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Confessions of an IT Contractor
2010, Q1 (March 28, 2010)
By David Dick, STC Fellow
Photo of dice that spell out the word 'work'
Is contracting right for you?

When I was preparing my transition from employment in Belgium to employment in Northern Virginia, friends encouraged me to look at opportunities as an IT contractor for the federal government. The U.S. federal government relies on contractors to design and deliver IT solutions. For this reason, many companies that traditionally build and sell IT systems have entered the lucrative market of outsourcing employees.

Since May 2005 I have been employed by four contracting companies and worked at several government agencies. When I entered the contracting profession, I discovered that very little is written about contracting. What I learned came from friends and associates; their advice has helped me to understand how to be successful.

Getting Hired

Dealing with Recruiters

Whenever I post my résumé on a popular employment website, I am bombarded with phone calls and e-mails from recruiters. Recruiters search a variety of employment sites for technical writers that match the job descriptions for clients.

Common titles used in the company name of a recruiter are Consulting, Technologies, Services, Group, Staffing, and Consultants. Another type of recruiter is called a Headhunter. Headhunters are highly specialized job recruiters who locate the right candidates to fill open positions for corporate clients. Charging substantial fees, headhunters earn their wages by working to benefit both the client and the job seeker.

A telephone interview with a recruiter consists of four questions: years of experience; familiarity with tools; if I need medical and dental insurance; and salary expectations. This is what their clients want to know and helps to filter candidates. In response, I ask for a job description, the client for whom they are recruiting, the location (i.e., city and state), and the duration of the contract so that I can filter them from my list.

Some recruiters and headhunters have been helpful in finding me employment, but the majority of them only want my resume to include in a proposal. I always ask how my resume will be used because I don’t want it to be included in a proposal without my knowledge and consent.

Characteristics that Recruiters Look for in a Candidate

Recruiters are interested in skills, familiarity with tools, security clearances, and certifications relevant to the job. Although important to you, recruiters are not interested in achievements, accomplishments, papers published, and titles.

Recruiters prefer candidates with active security clearances such as Secret and Top Secret. I have learned that it is not realistic to expect candidates to have active clearances because clearances are downgraded and revoked when access is no longer required. The reason recruiters prefer a candidate with an active security clearance is to expedite assignment to projects.

You’re Hired, Now Get Billing

Contracting companies make their money by billing clients (by the hour) for the use of contractors. The more hours billed, the more money they earn.

If contractors do not bill enough hours, they will not earn enough money to cover their salaries, so I have heard. A contractor is expected to be 100% billable to a project. A contractor out of the office for vacations and holidays is not billing enough hours because the hours cannot be charged to the client. For this reason, contractors without enough billable hours gravitate to projects that they can bill their time in whatever capacity they can find.

Contracting companies prefer technical writers who have multiple skills because of the billing opportunities to sell a candidate with two or more skills for the price of one (e.g., business analysis, configuration management, trainer, and requirements analysis). There are only so many user guides and help files to be written, but there is always a need to gather requirements for new systems, train users, test software, and take meeting minutes. These collateral jobs will enhance your skills and prepare you to transition into other opportunities later.

When contractors are not assigned to a project, they sit on the bench. While on the bench, they continue to receive a salary, report for work at the corporate office, search for new projects and perform a myriad of tasks. That’s how it used to be, but not any more. As a cost cutting measure, some companies put contractors on leave without pay and send them home. While home, contractors apply for open positions and consult a Human Resources representative about upcoming placement opportunities.

Training and Professional Development

Collateral jobs will enhance your skills and make you indispensable, but do not overlook opportunities to learn new skills. When I renewed my STC membership I chose the Gold Membership to take advantage of the certificate programs and online training, and I enrolled in a program offered by a community college to earn a certificate in Project Management.

Contracting companies cannot afford to train employees on the latest tools and technologies and earn certifications, only to have them leave the company for better opportunities. Instead of formal classroom training by accredited institutions, contracting companies offer online training from training vendors. A site license offers a library of training courses for a fraction of the cost of classroom training. However, the course certificates are not recognized by colleges and universities and are not transferable.

The secret for success is to take responsibility for your training and professional development. A resume that evokes ongoing professional and skills development is attractive to recruiters it and ensures you have marketable skills for future employment opportunities.

Job Security

A consequence of contracting is that employment is only assured for the length of the contract, which can be one to five years with several extensions. That is not to say that contractors are not terminated for cause (e.g., poor performance, falsifying a time sheet, conflicts of interest), budget cutbacks, or at the discretion of the client — it happens all the time.

The U.S. federal government requires contracts to be renewed and new companies are allowed to bid on the work. If the incumbent loses the re-compete, the contractors are on their own to find new employment. The winner of the contract will offer to retain the entire staff — or only selected individuals chosen by the client — to ensure continuity of business. Sometimes the wages and benefits are the same or slightly better, and sometimes they are less.

