Perils of "contracting"

“I haven’t had a real job since 1996.”

That’s what I keep telling people, and that’s largely true. If by having a real job you mean a salary, a long-term connection to a single employer, and company-paid benefits, then no, I haven’t had a real job in that long.

Honestly though, a lot of what I’ve been doing at work in those 18 years has been largely indistinguishable from having a real job.

Much of the time it’s easier and more profitable for me to work with those third-party contracting firms. They take care of a tremendous amount of the work that goes into getting work, and the good ones take a fairly reasonable cut off the top. (Typically it’s 25%, which sounds like a lot but have you seen how much staffing firms in other industries take?) What’s nice about this for me is that these firms have existing staffing contracts, functioning accounts receivable and payable, and a steady flow of open work requisitions. Most of the time, when I’m nearly done with a major project at one client, the same contracting firm goes through its existing client list, finds an open requisition that matches my skills, sets up an interview with the hiring manager, and has me checking in on the very next work day.

When all I care about is remaining “billable,” this is a good system. There are a few downsides though.

Requisitions are pigeonholes.

They are looking for programmers, QA people, project managers, and system administrators. They are looking for these people in either .NET or Open Source flavors. Add one category for network administrators, who seem to be allocated on a platform-neutral basis. (I don’t really know; it’s not my area.) That makes four times two plus one equals nine actual jobs that exist in the world of third-party corporate contracting. There are no coaches, no problem solvers, no interdisciplinary people, no jacks-of-trades. If your background makes you really good at seeing why their waterfall is blocking or at picking out why QA keeps having to look at the same defects over and over again, that job description doesn’t exist to them. So you have to decide which one of those nine things is you, and go with that, even if it’s an oversimplification of what you’re capable of.

Contract-to-hire is a scam.

Another downside, to some of us, is that creepy, weird “contract-to-hire” status. A lot of companies bring on technical people, on a contract basis, with something like a “right to hire” clause in the contract. I’m not clear on what this means exactly, because I don’t even consider those things, but it sounds like they’re asking you to accept a job they haven’t even offered yet. That sounds like a terrible deal. I’m supposed to sign a contract that locks me into a salaried (implied somewhat permanent) job when I’m not clear on what the job is, what it pays, and what the benefits are? What the hell is that about?

I don’t do “contract-to-hire.” It’s designed to put the worker at a disadvantage. Why would I want that?

Sigh, management

Yet another downside came up for me a while back, when I was about halfway through a six-month contract gig doing .NET development. It was going pretty well. I felt like I could have caught on faster to how the client’s ancient version control system worked, and it was clear that they were having some trouble allocating people to their three or four Scrum teams, but I did get to help a lot with a new product launch. My handler at the contracting company called me now and then just to say he was hearing good things about my work.

At one point though, I emailed my team manager (who supervises maybe about two dozen people) to let him know I would have to take an unknown amount of unpaid time off, specifically saying “my partner Jamie”–I used those words–was having gall bladder problems and there would be some hospital time. That week I missed a day and a half. My handler called the following Monday to ask why my timesheet read 28 hours rather than 40, and I told him. You would think that would be good enough, right?

That week I also billed 28 hours with another day and a half off of hospital time. It did turn out to be more than your typical gall bladder issue. Keep in mind that I was always keeping the team manager updated.

This place does three-week Scrum sprints, so missing three whole days is somewhat significant, and I had to scramble a great deal to come fairly close to fulfilling my share of the sprint. (That’s another issue: Scrum is a team commitment. We’re supposed to compensate when someone falters. That’s the idea.) Those three weeks were ugly. My personal burn-down chart looked like a jagged sine wave. But it did hit bottom in the end.

Speaking of hitting bottom,

after that, it wasn’t remotely the same. Even though my role going in was clearly to stick with .NET middleware development because I’m not good at front ends and browser scripting, I got handed a lot of browser scripting defects. (Again: not so great Scrum, right?) Planning meetings for the next big project were carried out in my absence. Standup meetings even got a little hostile. One of my handlers called to criticize me for having a personal life, with some reference to not deserving unpaid time off. It was weird.

What Jamie said after all this:

“Next time, just say it’s your wife.”

All I can figure…

…is that in this shop, they feel that a person who’s willing to work on a contract basis should be so grateful for the opportunity that we should drop absolutely everything else, including family and loved ones, for the opportunity to be micromanaged and disrespected. And pretend to be straight while we’re at it.

I chose to finish the six-month engagement quietly before taking a nice vacation. And if that particular staffing company ever wants that 25% of my billing rate again, we’re going to have a rather direct conversation about who gets to have an opinion about their sense of entitlement to my personal life.

So I don’t do that.

Here’s how it goes. I do a lot of straight-up freelance work–custom application development, coaching, training, and team leadership–directly for all kinds of businesses and organizations. Doing my own marketing and business development is actually a huge amount of work, and it gives me all kinds of respect for the people who do that all the time, but it’s still my job so it doesn’t feel like a distraction.

In fact, what I learned from gurus like “Original Mark” Silver and Robert Middleton is that marketing is inseparable from products and services. Part of delivering great work is letting people know it’s available. Part of publicizing what you do is the act of doing it. It’s actually not realistic to say “I only write code, I don’t do sales and marketing.” You’re doing it whether you know it or not. Whether you like it or not.

Thanks but no thanks

So when the rent-a-geek firms call, and they will, I think I’ll start referring them back to this blog post and thank them for their interest. I like having tons of billable hours handed to me, but at this point the attached strings aren’t worth it.

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