Contracting and Consulting

So you want to be a consultant or a contractor?consultant cartoon.jpg

When I have told tales of some of the contracts and consultancy gigs I have worked, people think it sounds pretty nice. There’s a big bill rate, you escape some of problems of being an employee, what could possibly go wrong, right?

Not always. Sometimes it is no fun at all.

Let me give you two tales of not nice at all.

My first example was the six months that I spent at Fannie Mae in 2006. I worked everything out myself and all I needed was someone on their approved vendor list to front end my billing. A mutual acquaintance suggested that the company on this magical list would serve this purpose. I did not expect to be jerked around in ways that exceeded the usual horror stories that I had experienced in the past.

I did, once upon a time in the roaring 1990s, work for a company that had a silent partner that the two principals at the firm used as an excuse in matters of contract negotiation and such. A very silent partner. So silent, he was a fiction; an imaginary person and a complete fabrication.

I thought that this was pretty questionable behavior, but I was busy working like crazy at the time to keep the understaffed and third-hand infrastructure that was thrust upon me in order and I had limited involvement with the executives in those days. I surely did not expect to see it again.

These guys played a bunch of games with me. They were “too busy” to return a phone call or email for literally months at time on issues like “Hey. When are you guys going to give me the money that you have been paid for my work?” I expected to get my invoices paid on a Net 30, but they were never on time. There were also unexpected contract games which were not part of any deal that we discussed. Anything they could make into a problem was a problem.

At the end of my six month engagement, they decided to keep a nice round number of $25,000 of money paid to them for my work. Upon query, they stated that I had either been issued payment or that they never bothered to invoice Fannie Mae for my work properly. I have yet to collect this outstanding balance.

I imagine that I could sue or submit some kind of criminal complaint, but I honestly didn’t know where to begin with it. I just dropped it and moved on to other projects.

Great times.

Here is another first hand example.

I was in Phoenix and working a contract for a company that was having very substantial problems managing their aging infrastructure after being spun off from a parent company. They decided that the best course of action was to completely outsource their datacenter management. In this case, there could have been no better solution as most of their hardware and software EOL‘d many years previously.

I was pretty surprised that anything was still running.

They even arranged for the vendor to purchase their ancient hardware. Clearly someone there knew what they were doing in negotiation.

If plugging around documenting and troubleshooting systems that were in a very serious state of fragility and neglect wasn’t hard enough, I had to contend with a manager who insisted that I call her “mom” amongst other odd requests.mom01.gif

No no. I never called her mom.

This was one of the worst gigs I have ever had to muddle through. To illustrate, I will include a sanitized email (names removed to protect the guilty) that I sent after things had reached a critical point. After having a lunch meeting with my direct reports’ boss, he asked me to keep him informed about developments with her. He also asked me if I would be interested in a permanent senior position there and was surprised when I gave him a firm negative.

It should also be mentioned that “APS” was an internal application and also a major power utility in the southwest to which some of the technical people had fled when the grand outsourcing adventure began. Removing it from this context would make things too confusing.

While reading this email, see if you can picture me in unflappable chill mode taking notes and speaking diplomatically in an office where someone is occasionally shouting at me and pointing fingers dramatically.

Date: Thu, 10 Jun 2004 14:38:04 -0700
Subject: follow up

I had paged $MANAGER after our lunch meeting with a relaxed and casual request to speak to her. After chasing her on it for an afternoon and all of yesterday, she made some time for me at around 5pm.

The talk began with mention that $DEVELOPER was not pleased with the response time he had been getting from her department and indirectly myself. He apparently voiced a concern that APS was not bring given the priority handling that it should receive. She then informed me that APS should be my top priority, but in this way: “I’ve told you many times that APS is your top priority.” I asked her how this conflicted with my last instruction that sustaining operations was my top priority as was my previous instruction and was given an unclear response.

She had a couple of other issues to address with me. The next item was regarding information transfer to HP staff. Apparently it is important for me not to tell them that there is not a process in place when there is not a process in place for things, but rather to divert them by saying “I’ll check up on that” and page $MANAGER and await a response. She was unable to give me an example of an instance that I had erroneously informed HP staff of our lack of a policy or procedure when we have one in place.

There was then a question of attendance, working hours, and efficiency. On Tuesday evening, I was here until almost 11pm solving two important issues; one was installing Sun One Studio 8 for $DEVELOPER (APS related) and the other was a workaround for DNS that was requested as a high priority item from infosec that $INFOSECMANAGER asked me to get finished that evening. $MANAGER found general fault with the use of my time on the APS related task in that it was her impression that I did not communicate with the team and did not page her for assistance. I outlined the process of what I went through to solve the problem:

  1. Attempt to find software existing on system. Installation media did not exist on any system.
  2. Attempt to find media in the “software library.” (I put this in quotation as there is no current method in place in organizing software in this department, but it is jammed in various filing cabinets, cubical, and perhaps other locations.) I found old versions of the software that were not of use.
  3. Attempt to download the software from Sun’s download site was temporarily down.
  4. Opened ticket with Sun to get software. They gave me a workaround to download the software via an alternative method since their download webpage was out of service at the time. They provided me the incorrect software. At this time I checked Sun’s download site again and it was operational.
  5. Downloaded software and transferred installation packages to APS servers, installed software, and installed license keys $DEVELOPER provided to me earlier that day.

