Posts Tagged‘work’

Stressed woman in office

The Idiocy of Idolizing Over-Time.

My fellow IT workers will likely be familiar with the non-standard hours our work can require us to keep. Since we’re an essential service any interruption means that other people are unable to work so we’re often left with no choice to continue working long after everyone has left. Thankfully I moved out of doing that routinely long ago however I’ve still had my fair share of long weeks, weekend work and the occasional all-nighter in order to make sure a job was done properly. I’ll never work more hours simply for the sake of it though as I know my productivity rapidly drops off after a certain point, meaning the extra hours aren’t particularly effective. Still though there seems to be something of a worship culture around those who work long hours, even if the results of doing so are questionable.

Stressed woman in office

My stance has always been that everyone should be able to complete their work in the standard number of work week hours and if goals aren’t being met it’s a fault of resourcing, not the amount of effort being put in. Too often though I’ve seen people take it upon themselves to make up for these shortcomings by working longer hours which feeds into a terrible cycle from which most projects can’t recover. It often starts with individuals accommodating bursts of work which falsely set the expectation that such peaks can be routinely accommodated. Sure it’s only a couple extra hours here or there but when each member of a team of 20 does that you’re already a resource behind and it doesn’t take much to quickly escalate from there.

The problem, I feel, stems from the association that hours worked is equal to the amount of contribution. In all cases this is simply not true as many studies have shown that, even with routine tasks with readily quantifiable output, your efficiency degrades over time. Indeed my highly unscientific observations, coupled with a little bit of online research, shows that working past the 8 hour mark per day will likely lead to heavy declines in productivity over time. I’ve certainly noticed that among people I’ve worked alongside during 12+ hour days as the pace of work rapidly declines and complex issues take far longer to solve than they would have at the beginning of the day.

Thus the solution is two fold: we need to stop idolizing people who put in “long hours” and be steadfast when it comes to taking on additional work. Stopping the idolization means that those who choose to work longer hours, for whatever reasons, are no longer used as a standard by which everyone else is judged. It doesn’t do anyone any good to hold everyone to standards like that and will likely lead to high levels of burnout and turnover. Putting constraints around additional work means that no one should have to work more than they need to and should highlight resourcing issues long before it becomes a problem that can’t be handled.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that values results over time invested and it’s been showing in the results that our people have been able to deliver. As someone who’d worked in organisations where the culture valued hours and the appearance being busy over everything else it’s been extremely refreshing, validating my long held beliefs about work efficiency and productivity. Working alongside other agencies that don’t have this culture has provided a stark reminder of just how idiotic the idolization of overtime is and why I’ll likely be sticking around this place for a while to come.

stressed

Beware (and Do Not Exploit) The 10x Engineer.

There’s something of a mythology in the developer community around high performing employees who are seemingly able to output much more work than anyone else is in the same amount of time. The concept isn’t strictly limited to software development either as I’m sure anyone from any industry can regale you of a tale of someone who did the work of multiple people, whether through sheer intelligence or dedication to getting the job done. Whilst I have the utmost respect for people with this kind of capability I’ve recognised a disturbing trend among projects who contain people like this and, to the betterment of the wider world, I believe we have to stop seeking these mythical people out in order to exploit their talents for our own ends.

stressed

 

Long time readers might remember a post I wrote a couple years ago about how I tanked my university project due to my lack of any project management skills. A big part of this was my failure to recognise the fact that I had a 10x worker on my hands, someone who was able to do the vast majority of the work on the project without aid from anyone else. In the short term it was a great boon to the project, we made fast progress and we all felt like we were getting somewhere with the idea. However it didn’t take long for all the additional work that 10x person was doing to turn into a dependency, something which the whole team was relying on. My failure to recognise this (and to pitch in myself) was what led to the inevitable demise of that project but I’ve since learned that this is not an uncommon occurrence.

Typically the situation develops from the best of intentions with a high performing employee put on a task or project that’s in need of some immediate attention. For them it’s not too much trouble to solve and the short time frame in which it’s achieved means that they quickly establish themselves as someone that can get stuff done. What happens next depends on the person as once that reputation is established the stream of requests will only intensify. From what I can tell it goes one of two ways: either the 10x in question sets a hard limit (and sticks to it) or they continue to take everything on board, right up until breaking point.

