ALC Consulting

March 12, 2009

Contractor Best Practices–Day 1

Filed under: Contracting — Anne Cloward @ 11:39 pm
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Contracting Basics

The article is a challenge to write because it contains lessons learned from mistakes I have made in the past. Not all are ones that I have made personally (I have listened to the horror stories of others and taken notes), but experience has been a good teacher. In the ten years I have been a contractor, there are some good practices to put into place that can make your experience more successful.

Some companies value contractors and treat them like the talented professionals that they are, while others have less respect for them and really do not appreciate them. If your skills are specialized, they may not realize what you do.

As a contractor, you are often hired to perform necessary tasks, but the regular folks don’t have the time, expertise or inclination to do them . This is especially true for technical documentation and training materials (my balliwick); since many developers or managers have no idea what should go into a user guide or what makes a good job aid or how to diagram the process flows that management is asking for.

I have developed some practices that I bring to any contract, that establish me as a professional who knows what she is doing.

One Rule to Always Observe without Fail

The cardinal rule of contracting is you never disclose to your salary to anyone. Your rate is established with the contracting firm, not the client. The contracting firm negotiates and sets the rates with the client. It is not anyone’s elses business what you make. Any details of your arrangement are to be kept private, and are not to be discussed with the client,  manager, or your co-workers.

I worked on contract for an insurance company and was paid the market rate. I sat near the A/P section, whose clerks were not paid nearly so well. They processed contractor invoices and saw the bill rates the client was charged (this is the contractor’s hourly rate plus overhead). They assumed we contractors were making our bill rates, and they were not shy about spreading it around the company. Since these rates were considerably more than they were making, there was a lot of resulting resentment. (The clerks were totally unprofessional in spreading the word around, but it put us contractors on the defensive.)

First Day Routines

First days of any new assignment combine the thrill of a new project with the challenge of becoming familiar with a new environment and getting up to speed in a short amount of time. Some managers are prepared when for your first day, but others really have almost forgotten you were supposed to start that day and have not notified the support department, so nothing is ready. Your cube, PC, phone, email and other tools should have been ordered and set up. Good companies have them in place. Accept the situation, whatever it may be.

Show up about 10 minutes early on the first day.

Learn about traffic, (if you are driving) or the bus or train schedule (if using public transportation). There may also be some delay at the front desk. The guard has to call the manager, and someone has to escort you to your cube. A good manager introduces you to your team members and others who work near in the vicinity. In the era of virtual teams, your team mates may be several aisles away. Take notes of names and titles. Do this during first team meetings. Even quick notes help. (Kent is my manager. Ted is his boss.).

Go with the flow, and be a sponge

Some managers have a checklist of things to go over and scheduled times for orientation, which is great. Not all managers are that organized. One of your new best friends should be the Administrative Assistant to the boss or team. She is the person who knows where the office supplies are, the number to call for the Help Desk and how to get things moving. She may be the one who ordered your PC and phone and can help you map to the printer. Remember her name and always thank her for her assistance.

If your PC is ready and as soon as you have the time, set up your email and voice mail, record a greeting and set your preferences. The more of this administrative stuff you have in place, the sooner you can get to work. Check to see if you have all the applications you need to work.

I review the programs installed on my machine and request any others that I may need. For example, MS Office is standard in most offices, but if I am going to create many graphics, I request Visio and a screen capture program.

Depending on the levels of bureaucracy, it may be a day or two before you get your login and passwords. Or a week, or in one case, when I worked for a major manufacturer of hardware, a month. Just be pleasant and ask if there is any information missing and can you supply it.

I am aware that this is a dream scenario. Not all first mornings go this smoothly.

Take care of paperwork and set hours

As a part of your orientation, you may be asked to sign a non-disclosure or confidentiality agreement. If you work with confidential and proprietary information, this is SOP. The data is the property of the company. For instance, financial institutions are quite sensitive about anyone sharing their information because they are handling other peoples’ money and people get testy when data is compromised. Corporate espionage is always an issue and hence the reason for such agreements.

The bottom line is that what you create belongs to the client. No matter how brilliant or revolutionary your deliverables may be, it’s not your property. It’s theirs to keep after you leave.

(You may have signed another set of agreements when you accepted an offer which set your rate and conditions of employment. Such agreements are between you and them. Read them carefully, since they generally tell you how and when you get paid).

Take this time to establish hours with your boss. Many companies have core hours from 9 until 3, and as long as those hours are covered, it doesn’t matter when you arrive or leave. Get your manager’s opinions on the subject. I once worked for two bosses. One came at 7 every morning and the other sauntered in at 8:30. We held a daily huddle when the latecomer arrived and everyone was happy.

Organize your workspace

Get office supplies from the closet and set up your work area. Set up your work area in a way that works best for you. If necessary, clean off the dust and dirt from the previous occupant of your cube. Don’t expect anyone to do it for you. This is your chance to demonstrate you are ready to get going with your assignment and have control of your environment.

Some managers may have scheduled meetings for you to attend or hand you material to review. Just plunge in and take notes, smile and keep going.

As the writer on most projects, I use unstructured time, to see if there is any existing documentation that I could read, or online files that will fill me in on the project. Good projects have requirements documents, use cases, technical specifications, and they are good background. I print out relevant material and read it. It’s a chance to scope out what my assignment really is.

Some bosses are cool and invite you to lunch the first day. Otherwise, wing it. One company had a group of people who would head for the cafeteria about 11:45, and from the first day, they stopped and asked me to join them. Take the opportunity, if offered to get the scoop on the place. How do others get to work? Where are good places nearby to eat? Establishing a good relationship with your co-workers is often done at this first lunch.

Some first days go smoother than others. Take copious notes on everything, and review them to get things straight.

About your past

No matter how big a city you work in, someone you work with may have worked with or know someone where you worked before. Don’t ever badmouth your previous gig. Your assignment may have been rough, the supervisor unmanageable, but keep it to yourself. Such talk marks you as a disloyal spoilsport and difficult to get along with.

(“Did you ever work with Ted at the Blue Bank?”

“Yes, I did. He really knew his stuff.”

“Really? He’s my wife’s brother.”

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say something to the effect that he was the idiot who kept messing up your schedule and caused everyone to miss deadlines? )

At the end of the day, pack up, head for home, appearing ready to hit the ground running and write that manual, code, training, business process flow tomorrow.

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