with no dedicated QA, on a team with dedicated QA and build staff. I did work with small companies, medium sized companies and enormous companies. I worked with startups and with established firms. Some of the organizations had excellent management structures–in others the inmates were running the asylum. And I paid much more attention than I would have if I had been an employee, because my paycheck rested on making sure that whoever was in charge was happy. This breadth of business experience is something that you cannot come by if you’re a full time employee.
Beyond that experience, there’s also the time and money factors. If you want to control your time, contracting is great–I regularly took multiple week vacations, because I was willing to sacrifice earnings for them. On the flip side, if money is more important than time, you can certainly earn significant amounts of money when contracting, as you get paid by the hour.
Contracting also has a lot lower stress than an employee-employer relationship. In my opinion, in a proper employee-employee relationship, the employee is loyal to the goals of the company (which implies understanding them–itself a difficult matter) and helps achieve those goals. In addition, if an employee makes a technology decision, they are living with that decision for the foreseeable future. These factors combine to make work as a full time employee more stressful; more rewarding, but more stressful. In the contractor-client relationship, you still want to do a great job. But the permanence of technology decisions isn’t there–either you’re doing work that fits into an existing technology stack or you’re making technology decisions but will be moving on in some finite period of time. Your stress is limited to whether your invoices will get paid!
There are downsides to contracting, too. For one, you’re not part of a team. You may work in a team, and they may make an effort to include you, but you’re not really part of that team–you’re just a hired gun who will do the work and then head off. When the inevitable bug comes up 5 months down the road, they can call you, but doing so incurs a higher transaction cost than if they just had to grab a fellow employee for a minute or two. The flexibility of money and time that you have can cause resentment too.
While the breadth of technologies and business methods can be great to experience, it can also be difficult to process. To hop in and be productive on the first day or two of a new contract can be hard, because you want to make sure you’re fitting into the existing processes.
All of the above comments are based solely on my experience. But I’d say that if you’re considering contracting, do it! It’s a great experience. Make sure you have a buffer of 6 months of pay, and then jump in.