Saturday, July 16, 2016

Why Work as a Consultant

A consultant is a professional who works under a fixed contract to complete a specific project, task or assignment. Typically, a consultant is an expert or an experienced professional in a specific field, has a wide knowledge of the subject matter and required skills, and provides a service or expert advice to others – professionally.

If you have been unemployed for a while, you may want to consider working as a consultant as an alternative to working as an employee.

Some Differences between an Employee and Consulting Working Arrangement
There's a lot to think about before deciding whether the life of an independent contractor would suit you. Here are some important points to consider:
  • An employee typically receives a benefits package as part of the offered compensation. This may include paid time off, retirement savings contributions and subsidized medical, dental and life insurance.
    • As a consultant, you do not usually get employer-paid benefits.
  • When employed, your employer pays ½ of the cost for social security and Medicare employment taxes – 7.65% (as of 2016) of gross income.
    • A consultant, if self-employed, pays the full employment taxes - all 15.3% of gross income.
  • Employees are paid via a paycheck. The employer reports your year-end income via a form W2.
    • A consultant, when not employed by a representative company, must send an invoice to the client. The client reports your year-end income via a form 1099-Misc.
  • As an employee, you have limited income tax deductions related to your work expenses.
    • As a consultant, you may have available income tax deductions related to technology equipment, home-office space, travel for work and others. See an accountant to learn what may be available to you.

Employer’s Benefits to Hiring a Consultant over an Employee
Employers can reap some rewards by contracting with independent contractors/consultants instead of hiring new employees. Among those are:
  • Easier to hire / Easier to fire – The hiring and termination of a contract consultant usually requires less documentation. There is no employment on-boarding process. And, there is no documentation or continual performance tracking needed to justify a termination.
  • No long term commitment – Employers contract for a consultant for a fixed period of time. Then, release the consultant at the end of the contract term or when the work assignment is completed.
  • Objective new team member - Having an outsider sharing their view of the employer’s current state of business may offer new ideas on how to achieve growth and improve overall efficiency.
  • Skills the employed team doesn’t have – Hiring a consultant with needed skills is more time efficient than training employees.
  • Saves money - Hiring a consultant means the employer does not have to pay for recruitment fees, benefits, time off, training and the cost associated with employee retention and turnover. Consultants are often hired to tackle a particular project within a specific time frame. At project completion, the consultant departs and the costs stop.

Your Benefits to Working as a Consultant
While some job seekers tend to shy away from consulting, there are benefits to consulting that make it, in some ways, a preferable alternative. Here are benefits of working as a consultant:
  • Fill resume gap – Job seekers with a large employment gap may be passed by for an employment opportunity. While this practice is illegal in most states, it is known to exist. Working on a consulting assignment can mitigate any unemployment bias.
  • Usually paid more than the employees – On an hourly basis, a consultant often earns more than as an employee. That compensates for the other compensation benefits an employee may receive. And, consultants are also paid a premium for their expertise.
  • Current Position on LinkedIn - LinkedIn requires the listing of a current position in order to attain its 100% complete profile. The 100% complete profile is needed to improve your profile’s positioning in a LinkedIn search result. Use your profession as a consultant to be your current position on LinkedIn, even if you are not presently on a contract.
  • Variety – You can develop and demonstrate varied experience on your resume. As a consultant, you may be able to provide your professional expertise in a variety of companies and industries that you have not worked, and may not access to when seeking full-time empoyment.
  • Freedom and flexibility- Choose who, when and where to work, when to take holidays & other PTO.
  • Contract-to-Hire opportunities are only available to those on a contract. While on a current contract, the position may be converted to a full-time position. As a consultant, you are likely to be the preferred candidate to fill that position.

