How to survive as an IT contractor?

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When I was little, my maternal grandma sometimes would say my elder bro is suitable for a carpenter due to his calm demeanor. This is just a picture of a carpenter (not my brother)

Surviving as an IT, especially a software developer contractor is not easy, from my personal experience and observations. I have mostly been an employee (sometimes people call it full-time), with a few stints as a contractor (my LinkedIn profile here). I worked as a contractor mostly because I needed to bring bread (or bacon) home, or in one case I needed to make a switch from software consulting back to a developer job.

Second class citizen

This reminded me of “second class citizen” label which I think it is how many H-1B visa holders were treated in this country. I think being a contractor is not easy in the sense of job security. I have my share of misery when working as a contractor – in some cases, the misery was not directly related to the fact of being a contractor, in other cases, it was. For example, once I made a dumb (but honest) mistake during my testing, I sent out 4 testing emails to real customers, the issue was somewhat like this HBO integrated testing email incident (I got the HBO email btw). I think that’s the main reason they let me go shortly after. When you think about it, do you really want to work for such a place (given choices)? In this case, I was the scapegoat for the incident, just like the “intern” was the scapegoat for the HBO email incident.

I think of this topic because, in the current project, I have been working on for the last 2 years, we have tons of contractor turnover, and it seems to me mostly the termination was initiated from our side. But I don’t have any input due to my career level or title. This is also one major downside of being a contractor – easy for a vendor to terminate, and also in some cases a contractor will become the scapegoat for some mishap or mistake in the project.

Sometimes or a lot of times I felt contractors are basically second-class citizens in the company. Personally, I don’t want to treat contractors like that. I am just stating some observations I have. There are exceptions: if the contractor is high skilled, works for the client for a while, or has a good relationship with senior management.

There are usually two scenarios in which a company hires a contractor, staff augmentation, and project outsourcing (the vendor company will staff a complete project team in this case). I have seen terminations in our current project for both scenarios.

In the past, in year 2015, when I was with Mercy Health, and working on the MyMercy project. And one day (April 2015?) we laid off all the contractors on the project due to the change of project direction.

Back to the Carpenter analogy, I do think there are still things a contractor can control in terms of her/his job security. I don’t think the contractors who worked on the MyMercy project have much control. But for the current project that I am a part of, it seems the people who were let go have one thing in common: basically in one occasion or another, they pissed off “the boss” (I would not name the names obviously).

When my maternal grandma joked that my elder brother could be a carpenter. Note carpenter is like a contractor or a skilled professional in the rural area where I grew up. I recall one carpenter built the 1st multiple stories house in our neighborhood: at that time, it cost more than 10,000 Chinese Yuan (RMB), and it was a fortune for all of us at that time. My dream then was to make 10,000 Yuan 万元户. Now I think about why my grandma said my brother could be a carpenter (and she didn’t say I could), one reason I think is probably I was not as calm as my brother 🙂

In the US though, probably applicable in China nowadays too, besides doing quality work, improving marketable skills, etc. A contractor needs to be a little bit more outspoken, and at the same time not piss off the client, the manager, “the boss” etc. The last part is really an art and not science. As one of my colleagues likes to say: one needs the “read the room” skills 中文就是察言观色的意思吧。Last but not least, something I learned over the years, is we all need to have some stories to tell (#storytelling). This is helpful or useful sometimes during job interviews, think of the behavior questions the HR or managers sometimes would ask: tell me a challenge that you encountered recently, how you overcame it, etc. Make sure you have those in your inventory and use them as you see fit.

(Update 02-07-2024) Personally I don’t recommend work as contractor – especially if one is the sole bread winner for the family. I understand in the US all employments are AT WILL, in theory an employer can lay off full time employee at any time (vice versa). || There are a few cases I think it’s okay to work as contractors: 1. 家里等米下锅;2. If it’s a consulting company such as WWT, Accenture etc., because they have bench time. Also they can put a contractor (consultant) at another client due to their connections. My 2 cents.

除了上面说的那些情况,我觉得应该有一些人适合做contractor / consultant. 主要有两类人:1,脾气特别好的人;2,技术特别牛的人:这个必须是marketable skills. 或者两个因素都具备。我都碰到过这样的人:现在做的项目里就有同时具备这两样东西的人。我觉得这两个因素我都不具备.

引用朋友的一个评论 “Contract 在某些方面确实不如FTE, 但是对于急于找项目经验的 ,或者急着找份工作的 还是可以考虑的” – 我的回复:“对。我本来也想加上去的。”

(Update 04-03-2024) I just came across that I talked about this in year 2016 too.

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