Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Contractor Life - Pt 3: Toward Success


This is the third piece looking at life as a contractor, when that isn't your
first choice of gig. The first part is here. The second can be found here.
Please continue with me on this journey,

Toward Success

Trying to define "success" for anyone other than yourself is nearly as pointless as trying to find what "motivates" another person. Both, no matter what you may have learned in school or heard  from famous and infamous pundits. Both are internal. Both could be absolutely true for one person and absolutely false for another.

No single person can define what success looks like for another. No single person can define what might motivate another. The challenge is finding and defining what success looks like for us. We ourselves can figure out what motivates us.

The myriad ideas around "success" shift and change over time. For many, in the end, the idea of success is to be happy, or at the least, content. If we have a "job" with a title and a large paycheck, oftentimes those are bestowed on us. This means they can be taken from us. 

I cannot tell you what success looks like, for you. I can tell you how I view success. Maybe that will help you in your thinking about success.

I cannot tell you what success looks like, for you. I can tell you how I view success. Maybe that will help you in your thinking about success. It doesn’t matter if it is as a “contractor” or “consultant” or an “employee.”


Know why you are there. 

If there are obvious problem areas it is tempting to jump in and say "Let's fix this!" I might gently suggest not doing that. Gerry Weinberg in The Secrets of Consulting warned against "imposing help." It doesn't matter the situation. If they are not ready to ask for help to change, or fix, a problem, then let it be. 

No matter how many areas where there are improvements that can be made, focus on the reason why you were brought in. Understand the rules in place and how people work. Understand the problems they face and recognize it is possible there are perfectly reasonable explanations for why they are doing something in a way you find suboptimal. Learn the energy and observe.

Oh, and do what your contract says to do. If that is "write code" then by all means write code. If that says "test code" then test the code. This becomes the biggest challenge and the largest responsibility area for you. 

I've seen several people come in and suggest things that might help an organization. Yet those things were not part of why they were brought in. Don't fall into the trap of "this is more important" than the testing or development work. It may be more fun for you, but until you are asked to propose changes to those other things, don't. 

Do what your contract says. Do it to the best of your ability. Demonstrate success and let them see what you can do. When the contract manager or their boss express frustration with a situation, ask if they would like help with that. 

Until you are directed otherwise, your primary task and purpose is what your contract says. This should always be remembered.

Know when you are there.

Doing what we do, most of us are salaried employees. There is an expectation we will "get the job done. " If there is any chance we cannot deliver the work because of problems we encounter, we need to communicate that clearly and let our team and management know we are having problems. 

If the problem is "there isn't enough time to do this" the response is usually something like "It needs to get done on time."

In my youth, I had no issues working massive hours of overtime to "get the job done" and "deliver" what was needed when it was needed. I remember one position where for a three month stretch where I was working an average of 70 to 80 hours a week. I no longer recommend that.

When you are salaried and you hit "crunch mode" then most shops expect something like an "all out effort." While three months is a crazy long time, when you are working under contract, the rules are different.

If the "expectations" are not different, check the terms of the contract.

Contract Terms

In your contract there will be some very specific things. There will be rules for you to follow and adhere to. (Many of these likely resulted from stories that might best be related over beverages after hours.) There will be expectations listed:

  • dress professionally; 
  • show up on time; 
  • show up;
  • don't bring illegal things to work;
  • don't bring some things that are legal to work;
  • don't be a jerk.

There will be an outline of what work is to be done. This may be fairly exact, or it may be broadly phrased. Any discussions had before the offer being extended would likely have given a clue what the terms meant.

There also will be a rate to be paid in exchange for that work.

Much of the time, this will be presented as an hourly rate and how to report time and file an invoice for the time. Usually, there will be a fairly explicit instruction that the work is to be 40 hours (or some other number) per week.

There it is. The magic limit. This is usually the most you can report and invoice for in a single week.If you work more than 40 hours can you report and invoice for it? Maybe. It depends on the terms of the contract. I have usually seen a requirement that anything over 40 hours needs prior approval from the client.

And there's the rule. That right there. If you are not approved to work over that limit, don't. 

Why not?

Money Stuff

You are being paid a specific rate per hour for doing specific work. Working more than the contracted time per week (normally 40 hours in the US) that might be OK. If you can invoice for them. If you cannot get paid for doing the work, don't. Explain it to the people who want more time - gently. 

Sometimes, often, any work done OVER 40 hours a week is at a higher rate. If hours 1 through 40 pays you at, say, $40 an hour. Hour 41 and over might well be something like $50 an hour. 

The placement firm you are contracted through likely also sees a bump in rate. If you get paid $40 an hour, normally, they are likely billing the client $60 or $70 an hour (or more.) That is, after all, how they make money from getting you the gig. It also may cover "their portion"of the benefit costs if you selected any benefits.

For them, you working any overtime means they get more money, too. Your $50 an hour for work over 40 hours a week might result in them billing $80 or $100 an hour. If you work 5 hours of "overtime" and report it and invoice for it, that will cost the client perhaps $500 in this example. Likely more.

Most of the contracts I have worked, there was a clause that no overtime would be paid if not agreed to "in advance" by both parties. The "in advance" part is a little grey, if not murky. In short, you can't bill them for extra time worked if they don't agree to pay you before you work it.

Most clients are thrilled to have people work "extra." They just don't want to "pay extra" for it. Short version - if it takes more time to get the work done than is contracted for, make sure the client will pay the invoice. If they are not willing to pay the invoice, don't work it. When you hit 40 hours for the week, shutdown. 

Doing "extra" for them might help them in the short term. It certainly does not help you. It also does not help the agency you are contracted through.

You owe it to yourself to make sure you get paid for every hour worked.

But, what about "professional responsibility?" Excellent question. That will be covered in the fourth part of this journey.

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