TagContracting

Care

Terrapin Systems (Terpsys) is the only contracting company I’ve ever worked for I felt cared about me as a person, as an employee and wanted me to stay. They invested in me like I invested in them.

How?

We had face time with our manager. She would sit in with us periodically. She was available in person or by phone and she was on our work site enough it was easy to schedule in-person chats with her.

We had two reviews a year. Every six months we’d get a review, the 6-month meeting was a check-in. It was a chance to see how we were doing and if we needed to make any corrections. It also provided a time to talk about goals and hopes for the position and advancement.

What?

The 6-month review offered a chance at a pay bump. The yearly review offered chances of both a raise and a bonus. Both were calculated based on a number of factors.

All of the factors were provided to us at hiring and made available at each meeting. So it was very clear what the company expected of us and how we could maximize our earnings and performance. There was no mystery. What we needed to do was very clear and spelled out.

Perks

Regular Time Off

Terpsys had a Regular Day Off work schedule. It was a compressed work schedule that meant we’d work an extra 30 minutes everyday, and earn a day off every pay period. It wasn’t always the same day and was decided based on coverage needs.

The schedule was setup at the beginning of the year, so we had all of our days off scheduled and we could plan accordingly. It was a perfect time to schedule appointments and run errands. It made vacation planning easier and we could use those days to extend or replace our Paid Time Off.

It wasn’t something the company had to do, but it was something they offered because they could. And they cared enough about their employees.

Certifications

Terpsys also required certifications. I got my Comptia A+ and Network+ the first year, which they required all of their tech people to have those as a baseline. After the first year, we were required to get one certification each year after that. The company reimbursed us for all test costs.

Those tests can be very expensive. And Terpsys paid for all of it. They wanted us to better ourselves and in turn better the company.

Gear

The gear. Oh man, Terpsys loved to give out gear. At the 90-day mark the onslaught of Terpsys shirts began. For the 2.5 years I worked there, I never bought a single polo shirt. I was given a couple new ones twice a year.

They were nice shirts, many of which I still have and wear outside of work because they fit well and are very comfortable. I was only there for a few years and I have:

  • 1 Raincoat
  • 1 Light jacket
  • 1 Sweatshirt
  • 1 Set of tools with drill and soldering kit
  • 2 T-Shirts
  • 12 Polo shirts
  • 2 Hard plastic to-go cups
  • 2 Glasses cases
  • 1 Picnic blanket

And I’m sure I’m forgetting some other stuff. We were not required to wear the shirts for work and some people never did. But they were nicely made and stood up well. So I wore mine all the time.

The raincoat and light jacket are still the only ones I own and the blanket gets lots of use in warmer weather. The toolkit I reach for all the time.

Inclusion

It’s hard to feel like you’re part of the company you actually work for in a contracting environment. You begin to feel much more in common with the client, in this case, the National Institutes of Health. I felt like part of NIH and not Terpsys. They were just the name on the pay check.

But they did a lot to try to make us feel included.

There was a softball team. There were monthly staff meetings. There were cross-training opportunities and stand up meeting with others who worked on the same campus, but not the same building. It was helpful to put names and faces together and to get all of us to feel part of a larger team.

I didn’t always appreciate all the things they did. I didn’t play softball or attend the pizza nights, an opportunity to learn something taught by another employee unrelated to our work. I never attended a happy hour after the staff meetings (partly because I didn’t drink at the time.) I didn’t attend the summer company anniversary party (which always fell on the week I took off for vacation).

I did attend the winter holiday party (called that because it was in February). It was a grand affair at the National Building Museum in Washington DC. Everything was paid for and there was a theme each year. The food was good. And it was nice to introduce my wife to my co-workers and vice versa. These were all the people I spent my days with and now they’d get to meet each other.

The End

There was a lot Terpsys did right. Their only major misstep was relying on one single, huge contract. When they lost that contract, most of the company lost their jobs. Many people transitioned to the new company who won the contract and many more, like myself, left entirely to pursue other work.

The sad truth in contracting is the only way to get a major raise or promotion is to move jobs. In the past 7 years, I’ve doubled my salary by moving around every couple of years.

I tend to get bored with my work I do about two and a half years into where I’m working. I know the work. I’ve mastered it and I have no other challenges to meet. So it’s time for something new. And because the contracts are so narrow, there’s nowhere to move within the contracting company and the client’s site has nothing since you don’t work for them.

So it’s time to move. I’ve made wildly differing amounts of money for the same work. It just depends who the client was and the size of the contract. Money is always flexible. At the end of the day, I have to make the best decision for me. And often times that decision is to move on. Whether there’s a big event like losing a contract, or I need a new challenge.

Contentment

The current landscape in the web encourages this movement. Even when employed in a position, designers and developers are not truly employees, but hired guns. How often do we see a talented designer hired by a company leave in under two years? I’m not sure if dissatisfaction is the cause, but the “grass-is-greener” mentality seems alive and well in our industry.

via Chris Bowler’s Cultivating Contentment

I see the same problem in the IT Support industry. I’ve worked in tech support for nearly a decade and I’ve always felt like a nomadic hired guns. This goes double for large corporations and government agencies.