For the former it’s not too much of a problem and indeed would go a long way to highlighting resourcing issues with a project. I firmly believe that whilst the occasional bouts of additional hours aren’t too detrimental long, sustained periods eventually lead to burnout and loss of productivity. So setting limits on how much work you do and staunchly refusing to take on additional tasks shows where additional resources need to be placed. This also requires you to be comfortable with things you’re personally involved with failing on occasion, something which a lot of people find hard to do.

Indeed the latter kind of 10x-er can’t let things fail, especially for anything that they’ve had direct input with. For tasks on the critical path this can be to the project’s benefit as you can rely on the fact that it will get completed no matter what else happens. However as more and more people start to go to this 10x person for help the breadth of things they’re involved with, and thus feel responsible for, broadens to the point where almost anything is within their purview. Thus a terrible feedback loop is established, one whereby they become critical to everything and feel compelled to continue working. This continues until they burn out or some forcible action is taken.

Whilst this is a two sided problem I do feel that we, as the regular workers of the world, can do a lot to ensure such people aren’t destroyed by the burden that we place on them. It can be so easy to fob a task off onto someone, especially when you know they’ll do it quicker and better than you could, however if you know that person is similarly being burdened by multiple other people it may be better for you to learn how to do that task yourself. Then hopefully that 10x worker can continue operating at that capacity without approaching those dangerous levels where burnout becomes all too common.

Will The Cloud Kill The IT Admin?

IT is one of the few services that all companies require to compete in today’s markets. IT support then is one of those rare industries where jobs are always around to be had, even for those working in entry level positions. Of course this assumes that you put in the required effort to stay current as letting your skills lapse for 2 or more years will likely leave you a generation of technology behind, making employment difficult. This is of course due to the IT industry constantly evolving and changing itself and much like other industries certain jobs can be made completely redundant by technological advancements.

For the past couple decades though the types of jobs you expect to see in IT support have remained roughly the same, save for the specializations brought on by technology. As more and more enterprises came online and technology began to develop a multitude of specializations became available, enabling then generic “IT guys” to become highly skilled workers in their targeted niche. I should I know, just on a decade ago I was one of those generic IT support guys and today I’m considered to be a specialist when it comes to hardware and virtualization. Back when I started my career the latter of those two skills wasn’t even in the vernacular of the IT community, let alone a viable career path.

Like any skilled position though specialists aren’t exactly cheap, especially for small to medium enterprises (SMEs). This leads to an entire second industry of work-for-hire specialists (usually under the term “consultants”) and companies looking to take the pain out of utilizing the technology without having to pay for the expertise to come in house. This isn’t really a surprise (any skilled industry will develop these secondary markets) but with IT there’s a lot more opportunity to automate and leverage economies of scale, more so than any other industry.

This is where Cloud Computing comes in.

The central idea behind cloud computing is that an application can be developed to run on a platform which can dynamically deliver resources to it as required. The idea is quite simple but the execution of it is extraordinarily complicated requiring vast levels of automation and streamlining of processes. It’s just an engineering problem however, one that’s been surmounted by several companies and used to great effect by many other companies who have little wish to maintain their own infrastructure. In essence this is just outsourcing taken to the next level, but following this trend to its logical conclusion leads to some interesting (and, if you’re an IT support worker, troubling) predictions.

For SMEs the cost of running their own local infrastructure, as well as the support staff that goes along with it, can be one of their largest cost centres. Cloud computing and SaaS offers the opportunity for SMEs to eliminate much of the cost whilst keeping the same level of functionality, giving them more capital to either reinvest in the business or bolster their profit margins. You would think then that this would just be a relocation of jobs from one place to another but cloud services utilize much fewer staff due to the economies of scale that they employ, leaving fewer jobs available for those who had skills in those area.

