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Contracting Adventures Lay Ahead…

Indiana Jones
Taking on new contracting positions is always an adventure. Indiana Jones knows all about that!

It’s been a quiet start to 2016 for me, even though there have been some things going on for me “behind the curtain”. I wasn’t ready to share just yet, but I think I am now, since things have settled down for the moment.

My contract as a knowledge management specialist ended early. The projects that they kept saying to me, “They are coming…we’re waiting for approval…” fell through. Two of them. They also didn’t have any other work for me to do, so understandably, they cut the contract short. Unlike some other jobs, I was greatly relieved to be released. I did not feel that this particular position and company was a great fit. Even though I truly tried to give it a chance, I remember not having good feeling about the place from my first day of work there, and my gut instincts were right. It wasn’t a good match in the end, and the fact that they didn’t plan well for my presence there proved that.

In the meantime, I had two events that changed the picture rather quickly.

TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)
TechCommGeekMom speaking at the PANMA/STC-PMC February 2016 meeting (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC)

First, I was invited to be a panelist/presenter for a meeting that combined the Philadelphia Area New Media Association (PANMA) and the STC-Philadelphia Metro Chapter memberships. The meeting was about freelancing and contracting. Each group contributed two speakers, and I was one of the two representing the STC (the other was my friend, David Calloway). I was the last one to present or speak, and to be honest, I came completely unprepared. I thought it’d be a quick introduction thing, and then moderators would ask questions based on our experiences and background. (I guess I’ve been watching too many American political debates lately.) I was glad that I went last of the four presenters. Although the other three presenters covered much of what I would’ve said, I still had a few things to contribute. David and I took the stance of being contractors rather than freelancers. And as you might remember, several months ago I started my own freelancing company, but it hasn’t quite taken off yet.

But I will admit, listening to the others, I had a big realization of my own that night. I’ve been a contractor for several years, but not of my own choosing. I’ve tried finding full-time employee jobs, and it hasn’t happened in years. I think the last time I was not a part-time person or a non-contract person, it was still the 20th century! Yet perhaps, without my knowledge, I’ve already been a freelancer by default of being a long-term contractor.

That was my “A-HA!” moment, as Mitchell Levy likes to call it. I realized that yes, perhaps I have been a freelancer all along, and perhaps it really isn’t so bad to constantly be getting contract jobs. After the meeting, I told my husband about the discussion, and he pointed out that there was great opportunity in being a contractor. The biggest thing he pointed out was that each contracting job was an opportunity to learn new things. I would learn more about different industries, and often I’d learn more about new software, new procedures, and generally pick up a few new skills. I would also learn more about myself, namely what I’m good at, what I’m not as good at, and what I actually like doing.  The more I thought about it, I realized that he was right. These are all opportunities to hone different parts of myself, both in improving what I do well, learning new things, and gaining insight about what is best about my capabilities and how to use them.

Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).
Group of PANMA and STC panelists, February 2016 (Photo courtesy of Timothy Esposito for STC-PMC).

Now, not everyone can be a contractor. It’s not easy because of complications of being a non-employee, thus you don’t get the same rights and benefits, like affordable health insurance, as a contractor. Some agencies that contract out do offer these benefits, but they are usually at a higher rate than at a large company. But, at the same time, there are certain flexibilities that a contractor has. If a contractor is careful with personal finances, he/she can take time off, or work more than one position over time. Granted, in 99.99% of cases, if you don’t work, you don’t get paid. So, for example, when I go to the STC Summit in May for about a week, I won’t be paid for “paid vacation”. In fact, a contractor doesn’t get any paid vacation. You get paid for the hours that you work. So, that can be good, and can be bad. If you are a good contractor, you communicate these occasions with your manager, and you ensure that you are caught up with your work to be able to do this, it provides a little flexibility that an employee doesn’t have.

I’ve lamented the woes of being a consultant recently, and it was especially because I was in a bad situation. It was not a good fit, and the worse parts of being a contractor were at their absolute worse. But now that I’ve been away from that, with the help of this PANMA/STC-PMC panel last week, I’m starting to change my attitude a little bit.