Pros and Cons to being a Consultant
The opportunity to be a consultant is available in almost any profession and for almost any role or job function. When deciding this path for yourself, you should consider the pros and cons to help in your decision process. Here are some points to consider to determine if being a consultant is right for you:
  • Some people are concerned that they will not be treated as well as the other employees. As an example, it may be the case that consultants will not be invited to company outings.
    • As a consultant, you may actually be treated better than employees. Often, your expected expertise and experience will hold you in a higher regard, and you can receive better working accommodations.
  • You might be unhappy in the position or how you are treated.
    • Of course, you can be unhappy in any job. If that is that case with a consulting assignment, take satisfaction that you will likely move on at the conclusion of the assignment.
  • There are unpaid admin tasks you must perform, such as billing & invoicing, documenting your expenses and preparing your quarterly income tax returns.
    • Consultants usually earn larger hourly rates which compensate for your required administrative tasks.
  • You won’t be given benefits as part of your compensation.
    • Consultants usually earn larger hourly rates which compensate for your cost of acquiring benefits. If the alternative to consulting is waiting for an employed opportunity, then you will pay for the benefits from your savings.
  • The contract may only be short term. Yet you need long term income.
    • Don’t dismiss a consulting contract due to its possible short term. Contracts terms are often extended. Sometimes, they are converted into an employed position. In terms of earning potential, a 6 month contract billing at $50/hour earns about $50,000 (gross income).

In this post, we discussed some points to help you understand how you may benefit to work as a consultant as an alternative to working as a full-time employee, and to help you decide if it's right for you. In our next post, we will discuss the steps you need to take to understand "How to Work as a Consultant".

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David Schuchman

Friday, July 1, 2016

Protect Yourself from Ransomware

Ransomware is a type of malware software where the attacker encrypts the victim's data, and demands payment for the decryption key. If you are not protected from the effect of ransomware, you may need to pay a ransom for the decryption key from the attacker. Here is more information about ransomware, and some steps you can take to protect yourself from ransomware.

Ransomware "Horror" Stories
The University of Calgary in Alberta paid a ransom of $20,000 in bitcoin (a digital currency that's difficult to trace back to actual people) to decrypt their computer system files and regain access to its own email system. They were hit by a ransomware attack in late May, 2016.

In February 2016, email and other electronic communications at the Hollywood Presbyterian Medical Center had been down for more than a week from a ransomware attack. The hospital ultimately paid $17,000 in bitcoin because they could not recover from the attack on their own.

Up to 60% of the Horry County, SC School District's computers were frozen when ransomware encrypted the school's data in February 2016. The school district was forced to pay the hacker's demand of $10,000 in bitcoin.

Install Anti-Virus Software
Your best defense is to block the malware before it can infect your PCs or servers. Install an anti-virus program and keep it running whenever your PCs or servers are on. Also, keep the anti-virus program and threat-pattern files up-to-date. The best anti-virus programs periodically and often download a database of newly found virus and malware threats. And, they continually run, monitor and protect the devices on which they are installed

Back up Your Data
Hackers that use ransomware are counting on a business or an individual to not back up their data regularly. If ransomware encrypts critical files, and you do not have the pre-encrypted files backed up, you will have to pay the ransom or lose the files. However, if you have a scheduled backup (e.g. once a day), you can ignore the hacker's demand and restore your data without having to pay for it.

Perform Software Updates
Ransomware, like many malware programs, makes use of vulnerabilities in your operating system and other software to infect your systems. You must regularly ensure that you download and apply updates. Additionally, don’t forget firmware updates to your network infrastructure and IoT devices, which can also help prevent attacks.

Filter .EXE Attachments in Your Email
If your email service provider has the ability to filter attached files by extension, you may wish to deny receipt of emails sent with “.EXE” (executable) files. When you do need to exchange “.EXE” files, and if are denying emails with attached “.EXE” files, you can exchange those as ZIP files, via SFTP or via a cloud service.

Use System Restore
If you have System Restore enabled on your Windows machine, you might be able to take your system back to a last known clean state. However, some newer versions of ransomware have the ability to delete files from System Restore, which means those files will not be there when you try to replace your malware-damaged versions.

The Bottom Line
The best cure for ransomware is prevention. Once you are infected, your options may be limited, expensive and unpleasant. If you find yourself encrypted and without a viable backup, you may be forced to pay the ransom. Doing so depends on the value of your affected data and systems. If your data and systems are sufficiently valuable, paying the ransom may be your only course of action.