In essence cloud computing eliminates the need for the bulk of skilled jobs in the IT industry. There will still be need for most of the entry level jobs that cater to regular desktop users but the back end infrastructure could easily be handled by another company. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with this, pushing back against such innovation never succeeds, but it does call into question those jobs that these IT admins currently hold and where their future lies.

Outside of high tech and recently established businesses the adoption rate of cloud services hasn’t been that high. Whilst many of the fundamentals of the cloud paradigm (virtualization, on-demand resourcing, infrastructure agnostic frameworks) have found their way into the datacenter the next logical step, migrating those same services into the cloud, hasn’t occurred. Primarily I believe this is due to the lack of trust and control in the services as well as companies not wanting to write off the large investments they have in infrastructure. This will change over time of course, especially as that infrastructure begins to age.

For what its worth I still believe that the ultimate end goal will be some kind of hybrid solution, especially for governments and the like. Cloud providers, whilst being very good at what they do, simply can’t satisfy the need of all customers. It is then highly likely that many companies will outsource routine things to the cloud (such as email, word processing, etc) but still rely on in house expertise for the customer applications that aren’t, and probably will never be, available in the cloud. Cloud computing then will probably see a shift in some areas of specialization but for the most part I believe us IT support guys won’t have any trouble finding work.

We’re still in the very early days of cloud computing and its effects on the industry are still hard to judge. There’s no doubt that cloud computing has the potential to fundamentally change the way the world does IT services and whatever happens those of us in IT support will have to change to accommodate it. Whether that comes in the form of reskilling, training or looking for a job in a different industry is yet to be determined but suffice to say that the next decade will see some radical changes in the way businesses approach their IT infrastructure.

Ideas, Execution and Achieving Your Goals.

Imagine a social gathering, you’re familiar with most of the people there but not all of them so you’ve been engaging with some small talk so you don’t spend the next 4 hours being that weird guy in the corner. Amongst the varying commentary about weather, local sports teams and what have you inevitably the conversation turns to what you all do for a living. Now for most people this is usually a one liner followed by a few back and forths over a few minor details and then it’s off to the other topic of conversation. There are some notable exceptions of course usually when your job is in an industry like IT, medical or (one of the more recent additions to this club) app development. If you dare mention you’re in one of these industries it’s highly likely that someone will launch into a description of their problems or start giving you ideas for their great iPhone app.

Being someone who fits into 2 of these categories (IT and a budding app developer) I get this kind of thing all the time, especially when I’m visiting a friend of a friend who I haven’t met before. Mostly it’s pretty harmless and I don’t mind taking some time out to help people as long as it doesn’t become a recurring theme. Of course IT problems don’t usually exist in isolation so more often than not I’ll be called upon again to come back at which point I usually tell people my going rate and watch the problem evaporate rather quickly. What a lot of people fail to realise is that whilst we might do something for a living we don’t necessarily enjoy doing it out of work, especially if we’ve just spent our whole day doing it.

It’s for that reason alone that I don’t bother people with questions about their professions in a social setting, kind of a common courtesy from someone who knows what they’re going through. I’ll admit it’s not easy sometimes, especially if I have an idea for a project that I want someone to work with me on, but there are much better ways to approach someone than accosting them the second you find out that they could be useful to you.

New app ideas are probably the worst out of the lot as many people are convinced their ideas are fantastic and all they need is you for a couple hours to just bang it out for them. Luckily for me I can tell them that the last app I tried to develop took about a year and barely lead anywhere but even that doesn’t deter some of the more enthusiastic punters. It’s even worse that I completely understand their motivations too as I tried hard to get other people excited about the idea but inevitably you can only talk about something for so long before people just don’t want to hear about it anymore.

It’s for that exact reason that I haven’t been talking at all about my most recent project, except in the most general terms. There’s also a multitude of other factors as well (like first mover advantage, which I believe I have in this case) but it also comes down to a the fact that talking about your goals triggers the same neurological response as actually completing them. Thus I feel those who are approaching me to develop an idea for them have already got what they needed (that feeling of completion) and attempting to follow the idea to its conclusion is usually an exercise in futility. 

