Pam Taylor had a successful career in corporate project management, but she always dreamed of being self-employed. She was hesitant to make the leap, but when she was laid off, she decided it was now or never.
Having the freedom to choose your projects
Hilary Brown is a self-employed strategic project and programme manager with over 20 years of experience. She started out on her own in 2022 after many years operating in Governmental and public sector organisations. In this interview, Hilary shares her insights on the overcoming the challenges and confidence issues before starting her business, as well as the freedom of choosing your projects when self-employed.
Read her interview:
Can you introduce yourself?
My name is Hilary Brown, I am in my mid-40s, and I live in Andover in Hampshire.
And can you tell us about your self-employed business?
I set up my company in March last year. So, I’ve just had my first anniversary, although I was still fully employed at the time, so not really knowing what I wanted to do. And then in July, I resigned from my permanent employment and went freelance properly, and got my first contract role at the end of July. So that worked out quite well.
One of the biggest difficulties I had was finding out exactly what thing I was going to sell. It seems to be project, program, and portfolio management, but I’m more interested in the strategy side. So essentially, that’s what I do.
And what does that type of management involve?
Essentially, starting with projects and programs, if you have a problem and you want to look at some solutions. It might be that the HR and finance system is particularly clunky, and we’re looking at ways to change that. It might be a new piece of software; it might be reconfiguring what you’re got. You don’t know what the solution is yet, but you have a problem that you want to solve.
And then a project is an individual thing. So, it’s a discrete problem. Whereas a program is a series of projects on a theme. It might be that a whole load of people have said they’ve got problems with finance, HR, cybersecurity, cyber operations. And none of our platforms work particularly well, we’re going to overhaul the entire digital infrastructure for the company, that would be a program. And each of those would be distinct projects within that.
Are you focused on a particular industry or niche?
I have spent the last nine years as a civil servant, so it tends to be for the government. Although I am trying to get back into doing more work with the private sector.
Do you find particular challenges working with the government? Has your previous employment helped?
There are specific challenges to overcome, but it’s an area that I know quite well. I’ve done a number of different roles when I’ve been a civil servant. Project and program management, and portfolio management, are the main things I’ve done. I’ve also done policy in various different areas.
I spent nine years as a private consultant doing science and engineering, which is my background. I then moved into doing investigations, so I worked in the Criminal Investigation Division of the police for three years. And then moved from there into the Home Office, then worked my way around several different Government departments.
After a comprehensive career across different areas, what was your main reason for becoming self-employed?
I wanted to have the freedom to choose what I want to do. There’s quite a different outlook when you’re self-employed, and I think it’s one of those things where I felt I’d built up a number of different skills and experience in a range of areas. So, I had a certain level of confidence that my offering was quite good. It was just a matter that I didn’t know how to sell myself.
Also, I’m the problem solver. So, it’s very difficult in a permanent role. If you look at the jobs that I’ve held, they tend to be for a year or 18 months. I changed roles often because I came in when there’s a specific problem or issue to overcome, then I solve that problem, and then hand it on to somebody else to then carry that through.
So, the life of a civil servant was quite good in the sense that it allowed me to do that whilst having continuity of employment. But I wanted more freedom for myself, which is why I became self-employed.
What’s your main objective or hope for your self-employed career in the future?
Working more in the private sector, and specifically within startups or tech firms who are trying to grow, and have a good offering. They might not be able to hire someone full-time. But as a consultant, I can come in, and give them guidance and experience without a longer-term commitment. So that’s a benefit for them, particularly with the portfolio side.
At the moment, I do project and program management and director as the bit that pays the mortgage. But the bit that’s more strategically focused is the portfolio management. So that’s top-down, if you have an organisation that’s doing lots of projects and programs, saying are we doing the right thing? Are all of those contributing towards the objectives of the company? Does that promote growth? Do we have the right balance of risk across the portfolio?
Something like that wouldn’t necessarily be a full-time or longer-term commitment for smaller organisations. As you’re starting up you have a lot of projects, a lot of programs, and it’s their coordination piece. It’s very easy to get focused on an outcome or an output. Whereas a portfolio manager is operating at a strategic level and making sure everything is kept on track.
And it’s also the portfolio manager’s job to recommend that a project or programme be killed, or make recommendations for projects or programs that aren’t necessarily contributing either as much as they should, or they’ve stalled. So, then that can be the same for bigger companies as it is for smaller companies.
Are you focusing on the tech industry because there’s an opportunity to grow and get clients for more strategic work? Or do you have a particular interest in technology?
I think it’s just that most projects and programs nowadays tend to be IT focused. Every single company will need to constantly evolve its software, and has IT or digital problems. I tend to concentrate on DDaT, so Digital Data and Technology. Why? I just fell into it. In the government departments that I’ve been in, they didn’t have big infrastructure projects even though technically that’s where I was trained. The other areas, science, and engineering, if you look at the science side of it, it’s highly regulated and specialised.
But if somebody said, can you deliver something else, then I rely on experts, and having that industry knowledge and subject matter expertise to help guide the process. Although I probably wouldn’t start building a housing estate or a hospital.
What’s been your biggest fear about becoming self-employed, and what concerns do you have for the future?
I suppose another Covid, because I had friends who were freelance and basically didn’t work for 12 months. So, something else happening, like that.
We’re potentially going into a recession, so that’s an ongoing concern. And I think that’s been shared by IPSE.
It’s a big step, if you’ve always had a permanent job. You don’t know what your day rate is, you don’t know how much you’re in demand. There’s a balance between being inside and outside IR35, and with inside being a disguised employee.
