Sunday, April 25, 2010

Contract vs. Full-time

I've made another job change and this time I've returned to a mercenary's trade. I'm a contractor now (sometimes called consultant in IT circles). There's a long story behind why I decided to do this (some clues to which were in the last couple blog posts) but in the end I looked carefully at where I was and made a list of "reasons to stay" and "reasons to leave" and though there were some good reasons to stay, there were a lot more reasons to leave. Maybe more on that in a future post, but speaking of contracting, IT consultant Paul Glen has penned another very good one for Computerworld's April 19, 2010 issue.

In the essay, Glen cautions against not taking a closer look at factors involved in the contract-to-hire issue. His advice is usually sound and is so here, but a few omissions reveal his proximity to the ivory tower. Glen notes that contract-to-hire can be a good idea for both parties, but that some contractors may not be good matches for full-time employment if they are really happy with the consultant lifestyle (superior monetary compensation, travel, constant variety in projects and people) and may grow disenchanted with a full-time role.

Let's stop and think about that for a moment. In a previous post, I said I didn't like the way most IT shops used contractors, largely because I felt these shops were giving the most intellectually engaging work and pay to contractors and treating their full-timers like second-class citizens. Well, I still think that's true, and sadly, I've thrown in the towel on my hopes that this would change.

Glen's dancing with a contradiction here that contractors are somehow less valuable to an organization than a full-timer, even as he admits the contractor's duties are "fun and lucrative". What? Are full-timers not supposed to like work that is fun and lucrative? Are they supposed to ignore that mentally engaging and challenging work is often given to contractors while they are asked to sit and guard a light switch? Should they be only the types that "will gladly go to work on your help desk" for the rest of their lives with no upward mobility or appreciation?

I ultimately believe that Glen and I are on the same page about contractors. What I don't like is the article's failure to mention that if Corporate America wants to retain the best talent and bring it in-house, then Corporate America needs to give people a reason to want to be full-timers. There needs to be something to distinguish the full-time role and it doesn't start with looking at contractors and full-timers and trying to set them apart. What companies need to do is stand behind the lip service they pay to the hollow chant of "we love our employees" that they continue to print in their annual reports and recognize the value of the intellectual capital an employee brings through experience, expertise, and commitment to a company's clients, and to recognize the cost of turnover and mediocre quality. This means doing the things I've mentioned in the past: investing in employees, providing some education, and building an environment where they can take initiative to make changes in processes or tools that lead to efficiency and value. A company cannot crush employee morale and then expect miracles to happen. Even the most passionate employee can reach limits, right Mr. Glen?

There is a sad and disturbing analogy for this discussion: the US military. The military is outsourcing several duties (security details, civilian support) to companies like Blackwater and Halliburton. These contractors are paid handsomely for their services; significantly more than the US's own line troops. The US soldiers risk their lives for a client whose appreciation is suspect in a difficult war where the opponents have the honor of cockroaches. As the young privates and seasoned sergeants and even the priviledged officers look to their flanks on the battlefield, they see security consultants zipping by with better equipment, relaxed rules of engagement, and fat wallets. The army may be a volunteer force, but I think they can be forgiven for asking the understandable question, "Why?"

People will say, "Oh, but the full-time government troops have honor and job security the contractors don't have." Perhaps, but honor and 25 cents won't even buy a cup of coffee, much less pay the rent for the wife and children awaiting their father's return. And the job security is an illusion; if war should wind down, the army will be under the same pressures the consulting firms will be to cut costs.

People will say, "Oh, but soldiering is a calling, like teaching, so they don't need money." No way, you don't get to use an excuse that flimsy. Screw Jerry Brown and his "psychic income" cat crap. The bank won't accept psychic payments for the mortgage.

So here's where I get off the tangent and back to the point (as the readers, no doubt, say "thank God"). Yes, the reason some people like contracting is because it is fun and lucrative. But it doesn't have to be that way. Companies can, without having to break the bank (which they're already doing for contractors), make the full-timer proud to be a full-timer, and make the contractors want to be a full-timer. It's simple economics and capitalism: be competitive. Make full-time roles fun and lucrative.

It starts at the top with management.
  • Have the philosophy that your employees do matter. Don't just say it; believe it.
  • Be cognizant of what the compensation levels in the market are and competitively maintain your people's salary and benefits so the thought of leaving never occurs to them.
  • Actively recognize them when they do something that helps the company.
  • Find good projects for them that are engaging and not just about guarding light switches. You were able to do it for the contractors, I'm sure you can do it for the full-timers too.
  • Let them keep their skills up to date. I'm not saying let them create a custom application inventory of a dozen disparate languages and platforms (no one should want that), but understand that technology is both your job and your responsibility. When a technology or technique comes along that can save time, reduce production support, make users and clients happy, and help the company in ways even the CEO doesn't know about, take the initiative to promote it and materialize it even when the PMO and the business may not have it on their radar because technology isn't their job and responsibility.
  • When the PMO wants to make a project happen in an unreasonable time frame, don't throw your staff under the bus for personal gain. Yes, there are emergencies when unpaid overtime is a necessity, but if you're doing your job, they are the exception and not the rule.
  • When your employees do work unpaid overtime, recognize and show appreciation for it. The contractors get that appreciation built into their rate and ability to bill per hour. Your full-timers don't, and when they look into the flanks and see contractors getting richer while they get poorer for the same work, or worse, for fixing the contractor's errors, believe me, they ask "why?".
  • Appreciate what the mantle of management means. It means managing your employees. Don't wait for your full-timers to ask for a raise or a mentally engaging project. Some of them won't; they'll just vote with their feet, especially if you've been the kind that has enjoyed saying no to them several times in the past.
Contractors and full-timers aren't all that different, especially if you have been the type to use contractors in the same way you would use a full-time employee. They are both human beings and while yes, there are some differences in what each individual wants, at the end of the day it needs to be recognized that everyone's really there to make the mortgage and pay for college tuitions. If management could be less about cost cutting and more about building an environment that encourages the attitude of wanting to deliver world-class results and quality, then maybe production support wouldn't be so heavy, your full-timers could develop into the crack team that could do it all, and the need to ask who would be a good contract-to-hire candidate would go away.

Don't like what I have to say? Don't worry, it's just a rant. And I'm not holding my breath waiting for Corporate America to change.

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