Her criticism was that I should have asked $DEVELOPER if he had media. $DEVELOPER does not have media as he was kept abreast of my actions and worked to help provide me access to the software. She also mentioned that I should have paged her to ask her where the media could have been and that she would have told me to look in the software library. As I had already taken this action, I asked her what that would have gained me. She had no justification and told me that I was in error.

After being reprimanded for taking a logical and methodical approach to solving this issue given the lack of organization or planning that could have been in place and working the task to its successful conclusion, I asked her what would have happened if I had just bailed on the project at 6pm and had gone home as was her current instruction of what I should have been able to do. I stated that we would be having a very different conversation today if I just dropped the ball on these tasks so that I could be in early the next morning. She then told me that I need to learn to prioritize.

The final issue was one of attendance. She told me that I was chronically late and that she could not count on me because she would never know if I was going to show up. I didn’t make excuses for this, but I did offer that I have had an average time of arrival of 9:30. She told me this was untrue and that it was actually 10 or 11 and sometimes 12 or 1pm. She asked me when I had come in today (Wednesday) and I told her that I arrived shortly before she paged me at 12pm. I volunteered that I had left the office at about 10:45pm last night and was engaged three times by pager between the hours of 12am and 4am. I asked her how I am supposed to manage late working hours to solve problems remaining from the day, being on call for an operations staff that pages unix-on-call for irrelevant, mundane, and frequently with non-specific requests and frequent requests symptomatic of no longer having a international staff, and then arriving in the morning in a timely manner. She had no explanation on how I should accommodate this and told me that she expected me to be here at 9am.

At this point I asked her if she had anything else that I should be aware of or any other points of concern that she wanted to address to me. She took a long moment to consider, and then said that there was not.

So my take-aways from this meeting are:

  • APS is my first priority. Sustaining operations support is also my first priority.
  • I need to get all work accomplished inside of normal working hours. This includes work that needs to be done outside of normal working hours.
  • I need to misinform HP regarding procedures as to, in theory, improve the appearance of current operations.
  • I need to not sleep at all so that I can be in the office on time in the morning, available in evenings to stay late on demand (as these things are always at the last minute) and be on call 24 hours a day when on duty.
  • I need to ask $MANAGER for advice on things I already know how to accomplish.
  • New information is provided in a “you have already been told this multiple times” format.

It should also be mentioned here that there has been issue made of my billable hours even though I bill fewer hours than $UNIXFLUNKY. Without direction from my statement of work or any discussion previous to contract beginning, I have decided that I would bill for what I thought was a fair representation of my time. I had thought that I was erring in favor of $CLIENT and that would be appreciated. It was not.

$SUCKER apparently rarely received a good nights sleep in his tenure here and joked when visiting the office as a consultant that he is apparently no longer sick all the time because he is allowed to sleep at night while consulting at APS where others that used to work here are now employed. It seems this level of self-destructive sacrifice is the expected baseline for salaried employees under $MANAGER.

Hopefully this email is what you were looking for as a follow up. I hope I do not come off as having more of that attitude problem as was addressed to you previously. I have made every effort to handle myself in a diplomatic way while remaining true to my professional convictions.


Ian Gorrie

Contracting and consulting is all about learning how to deal with abuse and conflict resolution in environments where normal measures have been proven insufficient or have broken down completely. Add to this that everyone is aware that you have no real authority in your position all without the larger resources and manpower of an organization.

As an independent contractor, you are often completely on your own with few-to-no allies to draw on.

As a consultant, you are a target and often considered a threat from the staff that you are assisting.

It usually isn’t fair, but that’s the gig. You have to suck it up and somehow get things done as you are graded on completion of whatever the goals of your engagement have been defined. You did get them defined, didn’t you?

There are great moments of high accomplishment and glory, but the lows can be a bottomless pit of despair for the unwary or unlucky.

One response to “Contracting and Consulting

  1. I love that letter. I think it’s just the way that you really don’t embellish anything, but rather remain calm and allow what you experienced to speak for itself. I’d not be inclined to think that someone who tells the tale of such undesirable circumstances in such a matter of fact manner was spinning it.

    I can’t help but wonder whatever happened to “Mom.” Part of me thinks that this was the ammo that $BIGDIRECTOR needed to make some sort of change. The other part figures that this is clearly some sort of large establishment where people like $MANAGER can easily reign for an entire career generation. You know, the places that attract “lifers.”

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