There are very few full-time employees. And the few positions that are full-time are managers and executive staff. Basically, the overseers of the crowd of IT contractors they use to perform the jobs of the department.

The help desk techs. The desktop support techs. The network and server administrators. All these people are contractors. Maybe we stay for ten years and have a great career in one place. But more often, we tend to roam from place to place as we get bored, company culture changes or we just want something new.

There is no end to the available work because IT Support is always in demand and the grass is always green.

Helpless Desk

When was the last time you called the help desk and got someone who was just as clueless as you were?

That’s most likely because they can’t. They are a contractor brought on for a short-term project like a large rollout or a merger. They may be an outsourced technician sitting in another state or another country. It may even be a local person who is technically savvy. However, they can’t help you for a number of reasons.

This is the reality of the IT Support industry. Technicians are a dime a dozen and passed around like pawns in a game of tech chess. In this day and age, it is considered cheaper and easier for a company to hire a bunch of contractors to help support their employees or their customers. ((This should give you an idea of how the company views your employment or patronage.))

The skills required for these positions are pretty basic. Can you ping a PC? How do you look up and IP address? These things are poor indicators of how a person speaks to customers, their problem solving skills or how the prospect prioritizes issues. Help Desks in particular have their challenges. Your knowledge is expected to be a mile wide and an inch deep. A good technician knows how to Google the answer or consult documentation, if it exists.

Technicians who are hired to support you, the customer, often have no idea how to use the applications they are supporting. In some cases, the technician doesn’t even have access to the application you’re using.

I am in such a situation. I was plucked from the ranks of unemployment to help support a software rollout to a company who got bought out prior to the financial free-for-all.

My contract was to support a software application being pushed out to the company being merged into the behemoth. This is internal, proprietary software I have known about for a little over a month. Despite being trained on this software I still have nowhere near the ability or knowledge to properly support this application.

My knowledge within the Windows and Office realm is wide and deep. This knowledge of hardware and software allows me to diagnose with a high degree of certainty the problem and in most cases to determine a solution.

I can troubleshoot with the best of them. Even in most cases when I am not familiar with the software I am supporting, I can use my existing knowledge and resources to support it to the satisfaction of my customers. In this situation, the software is so complex and has so many components there is no amount of reasonable deduction which will allow me to resolve issues with any degree of certainty.

I was hired with 17 others who share a variety of technical backgrounds and competencies. So when calling our help desk, as in many places, there is a good chance you’re reaching someone who knows less than you do about the software in question. And where does that leave the caller?

This is not the exception, but the rule for the industry. It is the framework which most businesses are built on and IT Support is a security blanket.

Think about all the places where computers are found in business today. Do you have a website? Do you keep records electronically? Is your cash register a computer? Technology is everywhere. With this technology proliferation, comes an army of technicians supporting the software and hardware you depend on to keep your business running.

IT Support is necessary in today’s age. However, with this necessity has not come an investment in quality. Every IT job I’ve ever held has been a contract. Every time I am hired the “temp to perm” carrot is dangled in front of me. But it never happens, and I doubt it ever will. Why invest money and time in your support technician when you can go out and find another one just as easily?

Why not make the investment in your tech workers? We’re cheaper as contractors. We can be easily replaced. We have all the loyalty you’d expect from a contractor. ((Loyal until something better comes along.)) There is no long-term investment made in the development or retention of your technicians so there is no investment of time and attention made by the technician to your company. You see us as pawns, we see you as kings. Kings who sign our pay check but the moment a rival kingdom comes calling we’ll leave for more money or a shorter commute.

Full time jobs are secure. Employees have good benefits for themselves and their families. The job won’t disappear at the drop of a hat. None of these are the case for contractors. These are the realities of being an IT contractor. You may do an excellent job and still get laid off. I was laid off in October 2008 in a round of budget cuts. I was the last person hired so I was the first person let go.

I have been on both sides of this equation. Right out of college I worked for a government agency for a year. The contract and money ran out after the year so I was let go. The same situation exists where I worked previously. I was hired on a 6 month contract and when it ends, it ends. And afterwards, I would be unemployed again regardless of the quality of my work. I have also been on the flip side.

When I began work for a Honeywell manufacturing plant, it was for no other reason than Honeywell’s support contract was bought out by another corporation. As a result, the people who were on site, supporting Honeywell’s employees and applications everyday were suddenly without a job through no fault of their own.. Instead of keeping the current techs, they were kicked to the curb and replaced by myself and one other person who had no working knowledge of the site and its particular setup and challenges.

Instead of keeping the people who had been doing the job for many months, if not years before us, they were fired and I was hired. All the accumulated knowledge and familiarity was lost. The same thing happened nine months later when I caught wind of dissatisfaction between Honeywell and my company who had hired me I looked for a speedy exit before I was shown the door.

The high rate of turnover because companies won’t invest in their techs is one of the biggest problems in the industry. You can get someone else to support your customers or employees for less money. However, in doing so the quality of that support diminishes. There is nothing more frustrating when someone calls for help and the person they called to help cannot help.