Career Advisor by Edgar Saadi

Contracting: Is it a chance to learn or a potential for skill-set atrophy?

Reader response to some of Edgar's advice

July  1998
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Also this month, Edgar counsels one patient programmer who's employer still hasn't shown him the money. When is it time to jump ship and get on board a more worthy vessel? (1,400 words)

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Dear Edgar, I'm a new reader of your column, and I've picked up on one of your themes that moving into contracting is not a good way to learn new skills.

While I don't recommend contracting to new graduates (you'd be surprised!), I do recommend to technical people that contracting can be a way to move into an area where the skills are in demand, but your credentials may not be stellar in your desired area of work.

In my own case, I was trained as an Electrical Engineer, and after 15 years realized that I had hit the top in terms of earning potential because I was not interested in moving into management. One solution was to start doing software exclusively and marketing myself as a programmer rather than as a circuit designer.

As a captive, my opportunities for acquiring the new skill set were pretty limited. But as a contractor, I found that I could trade off pay rate for the opportunity to learn. This is an especially good strategy when the market for the new skills is very hot, people are desperate to fill positions, or the rates are going up fast and projects have a preset budget.

This assumes, of course, that you have some way of convincing people that you may have the aptitude for the kind of work you would like to do. In my case, having an advanced technical degree and 20 years in the industry probably helped some in that regard.

I am now doing object-oriented programming in C++, and I am getting to be rather proficient at it. This probably would not have been possible if I was determined to find a specific job.

Another School of Contracting

Dear Another School,

Although the situation you describe is possible and you are living proof that contracting can be a way to get new skills, realize that this is the exception and not the rule.

Every day companies come to Pencom looking for contractors. To them and to us, the definition of a contractor is a hired gun -- a person who is brought on board for a specific skill set and for work on a particular project. This person is paid very well, primarily because the company wants someone who can come in that minute and who does not require any training.

He or she is used for this skill, then disposed of when the work is finished. That's the nature of contracting.

Sometimes a company finds a contractor to be so valuable that they decide to make a job offer. Other times, a company may decide that this person is so valuable that they will keep him or her as a contractor, indefinitely and across projects. In fact, it is within the realm of possibility that a contractor could be so skilled and personable that he or she is taken into the inner circle of the company and offered an executive position.

But this will not happen most of the time. When you say, "this assumes, of course, that you have some way of convincing people that you may have the aptitude for the kind of work you'd like to do" you are weeding out nine out of 10 people. You seem to be articulate, skilled, and motivated. To individuals like yourself, there are many opportunities and many paths to get there.

Practically speaking, most people should get a broad base of experience for themselves before they go into contracting. Too many times have I seen young programmers go straight into contracting only to find themselves pigeonholed by a certain technology. Then they are at the mercy of this technology's success or failure in the marketplace. A good full-time job is generally one that offers you the opportunity to grow and learn; a contracting job is generally one that offers top money to do exactly and only that which you are skilled at doing.

In this column I attempt to give practical advice and to offer insight into how employers see the world. If nothing else, I advise people to stay flexible, be aware, and keep learning new technologies. In this industry, what is hot today can be obsolete tomorrow. In whatever situation you find yourself, keep learning. If you can do that while earning a contactor's salary, kudos!

General trends and methods aside, you raise an excellent point about limits. Those with initiative should not feel bound or constricted by what is the norm. If you have exceptional personal skills and an ability to learn in many environments, then do not feel closed in by others' definitions: break the mold and make the position into what you want of it. Ultimately you can succeed. Just be aware that in the realm of contracting, nine times out of 10, there will be resistance.


My boss still hasn't shown me the money

Dear Edgar,

I read the advice entitled "When will they show me the money?" with great interest, for similar reasons as "Anxious." There was no promotion involved, a senior person quit, and now I do the work of two. Like "Anxious" my company has yearly retroactive raises. But you never answered his question. You said wait until July and be ready to jump if they don't hold up their end. Jump ship? Jump down their throats? Jump with joy?

I've waited since February and have been extremely patient. My manager waited for paperwork to do a review. The time finally came, and I continued to wait.

When the raise finally came I received a whopping four percent pay increase, for doing two jobs. Now I'm still waiting for them to show me the money!

This has been a four-month waiting period, and I can't believe I was being patient for four percent! How does one tactfully say, "I thought you had more faith in me?" And "Aren't you going to put your money where your mouth is?"

Now Show Me the Money

Dear Now,

It sounds as though you have sat it out long enough. You've waited, worked, paid your dues, and now you're getting hosed. As I mentioned in the column, this does happen sometimes. Patience is instrumental in building trust, but it doesn't work in all situations.

The time for retroactive raises has come and gone, and now it's time to act. Approach your employer and say that you're not comfortable with the compensation. Let him or her know what your expectations were, and that you would rather express these reservations rather than just leave. Perhaps you can learn from this experience and discover what their expectations were. Did you agree on any kind of a range for the salary increase? Were there any goals that weren't met between then and now? Did they ever have intentions of giving you more?

Hopefully you've been laying some groundwork for a possible move in the event that the raise didn't work out as planned. If you haven't, you should get on it. While you're working on that, let them know how you feel and see if they come back with more reasonable compensation. In any case it's probably time to jump ship and get on board a more worthy vessel.


About the author
[Edgar Saadi's photo] Edgar Saadi is senior vice president of Pencom Systems Inc., the largest open systems/advanced systems recruiting firm in the U.S. In his many years in high technology staffing, Edgar has helped guide the careers of thousands of open systems professionals. Visit the Pencom Career Center & Online Salary Survey.

[Pencom Interactive]
Reach Edgar at

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