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Working Conditions

I have just started a short contract with a top 100 US utility company, basically all I'll be doing is writing some Perl/VB stuff for about a month. Nothing too hard, very simple and not a challenge at all. This is fine with me, we all need a rest occasionally.
My issue is about my work environment: I have been here for 3 days now, I have no network login, and therefore no access to sourcecode control, my PC is a P1 with 64 MB Ram and a 3 gig hard disk, the operating system is Win95!
I have been placed in a corner which is created by the intersection of a round desk with a square desk, there is a height difference of about 3/4 inch between the two desks. I have not been given a security pass to the door, which means that if I need to go to the bathroom or leave the building I have to hang around the door waiting for somebody who will let me in.
The office I work in is untidy and shows signs of high staff turnover. I have signed a contract for a months work, but its so bad that I don't want to stay, fortunately I will not starve to death if I leave. What is the experience of other contractors out there, I've only been contracting for 4 years and the last two places I worked in were nothing like this. Is this normal?

Andrew
Tuesday, April 16, 2002

Andrew,

I dont think that it is normal, however, its not that bad either.

I once did a six month contract, and I got a PC to work on in the 2nd Month. A lot of weeks reading documents was not that fun.

I think you should just buck down and do the work. Its only a month.

No doubt when you are in the last week you will be given a pass for the door.

I dont think you will gain anything by complaining. If they could have better equipment and a better environment they probably would.

James Ladd
Tuesday, April 16, 2002

My roommate is working somewhere where, not only did they not have a PC and desk for him, they asked him to bring in a laptop so he could start working.

When he got there, no one seemed to care about this laptop, maybe it had a virus of some sort, maybe it was running Solaris, maybe it didn't have an ethernet card. They did provide him with a login and password. They did not provide him with a single piece of software needed to complete the task; he had to scrounge around for things (betas, demos, etc).

This is a US government facility. He is working directly for a part of the US government many would consider critical in these "troubled times".

Luckily my only complaint with my present job is, it's FREEZING in here. :)

spiny norman
Tuesday, April 16, 2002

"My issue is about my work environment: I have been here for 3 days now, I have no network login, and therefore no access to sourcecode control, my PC is a P1 with 64 MB Ram and a 3 gig hard disk, the operating system is Win95!
I have been placed in a corner which is created by the intersection of a round desk with a square desk, there is a height difference of about 3/4 inch between the two desks. I have not been given a security pass to the door, which means that if I need to go to the bathroom or leave the building I have to hang around the door waiting for somebody who will let me in.
The office I work in is untidy and shows signs of high staff turnover. I have signed a contract for a months work, but its so bad that I don't want to stay, fortunately I will not starve to death if I leave. What is the experience of other contractors out there, I've only been contracting for 4 years and the last two places I worked in were nothing like this. Is this normal?"

In my experience, yes, this is normal. It doesn't seem to matter whether the company is tiny near-startup or trading exchange with a trillion pounds a year flowing through it. Some places can get it together, and some places can't.

Most places can't. Occaisionally, you turn up and they hand you a pack with everything you need to know in it. Mostly, you arrive and there's no desk, no machine, no login, no keycards...

Most of the contractors I know tote laptops about with them. They can at least then be getting on with /something/ that makes them look busy while they sit in whichever meeting room is currently free. The trick is not to care. The time you spend waiting to be let in through locked doors is paid for by them.. just make sure you do bill for it.

You can't MAKE companies not be screwed up. If you start trying to point out to them how inefficient this sort of thing is, they'll splutter and get indignant about how large they are, how important they are. They don't want to change. They'll only want to change when the costs of doing business get too high - and currently they can sustain the wastage. Think of it as you taking the wastage: if all their people were running at 100%, they wouldn't be hiring contractors.

Large companies are particularly bad at these things. They seem to think they have a god-given right to make money. Which is why it's always SUCH a shock when they post a loss for a quarter, and they panic and lay off 20% of the workforce.

This translates into needing to be "efficient", but not actually being efficient. The difference is that of not being able to get you a keycard because that needs a director's approval because keycards are expensive versus noticing spending $100 a week of your time having you waiting to be let into the building is actually expensive.


Just... drift with it. Place bets with other contractors if a network login will arrive before the end of the contract...  Read those technical books you've been meaning to for ages. That sort of thing. Just make sure it's at least looking like work. Reading "Lord of the Rings" - bad, reading "Learn Python" - good. Or at least defendable.

