What is a Technical Writing Contractor?
Because I am working as a technical writer through a contract, rather than as a regular employee, there are some situations unique to my position. In the technical writing industry, many writers work on a contract basis through an agency. This type of employment is called contracting, although you may also hear it called consulting. I prefer the term contracting because I associate consultants with people whose job is to advise a company on one issue or another. That may or may not describe a particular technical writing assignment.
The Microsoft Rule
At the company I am working at now, one of the situations contractors have to navigate is a rule that they are only allowed to work at the company for up to one year. After that, there must be a six-month break before they can work at the company again. This may seem like an odd rule, but it was implemented because of a court ruling against Microsoft a few years back.
Because Microsoft offered so many benefits to employees, such as stock options and health benefits, to save money they filled out projects with independent contractors who worked strictly for money and had no benefits. These contractors often worked at Microsoft for several years. Most of these contractors wanted to be regular employees with benefits, but Microsoft would only hire them as contractors. Eventually, these contractors got together and sued Microsoft. The court ruled that Microsoft treated them as employees in every other definition of the term, and thus needed to provide them benefits as well.
That ruling had a chilling effect in the contractor industry because it made companies much more wary of long-term contracts. At my current company, for example, a fellow technical writer is bumping up against her one-year limit. She must seek work elsewhere, even though the department is satisfied with her work and has plenty of need for her work. It is possible that they will hire her permanently (another writer here went from contract to permanent) but if the company does not hire her then they will lose her. In six months, she may be back or she may have moved on. You never know.
Technical Writing Contractors have Clients, not Employers
There are some advantages to being a contractor. One advantage is that the company you work at is more a client than an employer. Your real employer is the agency that pays you. It is in that agency’s best interests to keep you working. That means you get an account manager whose job is to make sure you and the company you work at are happy. This means that if you have a problem with the company you are at, there is someone you can go to who is on your side. For the most part, you should not need that assistance, but the couple of times I have needed it, I was glad to have it.
Technical Writing Contractors Move from Job to Job
Another advantage to contracting, for me, is that I like prefer to put myself in new situations. I find that, after about a year, I get tired of working in the same place doing essentially the same job. Every time I have stuck it out at a job for more than a year, I have found my attitude deteriorates quickly. If I were to have taken a string of regular jobs, leaving after a year would create a spotty work record and plenty of angry ex-employers, but most contracts are for a year or less, so there are no hard feelings when you leave.
The downside to this is that you are continually looking for your next job. There can also be gaps in which there is no work at all. If you do not put some of your money aside, this can be painful. The only extended period of unemployment I have had was after the dot-com bubble burst and the tech market went into a depression (the country as a whole may have been in a recession, but I think recession is too mild a term for what happened in the tech industry). Now that the industry has somewhat recovered, work seems to be picking up. I doubt it will rise to nineties levels in the near future, but it is now possible to find work again.
Contract Technical Writers Submit Invoices
One weekly ritual a contractor goes through is having your supervisor sign your timesheet / invoice. Because the company you work at is your client and not your employer, the agency bills your client for your services. The client must look over your hours and approve them. Usually this is a painless process. The most trouble you usually will run into is if your supervisor is out of the office when you need it signed. That is why it is always good to work out a backup in case the supervisor is away. Usually the backup is your supervisor’s supervisor, but it may be anyone in the office who has the company’s trust.
Occasionally, you will run into a supervisor who may use the signing moment as a power play. This is rare. My worst moment was when a boss told me I had listed too many hours. The problem was that the agency had gone to a twice-monthly billing cycle instead of a weekly one. This meant that most timesheets were for an 11 or 12 day work cycle. My supervisor had looked at the hours (88) and assumed I had tried to slip in some overtime. It was only a misunderstanding, but my boss brought it up in a rude way, as if I was trying to rip the company off. I never forgave him for that lack of trust and respect. Luckily, that company frequently changed managers. Within a month, a new person was signing my timesheets.
Contract Technical Writers are not Treated Like Employees
One difference in the way contractors are treated at this company is the way cubicles are distributed. This company is devoted to cubicle culture. While the upper management may have offices, I have not seen one. All of the managers I have met have cubicles. They must look at those blue-gray fabric walls just like the rest of us. The difference here, is that regular employees get their own cubicle, but contractors must split a cubicle between two people.
This strategy certainly runs afoul of Demarco and Lister’s PeopleWare recommendations. Single cubicles are tiny, and shared cubicles are a little larger, but none of them are big enough for someone to work in comfortably. I run into problems because I have a slight case of strabismus, which means my eyes will cross if I get too tired or there is not enough visual stimulation. Because there is not enough room in a cubicle to refocus your eyes on distant objects, I have to get up frequently and stare out a window for a minute so that my eyes get to see distances and colors again.
On the plus side, my office-mate is a quiet woman. I do not think we’ve had a conversation that has lasted over a minute. This makes it a little easier to share the office. I have been in shared quarters before with people who were incapable of staying quiet. It cost the company money because I am not nearly as effective when someone is telling me a story about how he has decided to cook a turkey each week to save food money (an actual involuntary hour-long lecture from a former office-mate.)
Another way in which contractors differ from employees is often in their badges. Contractors generally get different security badges than regular employees. For example, this company uses a green badge for contractors and a blue badge for regular employees. In fact, regular employees are often referred to as blue- badges. In addition to being green, my badge lists my contract agency. Anyone can quickly identify me as a contractor.
Contract Technical Writers Attend Fewer Meetings
One advantage to contracting is that you end up in fewer meetings. This can vary from company to company, but overall you will find yourself in fewer meetings than the harried regular employees. There are generally whole layers of meetings people must attend just because they are employees. This includes management briefings and directional meetings. Generally, managers do not want contractor input and that is just a well. Those are the dullest meetings I have ever attended. At this company, I have not stepped foot in a meeting room since I was hired. I know exactly what work I have to do, and updating my boss is as simple as an e-mail or a two- minute conversation. I love it.