5 posts

Making Peace with the Wisdom of the Crowd

(Courtesy of Tom Taylor via Flickr)

Being a graphic designer, there is probably nothing that raises my hackles more than the idea of crowdsourcing. For me, it is yet another thing helping to monetarily and creatively devalue my career in this time where no one has any budget for anything. Yes, I admit it, I’m bitter and this may or may not be sort of a rant. I went to school for design and have spent many years trying to get people to understand that it is not about drawing nice pictures but helping a client communicate his or her mission the most effective way possible. Now, with lack of budgets and people continuing to undervalue my service profession, I am getting more and more squeezed out. Rather than a lawyer, a doctor, or an accountant whose service people seek out, I am becoming no different from someone whose job has been shipped overseas. So how is it possible to make peace with something that threatens my very livelihood? Whether I like it or not, this is not a new phenomenon nor will it go away and how should I learn to make it work for me?

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Escaping the Bounds of “Regular” Employment in IT

Let me tell you a tale of a former IT worker. He started out as a Novell server administrator, then moved on to Windows NT, then moved on to Solaris, and AIX, and Linux, and Mainframe, and middleware, and webmaster, and finally became a first line manager while also doing technical work.

What started out as a fun 9 to 5 job soon became 8 to 5 and then 8 to 6 and then 7 to 6 and then hey I’m bored on a sunny Saturday summer afternoon, let me blow into the office and get some stuff done while no one is using the system.

And then there were Easter weekends spent relocating server farms from one building to another, and Fourth of Julys spent on conference calls with the customer, and New Years Eves spent on conference bridges with dozens of people making sure everything ran as the clock ticked over.

And then there were plans with friends canceled at the last minute, and parties he never got to go to, and lunches not taken, and vacations that were basically a Blackberry and a laptop taken to another state where he worked four hours a day instead of ten or twelve. Some vacation.

None of this extra time worked was ever compensated. He never got comp time or overtime pay. It was just expected that he would put in the hours because it was a part of the job.

And then, when he thought things were really moving along, after about 15 years of constant advancement, his employer pulled the rug out from under him and laid him off. In the middle of the worst recession, ever.

What to do, what to do? He picked himself up, inventoried his skills, and talked to some guys who used to work for him when he was a first line manager. These guys were contractors, and they had the life. They did not work overtime, because they were paid for overtime. They did not worry about making sure that silly, pointless annual reviews were completed. They did not worry about process and procedure. They came in, did what they were hired to do, and they went home. The end.

So he learned the ins and outs of being an IT contractor from people who had been in the business for a good number of years… and now he passes their advice on to you.

First and foremost: Are you a corp-to-corp contractor, or are you a W2 contractor? This is a critical decision. If you are a W2 contractor, you are an employee of a recruiting or consulting firm. You will have taxes taken out of your pay, you will probably have access to health insurance and a 401(k). You will not earn paid time off for sickness or vacation.

If you are a corp-to-corp contractor, you are responsible for errors and omissions insurance, you have to pay all the taxes that a W2 employer would pay, you do not have access to any group health insurance or retirement plans and yes, you also do not earn paid time off, because you are treated as a corporate entity, not an employee. So why would a contractor choose to be a corp-to-corp contractor? Money. Plain and simple. A recruiting company looking for a contract employee will usually offer two rates: a W2 rate and a corp-to-corp rate. A junior system administrator role, for example, would probably pay $42 an hour at a W2 rate and $55 an hour at a corp-to-corp rate.

If you think you want to hang with the big dogs and be a corp-to-corp contractor, consider that the following is a list of a few of the many items you will be responsible for: computer hardware and software; office equipment and furniture; business stationery and marketing materials; web site hosting and design; costs of incorporation; marketing and advertising; car and other business travel; business entertainment; telecommunications services; accounting, legal and other professional services; and ongoing training, professional books, subscriptions, and memberships.

Scary, huh? There are people with an eye for business who can keep track of all these things and still knock out great technical work, day in and day out. If that’s not you, look for a W2 consulting gig.

You’ve decided what type of contractor you will be and have taken the appropriate steps. Now: what skills do you have to offer? Take a look at your last few positions, or your duties over the last few years if you only had one employer. What could you call yourself a “subject matter expert” in, what topics did people come to you first for answers when they had a thorny problem? Do you have any certifications or special training? Things like these will dictate how you market yourself.

If you specialize in one thing (database administration, web design, security, etc) then it gets even easier to find the right job. Employers looking for hired guns like specialists, because they (think they) know what they are getting.

If you are a generalist, you’ve got a bit of an uphill climb. Do you work on multiple platforms? Can you handle database administration and web design and system administration and network design and implementation? Look for contract gigs in all of those areas, and tailor your resume for each gig you apply for. Yes, it’s more work, but them’s the breaks. You’ve got lots of skills, and the employer who picks you will be grateful for them.

Once you have landed your first consulting job, there’s things you have to do outside of work hours. First, you have to keep prospecting for new business. Keep reaching out to contract firms, recruiting firms, former co-workers. Anyone who could possibly get you a job. Second, you have to have some sort of filing system. Get a filing cabinet and start organizing receipts, contracts, work orders, legal papers, anything related to your consulting gigs. Setup regular backups for your computers and follow the backup schedule with the fervor of a true believer. Oh, and be sure to occasionally do restores, too, so you can be sure that your backups are actually backing things up.

Time management — it’s critical! You’re billing by the hour, and more likely than not, you’re working from home or at a remote location. You must develop the discipline to work during the hours you’re billing, and not “clock out” to go shopping, corral the kids, watch a movie, etc. Work hours are sacred, and not to be interrupted, because as a contractor you have lost the ability to tell your employer “my dog ate it” or “I got backed up by other stuff and I’ll have that done next Tuesday.” That ain’t gonna fly any more. You have to be better, faster and smarter than the “regular” employees.