Staff turnover is a funny thing. I don't quite understand why companies can't conduct simple logic or make simple observations. Like not being able to hire anyone in a market SATURATED with seekers is somehow not connected with consistently offering less than competitive wages. That there's an order of magnitude difference in staff turn-over rates and that they're on the thick end of that. None of these things get noticed... I think it's down to accounting practices. The money spent recruiting staff is one pile of cash, and being able to reduce that pile of cash by putting more in another pile is an anathema to accountants. It's like cost/benefit analysis only works /within/ a pile of money not between them.

{Yes, it's been another bad day. And so far it's only 8:52am}

Katie Lucas
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

"Reading "Lord of the Rings" - bad, reading "Learn Python" - good."

alternatively, butcher the two and put lotr inside the "Learning Python" cover.

"Yes, it's been another bad day. And so far it's only 8:52am"

:-(  looking on the bright side, it could be worse - it could be 8:52pm and you've spent all day in it. i usually just go home as early as possible on days when everything is bad. if it is a bug that i have spent 4 hours looking at, i often find i can come in the next day and find and fix it it in 20 minutes flat.

nope
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

"if it is a bug that i have spent 4 hours looking at, i often find i can come in the next day and find and fix it it in 20 minutes flat. "

My issue with that is that the client gets the benefit of me thinking about it in my sleep, but doesn't seem to want to get billed for that time...

{Why is my subconscious better at designing software than I am? What's with that? I mean, I suppose it has 7 or 8 hours of uninterrupted thinking to solve things, as compared to my not being able to think straight in this racket... imagine what I could do if we could BOTH work properly..}

If they said "this looks like 40 hours work, we'll pay you for 40 hours work, but just turn up until you're done", I wouldn't mind, because I could do that.

Perversely, if I can't fix something so I go home early, think about it in my sleep and fix it fast the next morning I get paid /LESS/ than if I just sit staring at the code until 5pm...

You couldn't write this stuff... and no. Dilbert doesn't count... {That's writing it after watching it.}

Katie Lucas
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Katie - yeah, i know. sick isn't it. i think many (most?) development staff think the same.

the /really/ preverse thing is when these are the same companies who would accept a fixed price bid from a s/ware house to produce 'x' but pay their own development staff only on what is effectively a time and materials basis to produce 'y'. there is really no difference between the s/ware house producing one big piece of software and me producing one code unit - they both (probably) have to integrate with something else, have to be used by someone else, have a required minimum quality level, and so on.

sorry though, i have no idea why your subconcious is better at it than you. in fact judging by some of the dreams _i_ have, i wonder how it can make real-world sense of anything :)

for me it is not that i often get flashes of inspiration at home, it is more that a break from being at work and doing software somehow means i come in with a fresh brain the next day. if i sit at home and worry about it i don't get the "eureka!" in the morning.

nope
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

That's one of my reasons for preferring a fixed price for work.  Right now this contract pays me for a minimum number of hours and nothing over it.  I know I'll work more than the minimum in any given week.

Now that may sound like a negative because  if I work some horrendous amount of hours I'd not get paid any more than I do.  But I'd have to keep track of all the time, fill in timesheets, get them approved, etc, etc. 

I hate that.  I agreed the amount of money as fair for a month's work.  I'll work to meet agreed milestones, I'll define those milestones where I can, so then its up to me to fulfill them, or if it isn't possible work out why not and work on getting back on track.

So in the case of stirring the problem in my subconscious overnight (which I do a lot as well), its a positive bonus for me to have it fixed in that 10 or 20 minutes in the morning.

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Ah... my problem with fixed price work is the inability of customers to handle the idea properly.

I'm here for three months to write them an application from a spec they give me. It's a good job this is hourly paid because I was due to start in September. This was pushed back to January at which I point I actually turned up on site (I think they'd worked out that a few months "lazing around" I could handle, but too long and they'd have to do the hiring and hiring budget approvals again..) and started putting in billable hours.

It is now April, and the specification for the work is almost started. In the meantime, because I was here, and having to be paid for, they have found me other things to do, but if this was fixed price work, I'd still be waiting...

There is no way I could afford to deal with the situation of three month projects taking three months of time intermittently spread over at least twelve months. I wouldn't mind being paid on completion so much if projects didn't seem to never complete: the other work I did was finished a month ago but isn't "complete" to the point where I'd be getting paid because the politics inside a computer hardware supplier and a logistics company mean that between them they're unable to buy the necessary routers and ship them to the sites...