Even though we’re all familiar with the old adage of “Genius is: 1% inspiration, 99% perspiration” the opposite seems to hold true for commonly held opinions about ideas. The notion that all it takes is an amazing idea to realize your dreams (made worse by the fact that people think iPhone apps are just so damn easy to make) and so the second they get something they think is novel suddenly the hard part is over. Being someone who’s had 50+ of those “amazing” ideas and only been able to execute a couple of them I can tell you the easy part is getting an idea, the hard part is tuning out everything else and working solidly on that idea for months on end. So you should really ask yourself “Would I be willing to work on this day in day out in order for it to succeed?” and if you’re answer is anything but an unconditional yes then you should wonder why others would bother to work on it with you.

Working Yourself Out of a Job.

One of the most common bits of career advice that I’ve been given is that you have to make yourself valuable to the company or organisation your working for. The thinking goes that if you’re valuable then it’s more likely that you’ll get a promotion and much less likely that you’ll face the chop if things start going south. It’s a good little nugget of advice however I find that many people get the idea of what constitutes value completely wrong, to the point of thinking that they’re valuable when in fact they’re being anything but. I found this to be especially true in the field of IT, especially in the areas that tend to be more insular and less socially apt.

Most often the idea of being valuable goes hand in hand with the idea of being irreplaceable. Usually this happens when someone either designs some system or process that does what is required of it but for all intents and purposes is a black box for anyone but the original creator. This person, although it can be multiple people, now feels safe in their job as since they’re the only one who knows how it works (and how to fix it when it breaks) and this gives them the feeling of being valuable to their company. For a short time they are but in the long term they’re being extremely detrimental, both to themselves and who they work for.

Their negative impacts on the company are pretty obvious. A system or process that relies on a specific person in order to keep it functioning has a major single point of failure. Whilst the system is working and that person is available everything seems fine, but take the unfortunate notion of them getting hit by a bus (commonly referred to as the bus factor). How long would it take an outside person to deconstruct the system or process in order to be able to understand it to the same level that they did? That amount of time is usually quite high, especially if this kind of behavior is allowed to continue unchecked for years. Thus these people who thought they were invaluable to their place of work are really quite harmful, but not just to their place of work.

Making yourself irreplaceable like this however is extremely toxic to your future career prospects. If you’re the most important cog then it’s far less likely that your superiors will want to promote you, why would they want to take you away from a critical process that you’re the expert on? Quite often people mistake getting looked over for a position as their value not being properly recognized when in fact it’s that same “value” they created which keeps them firmly rooted in their place. This also usually goes hand in hand with a lack of skill development meaning that the skills that were once valuable (like in the creation of said system or process) are now no longer so highly sought after, making them an undesirable candidate on the open market.

This is exactly why I’m always working myself out of a job, which I’ve actually done once before. Back when I was working at the Australian Maritime Safety Authority I was hired with a specific purpose. A year later I had designed, implemented and fully documented the system that they wanted to the point where they couldn’t find any more work for me to do. Since I was a contractor I was under no impressions that I would have a job at the end of it and sought employment elsewhere before my contract finished. In the end they did find additional work for me to do, but I had already signed on to my new engagement. It might seem like a bad career move to make yourself redundant, but if you’re a skilled individual there will always be more work available and the reference from the place you left will speak volumes to your worth.

It all comes down to the misguided notions of value that people tend to hold and the idea that being replaceable somehow diminishes your own value. Realistically given enough time and resources anyone is replaceable so it is far better to assume that your job could be done by someone else than believing you’re immune to being usurped. Personally I find the idea to be quite liberating as it has led me to pursue many different avenues with which to improve myself in order to differentiate myself from the crowd. If I had simply made myself irreplacable I’d probably still be working at the same place I was 7 years ago, and that’s not a thought I relish.

The Case for 3 Day Weekends.

I’m not a fan of the current norms for a working life. There just seems to be something so wrong about spending the best part of a day slaving away behind a desk, working towards goals that you likely have no control over. The current 9 to 5 work day has its origins back in the industrial revolution and in the almost 200 years since then we’ve seemingly been unable to get past the idea that we should all spend 40+ hours a week at our place of work. Ultimately I believe that such norms represent an archaic idea about how efficient a workforce can be, especially considering that 200 years ago ides like telecommuting were in the realms of science fiction.