There is the contingent labour aspect of it. They could change the legislation, or the sectors I work in could say no more consultants.
Those concerns are definitely more when you’re starting out because you’ve got to grow your network and find your area. Those concerns diminish because you have confidence in what you’re doing, and you get a rough feel for what’s coming, and what’s not. The rhythm and the ebb and flow of the months across the year, or the financial quarters.
It’s a confidence thing as well. When you’re a permanent employee, you’re one of the multitudes. When you go freelance, it’s like “Hi, I’m here, I’m brilliant, pay me to do stuff.”
How did you overcome the confidence aspect?
When I started the company, I looked around and started asking questions about my strengths and weaknesses, doing some 360 feedback, looking at websites to see the market rates and the number of roles I could do. And talking to a lot of other people.
The freelance market is really great in the sense we’re not really competing against each other. It’s one of the surprises that everybody is really friendly, and really honest and open. So, if somebody approaches me with a job for a program manager it works very much on the network. If I’m not available there’s a lot of opportunity for things being passed on. And that is a huge surprise, the strength of the network. But make sure you pass it onto somebody else who is good.
Do you tend to focus on one client at a time, or work across multiple companies?
At the moment it’s been one thing full-time, replacing someone because they couldn’t get some internally. I won’t go into the nightmare of IR35.
But my ideal solution would be doing portfolio management maybe one or two days a week, supporting another company. And then doing that alongside a number of other portfolio or strategic jobs. This is why the project and program management are the bread and butter that pay the mortgage, three days a week for six months or a year. Whereas the strategic work is possibly more lucrative, but it doesn’t come up very often. And it’s more short term as well.
What does your typical day look like?
Typically, logging on 15 minutes early to see what I need to do for the day, make sure of the priorities, organise tasks, look at the longer-term gains, and then a lot of meetings.
Making sure that the team knows what they’re doing, sorting out any issues or problems going forwards, and making sure all the reporting is up to date. A program manager is very much co-ordinating and ensuring everybody knows that the problem is, the short and long-term goals, keeping everything on track, and everyone happy. So, it’s about management, and stakeholder engagement. It’s also important that senior management and other people within the company know what’s going on, or if there’s an issue that might be coming their way. And communication is very much a key part of it.
What do you do outside of work? Do you have any particular hobbies or interests?
I do a lot of hiking and running. I usually try and take a day out a month, usually on a weekend, and meet up with a friend for a chat, a walk, and usually a pub lunch.
Running is something I got into during Covid, so I didn’t turn into an actual couch potato. It’s my headspace really, it’s just getting out in the fresh air. If I have a problem to think about, then I’ll go on a nice steady route that I know and mull it over. If I’m trying to stop thinking about an issue, then I’ll do a slightly more challenging, faster run, so I have to think about where I’m going, and maybe a bit of orienteering on that new route.
Those are the two main things, but I do horse riding and play hockey as well, and have recently learn snow boarding and started wild swimming.
What would you pick as a theme song for your business or career?
I’m sure there’s probably a more appropriate song, but the one that’s going through my mind at the moment is Run With Us by Matt Fishel. That’s one of my running songs. It’s very marketing, like, “run with us, we’ve got everything you need!”
Are there any people you look at for inspiration in life or business?
There’s so many, it’s such a challenging question. There’s the friend I usually go hiking with, he’s also a freelancer in a slightly different field. And he’s been so supportive of what I’ve been doing.
There are a couple of quotes that use, and one is Oscar Berg and the Dead Horse Theory. He’s published a book about all the things that go wrong in projects and programs. There is at some point that you have to recognise and accept that the horse is dead (you can’t flog a dead horse). Oscar has published a book of cartoons, saying all of the things that people do to ignore the fact that the horse is dead, like bringing in another consultant. It’s hilarious and I just think it’s very, very apt.
The other one which is really relevant for me, when I was in a permanent role in some very challenging areas, is Prescott’s Pickle Principle. If you have a barrel of brine and you put cucumbers in, then the cucumbers are more likely to get brined than the brine is to become a cucumber. It’s possibly one of the reasons why I went freelance, because at the end of the day you will adapt to the culture of an organisation, whatever it is. Changing it is bigger than any one person.
How long have you been an IPSE member? What prompted you to join, and has it helped you so far?
I joined in March, and it was recommended to me by my freelancing friend. It’s not meant to be a plug, but it’s a great area of knowledge in terms of starting out, events to go to, catching up on things like regular CV writing and how to make it different depending on your industry and if you’re inside IR35 or not. And that was really useful in terms of how to frame yourself and market yourself. Because as a freelancer, you are the marketing officer, you are the technology officer, you are the accounting officer, the techie who looks after the website, you do absolutely everything.
It can be quite overwhelming. Particularly if you don’t have a lot of friends who are self-employed, and it’s a completely new thing for you to do. You don’t have an automatic pension, there are new legal issues, and freelancing takes networking onto a whole different level as you have to expand your circle of contacts.
I think IPSE is really good in the things it does and events that it runs, and in the way it’s set up and providing information. It gives a little reassurance for the right direction to go in. And there’s a whole load of resources that I haven’t used yet. I did get business insurance discounted through IPSE and every month or so I have a quick scan of what events are coming up.
With IPSE petitioning on our behalf, they are a very strong voice in what we want to do. But it’s not what they think we should do. The regular surveys of the membership mean they know what people are concerned about, what the problems are, and how to present that, so that’s really good.
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Colin Campbell has been working in IT for over 40 years, and he's seen it all. From the early days of mainframes to the latest cloud-based technologies, Colin has been there and done it all.