I cannot overemphasize the importance of building a solid rapport with the client.
On occasion, a client will convert contractor positions to permanent hires (see Punch-Out: Contractors vs Feds, Federal Computer Week, May 15, 2009). Contractors filling a position that is scheduled for conversion will be asked to submit their resumes for consideration. Contracting companies wince whenever they lose staff under these conditions because it is a loss of revenue. For this reason, contractors strive to establish strong social networks. There’s nothing unethical because it contributes to good contractor-client relationships, which is what contracting companies emphasize. Contractors seeking employment stability and better benefits will eagerly accept opportunities to convert to a government position.

Performance Appraisals

I cannot overemphasize the importance of building a solid rapport with the client (for whom you, as the contractor. work). The client has significant input about a contractor’s performance and for retention if the contract is awarded to another contracting company.

A contracting company is obliged to show the client that it has set objectives and performance metrics for employees such as creating new processes, writing operating procedures, and learning new skills. However, setting objectives in January to fulfill by December has never, ever worked because contractors work on projects, and the client is only concerned that work is performed efficiently and professionally.

I know many contractors who worked countless hours of overtime and on-call 24/7, delivered work products ahead of schedule, overcame unrealistic deadlines, received praise from the client, and then were surprised that their pay raise was only 2% and that they were not entitled to a bonus. What happened?

Pay raises and bonuses are stipulated in the contract and planned in the annual budget. If the contract does not specify bonuses, then there are no bonuses paid, even if individuals deserve it. If the contract offers awards for delivering early, the contracting company receives the money — not the people who actually did the work. Bonuses are paid to individuals who win new business and are usually an amount that is proportional to the revenue the new business brings the company.

Promotion and Advancement

In the contracting profession, a junior, senior, lead, and principal technical writer may all earn the same pay because the title is meaningless.
Advancement is a way to promote a person to higher levels of responsibility, compensated with higher pay and benefits. In the contracting profession a junior, senior, lead, and principal technical writer may all earn the same pay because the title is meaningless. What is important is the billable rate that the contracting organization can charge the client.

Contractors seeking a promotion will relocate to the corporate office where visibility is higher and the opportunity to meet decision makers is greater. Contractors that stay at the customer site and do their job are not likely to be promoted out of the position.

I believe it is important for technical writers to transition into other occupations that leverage skills and experience. The occupations in demand and for which there are not enough skilled people are cyber security and information assurance analysis. To enter these fields will mean returning to school to earn a certification, and then to look for new employment opportunities. College tuition is tax deductible, so if you can afford the cost to return to school, follow your ambition.

Where Contractors Work

If given the choice to work at the client site or corporate office, I will always choose the corporate office.

Some client sites can be nice, but not all of them are pleasant.
Contractors fortunate enough to work at the corporate office enjoy the amenities described in the company orientation such as spacious offices with ergonomically-designed desks and chairs, an office situated on a lush green campus with tennis courts and fitness rooms, a cafeteria that serves healthy menus, an on-site child care facility and wellness rooms, free parking, and easy access to public transportation. Periodic social events provide an opportunity for staff to discuss current and future projects with coworkers with food and drink catered by a local restaurant.

Some client sites can be nice, but not all of them are pleasant. I know technical writers who work in cramped, dingy offices. Their workout is the jog from the parking lot or the metro; the cafeteria serves meals banned by Weight Watchers, so most people bring their lunch to work; the cost of parking is $12 to $20 a day in a parking garage; and if it matters, no on-site child care facility or wellness rooms are available. Donations support potluck luncheons and picnics, but participation of contractors is usually at the discretion of the contract manager who typically asks, “How will you make up the hours?”

Final Thoughts

The benefits of contracting are the ability to have more of a say in what you do and when you do it, and you have the opportunity to earn significantly more money than in a permanent role. The downside is that you are responsible for finding contracting work when the project or contract ends, and you are responsible for your own training and development.

I am not worried about losing seniority because I have none. I am not worried about the choice of health and retirement benefits because they are all the same nowadays — you pay into it yourself.

Circumstances such as end of contracts, budget cutbacks, shorter commutes, and a desire to do something else were reasons for me to leave and follow better opportunities. I don’t want to be stereotyped as the go-to-guy for templates and meeting minutes. I welcome opportunities to help my coworkers to be successful, even if it means doing something I have never done before. In this way, I have learned how to be successful in the contracting profession and obtain the skills to transition into new and challenging opportunities.


David is a member of the Washington, D.C. Chapter and editor of Usability Interface, newsletter of the User and User Experience Community. He can be reached at davidjdick2000 at yahoo dot com. End of article.

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