I feel the same way about the 2 day weekend that we’re all accustomed to. It’s not that I feel like I deserve the extra break, although it is quite welcome, more the fact that after experimenting with a 3 day weekend for the better part of a year I found myself to be wholly more productive at work and during my time off. Sure it could be tough sometimes making up the required 40 hours during the week but that extra day off ensured that I came back ready to face the challenges ahead of me, usually with a vigor unmatched by other employees.

It’s not just all anecdotal blustering on my part either. Research shows that people with flexible working arrangements, the ones that would allow for things like a permanent 3 day weekend, are more productive and much more satisfied with their jobs.It’s not surprise really as they are able to fit work around their life rather than the other way around. For many people this may be the odd day off here and there, but many will choose to take that as either a Friday or Monday in order to maximise the benefit of having said day off.

For someone like me the extra day off was usually spent doing all the menial things that would otherwise eat up half of my weekend. Whilst 2 days is a good amount of time for leisure it is usually interrupted by chores, commitments and sometimes even catching up on work that “needs” to be done. The additional day would then serve as a buffer for such things, ensuring that you’d be able to spend the next 2 days fully indulging in whatever leisure activities you seek. The effect was quite liberating and the three day weekend was the first reason why I started pursuing the idea behind Lobaco as up until then I simply struggled to find the time to work on such ideas.

I’m not the only one to think this either. Whilst I’m sure everyone would appreciate having another day off it seems that more and more people are recognising that the current norms for working aren’t suited to the world we live in, especially considering the technological advances of the past couple decades. There’s also been significant movement towards more flexible working arrangements, however they still constitute a minority in the wider world. It’s still progress however and someday I believe that the idea of working a 5 day, 9 to 5 job will be an archaic relic of our past.

For someone like me the benefits seem obvious. I’ve been there and seen them for myself and there’s a growing movement of people who’ve done the same. It’s not a hard change to make either, realistically workplaces have no reason not to try it especially if they track their employees with any kind of performance metrics. It is a fight against giant inertia however, the 200 year old habits of the working world are going to die a slow death even with the hand of technology pushing it towards its demise. I hope one day to rejoin the ranks of those who enjoy a shortened work week and lengthened weekend, but until then I will continue to spruik its benefits to all, hoping to fall on sympathetic ears.

The Startup Life: My Unplanned Future.

If I were to rewind back a couple years and ask my past self where I would be at today the answer would probably be something like “living overseas and applying for various MBA programs”. It seemed ever since part way through university I had my eye on being in some form of upper management role in a large company, reveling in the idea of a high rise office building and being able to make a positive impact. It seemed every year I was doomed to delay those plans for another year because of other things that would crop up, with me finally admitting that anyone with a 10 year plan is deluding themselves.

Despite that my aspirations have not changed. I still lust after that high flying lifestyle that I attributed to the ranks of C-level executives and still yern to travel overseas as so many have done before me. However I’ve grown disillusioned with the idea of attaining such goals in the annals of an established company. My illustrious career, spanning a mere 6 years, has shown me that there’s little joy climbing the ranks in such environments with games of politics and tit-for-tat deals the accepted norm. The engineer in me was languishing under the idea of being suppressed for years whilst I played these games on my way to the top where I could finally unleash it with the power to make a difference. At the end of last year it finally broke through and gave me the dreadful clarity I needed to finally change my way of thinking.

I needed to make it on my own.

It was around this time that I’d started to get an interest for the curious world of technology start ups. You see here in Canberra where everyone is employed by the government or doing work for the government there’s no place for technological innovators, the captive market here just isn’t interested. Thus the idea of lashing out on my own in the only field I knew was always put aside as a untenable notion; the environment to support it just isn’t here. Still the idea gnawed away at the edge of my mind for quite a while and my feed reader started gathering information on all aspects of starting out on your own and how others had done it before me.