With that in mind, I took a new job that started this week…as a contractor. I will be working for a global insurance company as a content writer/copywriter for their global self-service websites. This is a big change for me, because while you’ve known me as a social media writer, I really haven’t done any writing for a company this way before. I originally was reluctant to take the job, as it’s a far commute than what I’m used to and I’m taking a significant pay cut to do this job. But, I saw it as an opportunity to actually put my technical writing, editing, and UI/UX experiences to work in a different way, so it’s worth a try. After all, the contract is only for six months with a possibility for extention. Unlike the last position I took in which I had a sinking feeling about it (and my instincts were right about it), I have a better feeling about this position. After completing my first day, I think it’ll be a challenge to do things from a different perspective, but I liked the group of people I’ll be working with, the environment was more inviting, and I could tell that the work we’d be doing is much more in line with my experiences.  While I’ll be learning to do copywriting the way they want, I’ll still be using skills I’ve acquired from all the conferences, webinars, grad school, and social media experiences I’ve had. In other words, I think this is a much better fit, and I think I can learn something positive from this position, which makes me feel much better about taking the position.  Everyone was speaking tech language that I understood, and I was deep in the mix with information architects and visual designers as well as spending a lot of time with the other copywriter on my first day. I think it’s going to be a good thing!

I’ve also been continuing to work on a part-time basis with my old content strategist/management job at BASF. It’s my “moonlighting” job, as I call it, but it helps keep those skills fresh at the same time while working with another company that I truly like.

See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.
See? Even the old Templar Knight agrees with this attitude change.

These next months are going to be obviously very busy, but I think they’ll provide some good insights into something new for me. I’ll be able to truly write blog posts from a technical writing and UI/UX perspective based on new experiences. Hopefully, future contracting positions will also be providing great learning experiences along the way. Perhaps embracing being a contractor means that I will be more of an adventurer than I thought.




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What was TechCommGeekMom’s 2015 Top of the Pops?

Florence and The Machine think that TechCommGeekMom's Top of the Pops 2015 is smashing. (Source:
Florence and The Machine think that TechCommGeekMom’s Top of the Pops 2015 is smashing. (Source:

I always find it interesting to see what stories people end up gravitating to each year on TechCommGeekMom, and along with other year-end summaries, I like to figure out what were the most popular blog posts for a given year. Sometimes, it’s something that’s archived from an earlier year. That’s good, because I try to write or post things that will have long-term relevance as often as possible.  However, I’m usually interested in what was written THIS year that came out to be the most popular of all original information posted that wasn’t an archived post or a curated topic posted.

So, this year’s “Top of the Pops” for 2015 are:

  1. WHEW! Dodged a bullet on that one.
  2. What’s my value as a technical communicator?
  3. More localization and user-friendly features in the new Framemaker 2015
  4. Oh, the Academian and the Practitioner should be friends…Engaging TechComm Professionals
  5. Move over, Google Glass! HoloLens is here!
  6. Online Student Again – Part 3: Social Media Marketing–Now You’re Talking My Language!
  7. Online Student Again: Part 1
  8. Ready to learn tech comm or instructional design in 2015? Check these out…
  9. Stage 2 of non-pudding brain: It’s official. I’m a student again.
  10. It’s easy being a consultant? Think again!
  11. Weight Loss is like Content Strategy, Part 2: It needs to be Agile

What’s interesting to observe from a statistical perspective is that the top three almost tied for first place–#1 has one more view than the next two, which are tied.

I’m also pleased to see that most of my most popular posts this year were ones that came from the heart, based on personal experiences or observations. I’ve often argued that social media is a medium in which people discussed things and could more closely relate to each other because there is the ability to have more personal experiences and have the opportunity to connect and respond. The fact that many of these top blog posts relating to my job woes, trying to provide DIY training for myself, and trying to take positive steps towards the continual advancing of my career are relatable topics–that I’m not the only one going through these feelings and experiences. I almost always try to open up conversations with my blogs–for better or worse–and the reflection of the top original posts for 2015 reflect that.

The last one I listed was something personal that I wanted to include. This showed a big part of my weight loss and self-improvement journey I’m on right now. I’m still on that journey, having made a bold move in the last few weeks (something that I may write about soon, but not yet). I was glad to see that truly personal topics matters, and that even when relating it to something in technical communications, people responded positively towards it. My weight loss journey is a deeply personal one, and something that I don’t have to share, but I do, simply because I think all of us can relate to a non-tech comm struggle like that easily.

What will 2016 bring? Stay tuned…plans, resolutions, and predictions coming soon!

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It’s easy being a consultant? Think again!

