Is more expected of contractors than permies?

A product is "quality," if it is fit for its purpose. Never mind it might be made of plastic, cost next to nothing and dissolve into thin air within a month, if it does the job it was purchased for, for a length of time accepted by the customer, then it is a quality product.

It's all about managing expectations.

So when a contractor appears at a new site in a smart car, waving the latest fashionable skills on a professionally produced CV, after being selected for a role nobody else could fulfil, what are the permanent members of staff supposed to expect?

"The rest of my team are permies and I can't help but feel that I'm expected to know and do more than them," says Spike, a Wintel Analyst with a large financial services company, writing on the CUK bulletin board.

Some of the expectations are about money, "if you're paid so much, you must be good." Although there is a lot of ignorance surrounding contractor pay as contractor, Oracle Smith, points out, "Even if your remuneration, after taxes, NI etc., isn't that far from a regular permie salary, they [permies] won't know that," he says.

Smith believes the circumstances of a contractor's position dictate high expectations. "It's a requirement of being a contractor to behave as an outsider because you are a hired hand, brought in to provide expert skills."

It's like the magnificent seven riding into town to save the hapless permies and their modest little IT project.

"It is quite normal to be brought in only when there are problems," writes Paddy. "I've got used to being told that the previous permie has been trying to sort out a problem for six months. After a few hours on site, and being unfamiliar with the client's configuration, they will pester me, asking 'have I fixed it yet?'"

But not all contracts are for specialist skills to fill a niche in an existing team. Companies sometimes create entire project teams from contract staff because of the flexibility to hire and fire, and to suffer fewer complications in terms of employment rights.

Even so, you're still expected to "hit the ground running," explains Robert Wallace, contract developer.

"Another company has done the training, or I've paid for it myself, and that's what they buy," he says. "I've never had a contract where they've taken me on for my broad CV and then trained me in a specific task."

Other aspects of contracting contribute to high expectations: immunity to staff politics; fewer holidays; less sick leave; and, not least, enthusiasm, which sometimes deserts jaded permies.

However, there is a point where you can outperform expectations. Experienced contractors have seen it all, but many remain in relatively junior positions, despite a vast experience, simply because there is more work for Indians than for chiefs.

Wallace has learned to be diplomatic. With 18 years of contracting under the belt, fulfilling roles from programmer to project leader, he tries to perform his assigned role and not tread on toes.

"It's very difficult when you have an inexperienced team lead or project manager. But companies often like to give senior positions to permies, and my role is to take orders and only sometimes advise," he says.

Which is where quality comes in. Wallace tries to fulfil the company's expectations but not offer too much in addition unless specifically asked.

"Pointing out inadequacies, mocking other's designs and ripping apart legacy systems are all things I've done in the past, and, not surprisingly, they've never got me anything other than bad working relationships. Even constructive criticism is not usually well received."

His advice is to stick to the task you've been asked to do, do it well, and politely make suggestions only if a diplomatic opportunity arises.

Like a jigsaw piece, a quality contractor will use the exact skills to fill the space, anything more or less and the picture is incomplete.

William Knight
 

Wednesday 20th Sep 2006