Currently most of the business we do at Order N Development is contracting. All of our clients handle us, as contractors, differently. Some seem to be better at managing contractors than others. As a way to improve relations, or potential relations, I’ve put together a list of things to watch out for when managing contractors.

Pickup lines

The first thing potential clients do is approach us and try to determine if we can help them (that’s deep, I know). Unfortunately, the confusion seems to come in when they determine what information we, as an engineering company, need to know.

First, remember we are not your customers or your VC. We do not care, or need to know, that your ultimate goal is to revolutionize the way people make tuna fish sandwiches. We do not need a PowerPoint presentation so laden with buzzwords that it is no longer comprehensible by mere mortals. Please save that information for the venture capitalists, who swoon over that sort of thing, and as a result, vomit up large quantities of money.

It seems like 98% of the potential clients we hear from insist on using the word “revolutionary” somewhere in their introductory email. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good to know that you’re enthusiastic about your product ideas. But we, as potential contractors, aren’t motivated by how revolutionary you think your idea is. We simply want to know what you need done. To this end, it would be better if someone from your development staff contacted us, rather than someone from your marketing staff.

Ultimately, we will want a functional specification to work off of. If you do not have one, we can help you create one, but we still need to know, in clear terms, what you want done. And that means never using the word “revolutionary.”

The first date

After a potential client has selected us and all the appropriate paperwork has been done, I’m ready to start. Unfortunately, I’m not always able to, because IT hasn’t setup VPN, email, access to file servers, code repositories, or whatever. I’m not sure if it’s because the group I’m working for didn’t tell IT everything they needed to know, or if IT simply doesn’t have a good process for bringing contractors on board. What I do know is that some sort of IT snafu happens just about every time.

On one contract, the original IT person did not create my account correctly (as evidenced by every subsequent IT person noting, “What the hell was this guy thinking?”). As a result, it was difficult to gain access to the servers I needed access to. Also, my VPN account was incredibly flaky, and every few weeks I had to spend some quality time with the client’s IT department getting it sorted out. This persisted the entire contract, which was more than six months long. This had an obvious impact on my effectiveness as a contractor.

Although not my first choice, I don’t mind staying on the line with the IT department, charging you my normal hourly rate, while they sort things out. However, if things are already setup by the time I start, then you don’t have to waste any money waiting for IT, and I’m not forcibly subjected to Barry Manilow’s Greatest Hits. Its a win-win.

Getting what you want

Once I start the contract, you should know what you want, and should communicate that to me. More specifically, if I’m to do feature work, there should be a specification, and I should have access to it. If I’m doing bug fixing working, there should be a bug base, and I should have access to it.

This part seems really obvious, but apparently it’s not. I should not have to contact you via phone or IM every other day, asking for a new task to work on. You should not be handing me a single task each time, and telling me to call you when I’m done with the single task. There should be a list of tasks that I can work from, which can be in the form of a spec. Otherwise, a lot of time is wasted waiting for the next assignment. (Yes, people really do this.)

I know I’ve railed about this before, but if I’m working on bugs, they should be reproducible bugs. If your QA team is not producing quality bugs, that sends a clear message to me: “This company is not serious about fixing bugs, so you, as a contractor, shouldn’t be either.” I should not have to fight with your QA to get steps to reproduce a bug. i.e. This should not happen:

Subject: Plugin crashes
Priority: Highest

The following plugins crash when I used them:
…(list of plugins)…

Andy: What are the steps? Where in the plugins are we crashing?
QA: Various places.

That’s a paraphrased bug report from an actual QA. It crashes in “various places.” If your QA can’t be bothered to write down steps they already know, why should I be bothered to try to fix it?

Trust issues

Although not necessarily specific to managing contractors, some clients simply don’t know how to manage people.

I don’t care if you used to be an engineer, or even if you played one on TV, you shouldn’t be micromanaging me. If you’re going over every little thing I do, one of us is redundant. If it is a trust issue, then you should call me and we can work things out. Otherwise, you’re wasting both of our time, and your money.

To the other extreme, someone from your company should be available when I need them. Whether it be to ask technical questions or questions about invoices getting paid, someone should be there. It is very difficult to make progress if I need a technical question answered, and my contact promptly signs off anytime I ask them anything.

I should also note that one extreme, such as micromanaging, does not preclude the other, such as hiding. Some micromanage a single small bug fix, then disappear off of the face of the planet when I need to know where a particular resource is stored.

If you have a micromanaging manager, then that’s something you need to handle internally, as a general issue. However, when you assign a technical contact for me, make sure they are the responsive type.

Wrapping up

Hopefully if you hire a contractor, things will go well for you. Hiring a contractor is difficult because they are often an unknown. However, if you keep the above things in mind, it should increase the chances of having a good relationship with the contractor, and getting what you want. If the contract does fail, it should help assure you that the problem probably wasn’t on your side.