{Heh. I was in a meeting the other day. Someone said "we can't buy the servers now to use for testing because we have nowhere to store them until delivery." That made so much sense I'd left the meeting before I remembered that there are only four buildings on this site: two office blocks, a guard hut and a VERY LARGE WAREHOUSE...}

There's always these huge political gaps between when I down tools and stop developing code and the actual acceptance testing. I guess it's possible to write conditions into contracts "Program will be considered accepted if not rejected 1 month after development stops", but they'd just niggle about things while they did the politics. About every two weeks I re-open the project and change a file format to conform to the latest brilliant idea. {Why are they changing them when they're unable to test the software?} That would probably neatly lengthen the project duration until I went bankrupt, at which point they don't have to pay me at all.

{Because of course, until the software is accepted, there's no invoice, so there's no debt...}

The other experience is the number of customers who underspec the project, get you to invest tons of work then when they have you over a barrel, change the spec. Of course, you /can/ walk away and not get paid, you could sue them for bad faith, but they have a contract on their side saying they pay you when they're happy with it... It doesn't take many of those to turn a good year into a bankruptcy hearing. I've seen companies get nuked by exactly that: at the point the customer changes the spec, they have too much invested to leave, but the spec makes the project unprofitable. Two of those in a row and you've got a sinking ship. [For the customer it's cool: they only invest their employee's time, and a quick glance at most corporate systems tells you they don't value that. Once in a while a company will stick it out and they get some software for cheap.]


I wish these cases were the odd ones, but they're not. I've yet to come across a customer organised enough to able to write a spec that's final enough and detailed enough to be able to pick a sensible price for it.

Katie Lucas
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

i did not realise you were solo, or contracting, or whatever. i was talking about employees, where it is impossible to do things fixed price however much you might like it.

anyway, what you say is true. i don't remember the details, and ianal in any case, but i think project contracts for an ex-employer (s/ware house) were along the lines of: pay when we make delivery (not when it is accepted); there is an x months "grace", or warranty, period after which the software is considered accepted as is. if i were contracting on that basis i would also want staged payments, similar to the way building companies work (and for all i know, some s/ware houses as well). that protects your income not only against them not coughing up at the end of the project, but also in the case that they go bust. and i would make damn sure that i would be the one who said how much i could do it for. the bid & contract are for your protection as well as theirs, and i think you should use it more than you seem to (easy to say from here, harder when you are sitting in front of them trying to persuade them to give you the work).

nope
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

This happens to new permanent employees too.  In every big organization there a just a few folks who know how to work the bureaucracy to get office space, a desk, a workstation, connectivity, paswords, ID's, etc.  And, they know how to work the budget to make it all happen.  They are administrative magicians.

If these folks get the word on time, while you are interviewing potential contractors, things will happen.  If they get the word late or not at all, prepare for chaos.

tk
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

You should go see the manager of whoever hired you and tell him it's not good enough. Whoever failed to set you up properly would know exactly what he or she did and, when challenged, would reply that you haven't complained.

A friend of mine landed in a situation like yours once and it turned out the department manager had taken a new office PC home for his own use, and provided the contractor with his old crappy computer from home.

Hugh Wells
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

I accept some of the problems with fixed price, though if its for a single deliverable then they get to pay some reasonable % upfront, and there are staged payments thereafter.

And then again it depends on the relationship with the client.  If they don't trust you to deliver it doesn't much matter how you get paid you still get grief.

So it goes.

(1% on N.I. isn't too bad)

Simon Lucy
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

This is certainly NOT normal in Europe. If I were you I would ask for what you need and if they don't provide it you should definately not continue working there - even if it's just for a month.

Companies who just exploit their employees must be stopped!

Patrick Ansari
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

Does your contract require that you work on site?  If I were in your situation I'd do the work at home, and visit the client only for meetings, reviews, etc.  In fact, this is what I do on most contracts.

As for billing, I prefer the by-the-hour approach.  With few exceptions, it's next to impossible for clients (and I'm talking about good, responsible clients) to scope out the job in enough detail for me to quote a price in advance.

Bob Perlman
Wednesday, April 17, 2002

simon, the more i read in this little side thread, the more i think that individual contracting is more trouble than it is worth - the client has one over a barrel and it is very difficult to make them pay up (btdtgtts), particularly if it has to come to legal action. not least because they can a) afford better legal advice, and b) a small court case is nothing to them but a huge drain on individual resources. i can't help but wonder whether a partnership system (like lawyers use) or a co-operative would work better. one would still have the freedom and most of the financial rewards of going solo, but with the support of numbers. this actually brings us neatly back to the start of the thread...

nope
Thursday, April 18, 2002

actually it doesn't, i was thinking of the other thread about being paid extra for hours billied. forget the last sentenceof the previous post.

nope
Thursday, April 18, 2002

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