Even Sherlock Holmes has a hard time as a consultant in his field. (image from
Even Sherlock Holmes has a hard time as a consultant in his field. (image from

I was recently reminded of how challenging it can actually be to be a consultant in this world. As a result, it was suggested to me (thanks, Marc Gravez!) that perhaps it would be a good idea to write and share what it really means to be a consultant.

We need to start with the general perception of what a consultant is. Most people think that consultants are mega-experts in their field that focus only on specific skills. Consultants advise others on how to do certain tasks, and only stay for a short amount of time at a job. Consultants are paid the big bucks, and are independent workers, so they don’t need benefits because they can buy their own–they are independent entrepreneurs of sorts. These individuals want to be consultants, and aren’t looking for permanent work. Because they are at a project for a short amount of time, they do not make any personal connections with clients, and don’t need to be integrated into the company team working on a project. Likewise, when it comes to team or company activities, they don’t care about being included, because their own company does things with them outside of the company.

While I can understand why people would think this way, over many years, I’ve discovered that very rarely are these perceptions are true. In fact, this view is a little bit skewed, and this became very clear once I became consultant myself.

To clarify, there are some independent consultants who are mini-entrepreneurs who do like working on short-term projects, moving around, and making a good salary in the process. However, in my experience, there aren’t many of those out there necessarily, or only a few of those factors are in play.  I would venture to guess that many–if not most– consultants are not voluntarily consultants.  For example, I’ve been looking for a full-time position for about 8 years now, and have yet to find one.  I take consulting jobs to keep my income going, because even temporary work pays more than unemployment or unemployment benefits. I’ve met many people like myself who are in the same situation.

From what I’ve discovered, a “consultant” is a fancy term for a temporary worker with more than administrative assistant level skills (which justifies the higher than admin assistant level salaries).  With the economy as it is, many companies are afraid to hire skilled workers full-time because they are more expensive to hold onto long-term due to benefits, insurance, etc.  I understand that. Very often, that’s what companies think that they need.  However, the disruption of getting temporary workers changing every few months to every few years is not helpful to a company who is looking for consistency. As I said, some people like to be able to change jobs every few months or every other year, but most would prefer to have some employment stability–or at least as much as a regular employee would have. The longest assignment I’ve had to date, since entering the tech comm field, is two and a half years–which is fairly long. The longest assignment I’ve heard of is three years, unless some consultant works more as a vendor than a consultant. Sometimes consultants are converted into full-time employees, but those instances are very rare. There have been SO many times when I was hoping for such a conversion for myself, and it didn’t materialize to my frustration, even when I was told that I was a valuable member of the team and my manager was pleased with my output. I had one “client” even tell me that they just had to hand a project over, and then “let go of the reins”–they didn’t have to worry about me messing anything up, and they knew the project was in good hands. How do you not hire someone like that after more than 2 years? It’s not just me, but many aren’t.

It’s also thought that they are super specialized–and some are. But I’m willing to bet there are a lot of consultants out there that are like me, that have multiple talents and skills waiting to be used. I do content strategist and management tasks mostly, but I can also write and edit, do intermediate level graphics work, interact and write on social media and blog, help build e-learning modules– there’s more than one facet to me.  Often, consultants are not allowed to grow and develop their skills as much because they are limited to the task they are hired for, and their client isn’t about to help with professional development. Professional development becomes the responsibility of the consultant if they want to keep up with their field, and be able to either keep the assignment they have, or be able to find something else in the future. The cost of that professional development comes out of the consultant’s pocket, and it’s not cheap by any means. This is not only detrimental for the consultant, but it can also be detrimental for a company, because if they have a long-term consultant, they aren’t investing much in helping their company grow, just in the same way that they claim that investing in professional development for employees helps their employees grow, thus the company grows. It’s a double-edged sword. Even a discounted investment, if not full investment, in a consultant’s professional development, would be helpful for all parties involved.