At the same time I had begun working on Geon, primarily as a eating my own dog food exercise but also as something to give back to my readers who’d been loyal over the fledgling months of this blog. The idea had legs though and I continued to work on it off and on for many months afterwards with many iterations making their way onto this site. After a while the notion of building my own business and my hobby of building something to satisfy a niche that was going unserviced began to merge and the dream I had once become disillusioned came back with a thundering vengeance.

There’s always going to be that part of me that nags at the corner of my mind telling me that any plan I make is doomed to failure, and I’ve learnt to come to terms with that. When I can talk about my idea with someone for hours on end and walk away with countless ideas about where I can take my project in the future I know the work I’m doing is good. That voice at the back of my head keeps me honest with myself, ensuring that I apply critical thinking to all the problems that I encounter. In that respect my fledgling inner skeptic makes sure I don’t bullshit myself into a corner and for that I’m eternally thankful.

I guess it all comes down to not knowing where you’ll end up in life. 6 years ago I had my whole life planned out until I was 30 (and a bet with an old friend of mine I haven’t forgotten) and today I’ll happily tell you that I’ve got no idea where I’ll be at 30. That idea would be frightening for many people but for someone like me who thrives on making the most out of his time it’s extremely liberating. No longer am I locked into any preconcieved notion of what I need to do to get where I want to be. All I need to do is work in the moment to achieve the best I can, and that’s exactly why I believe I’ll succeed.

/egostroke ;)

The Decentrialized Workplace.

As any engineer will tell you our brains are always working out the best path to accomplish something, even those problems that are far outside of our area of expertise. The world to us is a giant set of problems just waiting to be solved and our minds are almost always ticking away at some problem from the most trivial quibble to those larger than life. Some ideas stick around longer than others and one that’s been plauging me for the past year or so has been the one of the 9-5 work day that nearly every work place adheres to. The roots of the problem have their roots back in the industrial revolution but todays technology makes most of the issues irrelevant. Coupling this with the massive duplication of resources required to enable these old ideals it seems almost inevitable that one day we’ll have to transition away from them if we are progress as we have done for the past few decades.

The idea at its core is one of decentralizing our workforce.

Right now the vast majority of workers commute daily to their place of work. Primarily this is because the organisation hosts resources required for them to complete their work, but there’s also the norm that you have to be at work to be working. In the traditional business sense this is true as there was no way that a company could provide the required infrastructure to all its employees in order for them to be able to do their work outside company premises. However the advent of almost ubiquitous Internet connectivity and organisation’s reliance on IT to complete most tasks means that nearly everyone who’s job doesn’t require physical labour could do their job at home for a fraction of the overhead of doing the same work on company premises. The barrier for most companies is twofold with the first being one of investment in additional (and removal of current) infrastructure to support remote workers. The second is one of mentality as traditional management techniques struggle with producing sound metrics to judge employee’s performance.

For established organisations the transition to a highly remote workforce can be rather painful as they already have quite a bit invest in their current infrastructure and most of this will go to waste as the transition takes hold. Whilst the benefits of being able to downsize the office are quite clear they usually can’t be realized immediately, usually due to contracts and agreements. Companies that have successful remote workforces are usually in a period of radical reform and this is what drives them to rethink their current work practices. The pioneers in such moves have been the IT focused companies, although more recent examples in the form of Best Buy and Circuit City in America show that even large organisations can realise the benefits shortly after implementation.

Designing metrics for your employees is probably the biggest sticking point I’ve seen for most workers looking to go remote. I’d attribute this to most managers having come through the ranks with their previous managers being the same. As such they value employee time on premises far more highly than they do actual work output, because most of their decisions are done by the seat of their pants rather than with research and critical thinking. That may sound harsh but it is unfortunately common as most managers don’t take the time to dive deep into the metrics they use, instead going by their gut feeling. Workers who aren’t present can’t be judged in such a fashion and usually end up being put down as slackers.