Just so you know, sound time management will pay you back handsomely, because while you’re working like a demon during work hours, you’re also not working during non-work hours. If you are not on the clock, you are free as a bird. This is the wonderful part of the consulting gig. At the appointed hour, turn off that laptop and run for the hills! Enjoy your ability to completely divorce yourself from your job while the “regular employees” you work with suffer working unpaid overtime until they drop. Just don’t rub their noses in it, mmmkay?

Next up — mind your technology. Are you still using Windows 95? Of course you aren’t. Make a plan to keep your technology and your skills current. You can take a tax deduction (check with your accountant on the rules around this — you DO have an accountant, right?) for training and other job related expenses. Schedule time every month to visit vendor websites, in-person demonstrations, and networking groups. Budget hardware and software upgrades, and participate in beta test programs so you can see what’s coming before the general public, and your client base. Buy technical books and read them. If that’s not for you, look for classes in your field at your local community college.

Once you’ve established yourself as an IT consultant, you are free to pick and choose your assignments, concentrating on areas you find interesting and challenging. While you’re chewing on that, consider these questions to determine whether this is something you want to do.

  • Do You Thrive in a Constantly Changing Work Environment? Consultants are on the move, from client to client, working in a variety of organizations. To succeed, you must be able to quickly adapt to your changing environment and get up to speed.
  • Can You Handle the Pressure of Constant Deadlines and Commitments? More often than not, consultants work on time-sensitive projects and are constantly pressured to deliver, deliver, deliver. Can you handle the stress?
  • Do You Have Strong Team-Building and Leadership Skills? Teaming is the preferred method of operation in most companies today. Virtually no one works independently. Rather, you are engaged as a consultant to either participate on a team or lead it. Do you have the required management, leadership and communication skills to work with a team?
  • Are You a Talented, Confident, Articulate and Self-Motivated Marketer? Most consultants, other than those employed with the largest consulting firms, must sell their consulting services to build new client relationships. Regardless of your specialization, you must be an astute marketer who can quickly communicate your knowledge, expertise and value to prospective clients.

So there you have it. You can go the W2 consulting route, and have a company pimp you out, or if you are the Gordon Gecko type, you can captain your own ship through the choppy waters of business.

Or, you can remain an employee, put in extra uncompensated time, and be under-appreciated.

The choice is yours.

Toiling for a Tool? Ten Telltale Signs

Do you own your own business? Does your father speak like Mr. Bottomtooth on Family Guy, and let you draw a (no show) paycheck – from the company that amazingly bears the same last name as yours, while you spend the Summer banging chicks all across the European Continent as your Eurail pass hangs out of the back pocket of your Gap chinos? Well this post isn’t for you, Bunky. Move along. I’ll wait a sec….

Now, if the rest of the unwashed masses (me included) are ready, here are ten easy ways to see if you are toiling for a tool.

1. Does your micro-managing, vinyl-shoe wearing boss hover around your workspace and see if you are sending personal emails or taking personal calls and generally being unproductive? Tool.

2. Does your boss ask if you have finished Project X, as you are walking out to a much-needed, Wednesday liquid lunch? Tool.

3. If your boss likens your productivity to that of a sedated tree-sloth, during written review time, on letterhead, and makes you sign it. Tool.

4. If your boss mentions to you, in the break room – in front of the mouth-breathing HR Temp – that this is the fifth time this month you’ve been late, but never compliments you for taking the goddamn red-eye back from the mind-numbingly, soul-crushing conference she made you attend against your will, so that you don’t miss another workday? Tool.

5. When your boss is leaving at 11 a.m. on Thursday for a long weekend of cough syrup, TV Dinners, and masturbating until the sobbing starts and he dumps the vague outline of a Powerpoint he has to have for his ass-kissing meeting with Corporate at 9 a.m. Monday. Yes, he’s a tool.

6. Upon being reduced to throwing yourself under the warehouse forklift and jeopardizing “Slow Dave” the driver’s retirement in order to secure the afternoon off because your boss requires 946 hours prior notice. Tool.

7. When look forward to hunkering down in your basement and devoting every one of the precious few hours you have to yourself, at night, after work, searching the internet for: odorless, tasteless, easily purchased, fast acting, nervous system crippling, sphincter bleeding, sweet sweet poison for your boss – when you should be sleeping. Tool.

8. After enduring another closed-door conference call to your one and only new perspective client this month – in which you luckily closed some new business, no thanks to Mr. Has-No-Clue who insisted he “sit in” and now you can eat this month and by the skin of your teeth and sheer will, you barely survive the olfactory assaulting, gag-inducing aroma of those sense-stultifying, Sansabelt pants he’s worn for the third time this week and he has the nads to attempt a high-five and a “bro hug?” Tool.

9. If you refuse to talk about your personal, weekend business with your boss, which may or may not include: using your home-made trebuchet to hurl cat-eye marbles at Mitzy, your patient, but struggling goldfish; wearing neoprene; huffing modeling glue; abusing the On-Demand porn privilege with Comcast (to the point of a warning call), but she sees you as the perfect sounding board for an opinion of her newly e-bay purchased, Civil War Reenactment costume she is currently modeling before you. Tool.

10. If your boss waits until you are in the communal commode to take his “morning squirt,” which he does whilst humming the entire theme to Rocky, while you, once again, and hopefully this time successfully, evacuate the four pounds of government cheese you had to subsist on this past weekend and have been painfully carrying around in your lower intestine. Tool.

Hopefully, this will help you identify the tool you work for.