Consultants are thought to be well paid. And generally, they are. But, as far as being super rich as a result? HA! Consulting can be lucrative if you are representing yourself and you are not working from an agency. Agencies try to get you a fair hourly pay rate, but because they are the “middle man”, they get a huge cut of what the company/client is paying. So, if you got all the funds from the company directly, then yes, you’d be making big money! But as it is, you hope for a fair rate. The only advantage of working through an agency, as I see it, is that they will figure out how much taxes and fees to take out of your paycheck. You are actually an employee of the agency, not the client/company you are working at. If you are an independent consultant without an agency, sure, the extra money that would be the agency fee would be yours, but then you’d be needing to ensure that YOU are taking out the taxes from your incoming paychecks. Additionally, while some agencies offer some benefits, they are often overpriced benefits that aren’t worth the money. I get my medical benefits through my husband’s job, because I’ve yet to have an agency offer a package that would benefit me (or my family) at a reasonable cost. Additionally, independent consultants have to pay for the benefits 100% out of their own pockets, and at least with American medical insurance, that’s a huge sum of money. So in the end, they don’t make as much as an employee does, or probably makes less or the same as an employee does, with less benefits. Additionally, consultants aren’t paid a salary, but rather an hourly rate. No paid sick leave or paid vacations. You don’t work–you don’t get paid. That’s less money right there, alone.

Lastly, consultants are PEOPLE, not robots. We like to interact with other people, and we often enjoy being part of a team. Most of the time, we are treated the same as employees in the workplace when it comes to our daily responsibilities and output, with the same expectations. But when it comes time for rewards, recognition, and simple company inclusion, consultants are left out in the cold. We are the “red-headed stepchildren” of the workforce. We aren’t allowed to participate in the company picnic, get any praise for a job or project that’s done well, or get the bonus or “holiday gift” at the end of the year for all our hard work unless our personal manager decides to give a holiday token gift as a small thank you. I understand that companies can’t pay for everyone because some consultants would start to say they deserve all the rights and privileges of being an employee–even try to pass themselves off as employees– when they are not, but some companies are outright draconian with it. And often, this grand divide between employees and consultants is further widened because consultants are left in the cold.

For example, a company I know gave their employees both a bonus AND and expensive wearable device as an employee gift.  Some of the employees complained that they didn’t want it because it wasn’t compatible with their Android phone (okay, valid point), but they whined about it in front of the consultants. What did the consultants get? Nothing. Just an earful of complaints about the gift from the employees. My experience is that consultants do know their place and function in the company. Consultants are usually happy to get whatever they can, because they’re just happy that they are EMPLOYED AT ALL! There was another occasion where I had worked on a very large team project, and everyone on the team except me got an extra bonus and reward because of the company’s reward and recognition program. It was the first time I had actually been recognized for my work, and I couldn’t even benefit from it because I was a consultant. (I admit, I cried about it, because it was the first time in my entire career I had been recognized for my work in any way, and here I was left out again only because I was a consultant and not an employee.) I was fortunate that the client wanted to do something about that so I wouldn’t feel left out, and they were kind enough to make sure that the agency forwarded a token “bonus” of sorts to me. It was an exception, but it meant so much to me because I worked so hard on that project–as much as any employee if not more than some of those employees, and I had never been recognized for my professional work before. It was a kind gesture, but ultimately, it still wasn’t the same as being an employee.  Being a consultant often means being left out in the cold, the persona non gratis, at the workplace, and it can be a lonely, un-fulfilling feeling.

Being a consultant is not glamourous or Ab Fab.
Being a consultant is not glamorous or Ab Fab.

Being a consultant is not all that glamorous. We work as hard–sometimes harder–than your average employee so that we can try to keep up or move ahead. Some consultants can turn their independence into a thriving business–they are the lucky ones. Most of us are merely those who struggle to find some stability and security in their career, working for agencies, taking what assignments we can get so that we still use the skills that we have and pay our bills.  We are team players, and we can fill in gaps as needed, but even when we are the star players, we are treated like bench warmers. Sure, life isn’t fair, but in that respect, consultants need to be treated with more respect in the workplace as a result. They are doing jobs that perhaps no one else can do–or wants to do, and they are trying to do their best to help your company pull ahead, and they don’t get to reap any of the benefits of doing so, other than knowing they do a good job.

So, support your local consultants. They often contribute to your company as much as any employee does. They invest themselves into what’s best for your company as much as any employee. Like I said, most would love a full-time job, but there are few to be had. They are resourceful people who keep going on many short-term positions with no guarantee of a next assignment right away.  I wouldn’t mind being a full-time independent consultant either, but again, figuring out where each next assignment is going to come from is not a guarantee, either.  It’s time that consultants are given more credit and compassion than they get now.

If you are a consultant, do you agree with my assessment? Do you like being a consultant, or would you prefer more stable employment? Do you have anything to add to the discussion? Add your comments below. I would like to hear about other people’s experiences and perspectives.