This idea is primarily why I support the National Broadband Network as ubiquitous high speed Internet to the vast majority of the population means that the current remote worker’s capabilities would be even more greatly enhanced. No longer is a workplace big enough to accommodate your entire team required when the majority of your workforce is there virtually. HP pioneered this kind of technology with their HALO which was designed around removing the stigma around telepresent workers and the results speak for themselves.

At the heart of this whole idea is the altruistic principle of reducing waste and our environmental impact, improving worker happiness and possibly reusing existing infrastructure to solve other problems. Right now every office worker has 2 places of residence and neither of them are used full time. This means that a large amount of resources go to waste whenever we’re at work or not and decentralizing the workforce would eliminate a good portion of this. Couple this with reduced transport usage and the environmental impact would be quite significant. Additionally underused infrastructure could easily be converted into low cost/government housing, relieving the pressure on many low income earners.

Maybe its just my desire to work in my own home on my own time that drives this but the more I talk to those people who can do their work wherever there’s an Internet connection the more it makes sense as the future of the bulk of our workforce. The body of knowledge on the subject today suggests that there’s far more to be gained from this endeavour than what it will cost but until there’s a massive shift in the way managers view a decentralized workforce it will unfortunately remain as a pipe dream. Still with the barrier to entry of making your own self sustaining company being so low these days we may just end up with not only a decentralized work force, but a completely decentralized world.

Be Good to Your Salespeople.

My very first ever job was working for the Australian electronics chain called Dick Smith Electronics which I started at the tender age of 14. I got the job in a very serendipitous encounter as after being told that I was no longer allowed to spend my parent’s money (blowing a good $600 on a new computer) we had spent a day driving around to all the various first job places and handing in applications. For one reason or another I wanted to head over to DSE to look or buy something and the sign out the front said they were taking applications. My mother, managing to bypass the incredible amount of teenage angst and my then self defeatist attitude, encouraged me to apply. A couple months later saw me starting my first day of a job that would last 6 years making me the longest serving member at my shop, outliving 5 bosses and countless workmates.

In my time there I had my share of great and not-so-great encounters with various customers. After the first year or so of being a under-confident teenager working in a grown up world I started to come into my own as a technology obsessed geek who knew far too much about all the products in his store. It worked well for the store I was in as we would of attract those people looking for the forms of esoterica that we sold, mostly electronic components. I did my best to learn enough to get by when people asked for certain components and eventually became quite knowledgeable thanks to learning by immersion. That still didn’t stop some people for getting frustrated at me for not knowing something and this is where I started to take offense.

I thought I was pretty damn good at my job, especially after being there for 3 years. Customer complaints about my service were few and far between with only a single formal complaint ever being lodged. I also developed a reputation for being “that electronics guy at the Fyshwick store” who other stores would send problem customers to in order to get their problems solved. Sure there were times when I didn’t know something but realistically I was a teenager working in an electronics chain and I could hardly be expected to be an electronics engineer ready to solve every problem. That didn’t stop some customers from blowing their tops at me for not knowing a certain specification or refusing to design a circuit for them and that led me to develop a simple rule that I’ve applied in every shopping expedition I’ve been on.

It’s simply “be good to your salesperson”.

Working in retail is a pretty laborious job. You’re standing for a good portion of the day, have to deal with all sorts of people with varying levels of understanding of what they want and are expected to be an expert on everything in the store. Sure it’s by no means hard especially if you’ve got a modicum of interesting in the things you’re selling but as with any public facing position it seems like there’s a subset of society that’s out to make your life a living hell. Especially when you try to enforce a company policy that doesn’t seem all that fair but our hands are tied. We’re there to provide a service to you and most of us are good people trying to do a job. You don’t make that any easier if you come in with an attitude.

So whenever I’m out to buy something I’m usually pretty nice to the people serving me. You’d be surprised how far a little kindness can go with these people, especially if you’re coming in at a busy time of the year. The more the salesperson likes you the more likely you are to get a good deal too, as we don’t feel as bad giving discounts to genuinely nice people. Of course I also have a pretty strict rule of if they’re an ass to me I immediately walk away from the store as there’s no point favouring those who won’t return a little common courtesy.

