It can be a scary world out there

April 25, 2016 OpenSystems Media

In March of this year, I quit my engineering job at a medium-sized company to work for myself as a technical writer and consultant. People sometimes congratulate me, but I usually tell them to ask me how things are going in six months or so. Regardless of what happens in the future, I’m now self-employed, so hopefully my experience quitting will enlighten people who are wondering about the process.

Naturally, the first thing that I had to consider was whether I could support myself and my family on a somewhat indeterminate salary. One could argue that no salary is secure and that having multiple streams of income is better, but it’s still reassuring to know that on every “x” day of the month, “y” is deposited into my account.

Paying down debt, living relatively frugally, and having a sufficient monetary cushion are key to being able to take that sort of leap. In addition, I had been writing part-time for years, such as my work for Popular Science, Make:, and others, and believed I could scale this income up with the additional time I’d have.

The hard part was that understanding the difference between how things work in theory verses in practice. Once I put in my notice, I began to wonder if I did the right thing, vacillating between thoughts of “wow I can do this, it’ll be great!” and “why did I made such a stupid mistake.” I gave five-weeks notice, though was ready to leave that day if necessary, which they seemed to appreciate (Never burn bridges!). Additionally, it gave me time to ramp up my side work even more before the transition. This was a lot of work effectively maintaining two jobs, but after my last day, things became easier.

Giving my notice was difficult, as my former employer had treated me well, but my boss (and those higher up the chain) were extremely gracious. I’m sure it’s not the same everywhere, but if I was treated badly, that would probably indicate that I shouldn’t work there anyway. In my case, a large part of the reason I was leaving was due to a necessary geographic change, so that certainly helped me explain things to them, even though I was vague about my future plans.

One final note with this sort of thing is that you should always read the employee manual. It’s probably a good idea any time during employment so you can take advantage of any benefits that are offered, but it’s especially important during a transition. Understanding how they pay you for unused vacation, how vesting in any retirement plan works, and other issues may account for thousands of dollars that you may or may not receive.

For that matter, it’s a good idea to have a rough estimate of what they should pay you on your way out. That way if there are any errors, you can—politely and armed with the correct information—attempt to correct the mistake.

Despite what I felt were reasonable steps to leave on a good footing, including literally weeks of cleaning out my office, it was still sad to have my exit interview and turn in my badge. Although some of the work was stressful, and people can be hard to deal with at times, much of the job was interesting, and most people I interacted with I enjoyed seeing on a daily basis.

One has to be careful not to discount the benefits, monetary and otherwise, to working for a company. I’m sure it’s not for everyone, and there are certainly things that I miss, but after being on my own for just over a month, I think I made the right decision.

For another person’s experience, the Jump to Consulting blog is an interesting read, written by someone who’s been at it for a long time. Additionally, Matthias Wandel of Woodgears.ca is a great example of a “Maker Pro” on his own, selling plans to all kinds of woodworking projects as well as his clever gear generator program.

Jeremy S. Cook is a freelance tech journalist and engineering consultant with over 10 years of factory automation experience. An avid maker and experimenter, you can follow his exploits on Twitter, @JeremySCook.

Jeremy Cook, Engineering Consultant
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