Thursday, March 6, 2014

Are we all selling our time or is contracting different?

This post is a longer version of a tweet I posted earlier this week: "How many times can a contractor sell a full-time tester to different projects without losing trust? I'd say one is enough. Need to blog."

In a way, we're all contractors selling our time. As a full-time employee, my company expects to have 37,5 hours of my dedicated time each week. Some of the employers limit my right to do what I want with my free time. And some appreciate that I mix work and hobbies so that a lot of my self-development happens outside project work and office hours. I happen to be employed at a company that is fine with me selling my free time for other companies for money as It was part of the contract and salary level we negotiated when I joined.

We realize that splitting focus is just that - that it can and occasionally will  - lower my presence and focus level even if the hours are full. On the other hand, from fullfilling my needs of autonomy and self-development, there can be support and extra energy  available for the working hours.

On my usual month, my choices bring me to 'selling' 60 hours a week for different types of work. Some of it is paid by different parties, and some is investment into building my professional path that may pay back eventually but also serves other purposes.

With years of practice, this model works for me. I'm happy and convinced I have a career.

While I, on individual professional's level, am fine with how I organize this, I find the very same issue to be different from a contractor (group of employees and employer) point of view. If I, in the role of a customer, contract for a monthly fee a full time tester of 40 hours a week, I don't expect to contract someone like me selling 60 hours a week unless I'm told that. And when I'm told, I can address if I want that.

The employee I'm contracting for may be just as ambitious as I am, and think that their free time is theirs - as it is - and just make sure the hours for contracting are in the right slot and the other stuff happens after hours.

The employer however, has a contracting business to run and develop. With an atmosphere of mutual ownership of the company's future and personal learning emphasis, it's easy to justify other projects on the side. As employee, you might do those with your free time, but from employer point of view, your free time generates profit or is investing into the future the company would hopefully make money of later.

The customer unaware of the level of things that happen on free time, expects your focused effort. And may even believe in 'sustainable pace' and limits of hours anyone should be encouraged to put in.

This all leads me to think that in contracting customer relationship, you need to manage the expectation of what your employees will do on their free time, just as you need to manage the expectation when you sell yourself as an employee. When the customer learns that the person fully allocated to you is now part of a new business of doing trainings, drawing the conclusion that this is the employee's free time used to run employers business feels like a stretch.

From the employee point of view, I support following your calling and taking side tasks that increase your energy. From employer point of view, there's a risk of being half there in the project that needs managing.

Losing trust is easy. To give back trust that was lost, I needed to talk about this in detail. I trust the tester to assess her ability to juggle many things, and I trust she will lower her hours somewhere if it's all too much. But I also deduct from my personal experiences that it takes a burnout to know what leads to it, and feel it's the responsibility of seniority to bring concerns for the younger bright mind to consider.

I still struggle with this, which is funny. I'm fine with myself doing long days for a long time, why is it that I'm not fine with the contractor's employee doing the same?


  1. As a buyer of projects I want the results more than I want the time sheet to look full.
    As a contract worker I appreciate my time flexibility and want to be able to decide how to invest my time so that I can deliver the results expected. Sometimes that means researching, reading, etc.

    I would like to think that what we do as contractors is sell access to our knowledge and experience and not time.

    Sometimes I can achieve more in a couple of hours than I can in a regular full day, if I charge by time then I am assuming that sometimes the results will not be delivered.

    How would your blog post look like if you were selling access to knowledge instead of time?

    1. There's other older posts, where I take the viewpoint that as a customer, I want my tester to study on the hours she is on the project. So I would be tempted to say that I'm buying knowledge not time - I just talk about the time because someone (the contractor) is allowed to make the knowledge less available. Or more like it, different knowledge available than I may feel I need.

      If I could actually get the full weeks results in half a week, I'd be happy to pay full week's price for the results. But since 80 % of testing work in this team is focused learning & collaboration, the focus is already on building knowledge.

      So from your suggested viewpoint, I come to the idea of who chooses what knowledge and what way of building that knowledge we need in our project would be applicable. And I still keep coming back to it: if you build your knowledge intensively 40 hours a week, are allowed to read, take time on reflection and even go talk about it in international conferences using the actual details, are you really up for another 20 hours/week that may build your ability to deliver better or should you queue the other paid work for time when your knowledge was not already sold to another organization?