If you’re involved in any form of sales, whether on the selling or receiving end, it pays to be an honest and genuine person with those on the other side of the fence. If you don’t think the retail stores don’t know enough to help you out then stick to online stores since you’ll get a better price, won’t have to deal with other people and won’t bother those poor staff who don’t know as much as you. However if you’re looking for a little bit of product knowledge and maybe want to have a play with a product before buying it remember, be good to those serving you and I’m sure they’ll respond in kind.

Market Value: It’s Not As Scary As It Sounds.

As an IT contractor I’m really just another faceless item in the meat market of IT skill sets. Every 6 months or so I’m usually in the midst of a couple of hundred other contractors all of whom are looking to either extend their current contracts or are dutifully lining up for each new job that comes along so that our prospective employers can look us over and select the best one of the lot to throw to their various project wolves. We’re still treated like real employees for the most part but we trade off things like on the job training and annual leave for the almighty dollar, usually in the hopes of coming out better off overall at the end. Consequently we’re slaves to the market as for every person that’s charging X to get Y done there’s a slew of them who will do it for a fraction less and coupled with the Gershon report there’s every chance you’ll be usurped by one of them before you know it.

Market value is the key metric by which us contractors define what rate we charge our employers. It’s a rather complicated metric to define as there’s no definitive source of contractor rates (although contracting agencies do have some on their own contractors) so for the most part it’s done on secondhand information, industry rumors and a whole swath of guesswork. Still for any given position you can come up with a reasonably good figure for how much someone in that position would be charging give or take about 10%. Of course budgets play a big part in what people are willing to pay for certain types of work meaning in places like Canberra when the end of financial year comes around we’d start to see an upward trend in rates as all the government departments spend all the leftover dollars they have.

However the term market rate doesn’t seem to apply if you’re looking to extend your contract. Now I’ve been through a few of these myself and every single time when I’ve asked for a rate increase I’ve been knocked back. I can lay a fair amount of the blame squarely at the Gershon report for that as it was responsible for devastating the contractor market initially and continues to keep our rates in check. That’s not a particularly bad thing as for a long time departments were hiding large staff costs by using contractors (our cash comes from another bucket) and the Gershon report forced them to come clean on the matter. Still when you get someone in a position and they’re doing the job aptly it makes sense to keep them at their market rate, lest they start eying off positions elsewhere. Contractors by definition are not bound to any employer and are more than happy to wear the risk of being unemployed if they feel a better deal is to be had elsewhere.

You could write that off by saying that my market rate was what they were paying me in the first place but unfortunately after leaving a previous contract and gaining the rate rise I had originally requested I knew this not to be the case. Granted at the time they had told me that they wouldn’t extend me (I had completed all the work they needed me for and I saw this coming months out) but after landing the new position they asked to retain me at the same rate, fully knowing I had already sourced employment elsewhere. My last request for a rate rise was also rejected purely on the basis of the Gershon report. I was willing to wear that one though as I’d only been there for 6 months.

I can understand the reasoning behind wanting to keep costs low as any department caught spending big on contractors doesn’t look particularly good. Still research shows that replacing an employee will cost you about 1.5 times their current salary meaning that the paltry increases that they may be asking for above CPI are mere peanuts. I have yet to find any organisation that understands this as most, whilst disappointed to lose good staff, have never made a concerted effort to retain me. Many would argue that my now long list of past employers would be a detriment to finding future work, but they’ve been saying that since I started job 3.

Maybe I’m just bitter about having to jump jobs every year because my current employers never want to give me a raise, but talking with my other contractor buddies it doesn’t seem to be isolated to just me. I turned to contracting over 2 years ago as it suited my style of work and with the hopes that my employers would then recognize the value I was providing. More and more it seems though that I’m just another employee paid from another bucket of money and if I believe that I’m worth more than what they’re paying me for my best bet to realize that is to continue the ship jumping I’ve been doing for the past 6 years. It’s quite possible that I’m just one greedy son of a bitch but my long list of satisfied customers would appear to say that I just severely underestimate my own self worth.

Yet another reason on the towering pile to get into business for myself, then I only have myself to blame if I don’t get paid enough. ;)