In 2004, while staring at redundancy for the third time, I accepted a six-month contract with BT to fill a potential gap until a permanent role emerged. A former colleague advised me that contracting would become a long-term career choice and that going from a contract to a permanent position would be difficult. He offered various reasons, but I went ahead; I couldn’t afford to be out of work.
My first two contracts were with BT in London and their HQ in Ipswich. Then came T-Mobile (now EE), NTTE, and Capita. Before I knew it, five years had gone by, and recruitment agents were calling with jobs, both contract and permanent.
However, some agents were reluctant to forward a contractor to a client wanting a permanent technical author. We were considered a risk. Recruitment agents had stories of contractors accepting a permanent role and quitting after a month (or a week) to return to the contract market. Yet, while I interviewed for several permanent positions, none matched what I wanted.
So, every year I hopped from one contact to another on multiple tasks, occasionally meeting TAs with stories on workplace experiences; we all understood each other, providing a good laugh.
Note: You need a sense of humour to be a technical author, complete with a sharp wit.
However, I never got to grips with the gaps between contracts. While the money was above average, allowing me to pay myself an inconsistent amount every month. During the 2008 financial crisis, my earnings dropped by a massive 33%, not helped by a four-month gap between contracts. During that period, I was offered a permanent role with RIM, AKA Blackberry. Unfortunately, I didn’t stay long because of an overzealous Canadian-based micro-management team leader. So desperate to make her mark, she called me as soon as she arrived in her office in Waterloo, Ontario. She said during one call I must learn to manage my stress. Yet, she caused me stress by constantly interfering and telling me how to do my job. A case of her two years of TA experience against my 13 years of experience.
Yet, look on the bright side, with more contracts under my belt, I developed more skills:
- SharePoint (Document Management)
- Help Desk support,
- policy & process writing,
- VISIO process flows
- ITIL (incident and change management),
- ISO 27001 Audits and
- operations manuals for data centre migrations and
- project management
Goodbye to software environments and hello to the broader world of technical authoring. Not only did I widen my experience, but I also travelled to Pune in India, Germany, Belgium and Canada.
I have started but cannot finish.
A common trend with contracts is poor budget allocation. In one PCI/DSS project, I worked with two technical authors on a 10-week assignment. We arrived at the tail end of the project when the bulk of the budget had been allocated to preparing for an audit, including an expensive external consultant charging exorbitant fees.
We needed to prepare the groundwork, identify SMEs, and divide the sixty titles between us. After five weeks, we began talking to SMEs and writing the documents. But the task was beyond our efforts—too much to do and insufficient time. While the company in question went bust during the pandemic, it had nothing to do with the project.
The dynamics of a documentation project, such as time, cost, and resources, go over the heads of hiring managers and project managers (a topic I have covered in articles on my website, www.techwriting.co.uk and LinkedIn). Many project managers assume documentation to be a straightforward task. It rarely works out that way.
On my journey to a permanent role, the points below formed the basis of my decision. If you are a contractor considering a change towards a permanent position, consider what you could offer as a permanent employee.
- I could concentrate on doing what I’m good at rather than spending gaps and seeking new freelance jobs.
- Working as a freelancer has allowed me to improve my flexibility and quickly adapt to new situations. Technical authors MUST know the meaning of flexibility and the ability to work alone or in a team.
- I respond to many people, environments and attitudes. This experience makes it easy for me to work well with different management styles and personalities.
- Can they manage me? Even as a freelancer, my remit is contributing to a team. And as a freelancer, I have always been “managed…” by my clients.
- How would you benefit our clients? If you want me to get involved with client contact, I can help with their needs with knowledge and experience and offer documentation solutions.
We are also
- Confident our considerable Skillset will shine through.
- Understand issues and be ready to hit them head-on.
- experience of multiple environments
- recognition of common problems
- Understanding of project needs
- broad experience
- Renewed enjoyment of teamwork
What are you thinking?
Maybe you are thinking, how can I shift from contract to perm and take a sharp hit in my pocket? As a contractor, my earnings fluctuated, with no consistent monthly payments due to:
- The time between contracts (a few weeks to a couple of months).
- Increasing administration and overheads through my limited company.
- unemployment insurance (£150 per month to cover me financially in case of an injury or debilitating illness),
- personal and public liability insurance (£10m in value £160 p/a),
- private medical for quick treatment (£1200 p/a)
- accounting fees (£1200+ p/a)
- Travel costs were deductible;
- Car mileage
- Air Fares between Brussels and Gatwick
- Hotels and meals while working away from home in the UK
- Increased Taxation on Dividends
- And finally, the Government’s inability to understand we are risk takers receiving no holiday pay, sickness benefit and no company benefits.
Pre-pandemic, I received about five calls a week from agents checking my availability for work. Meanwhile, I maintained a growing excel spreadsheet of calls listing potential clients and reinventing my CV every six months.
During the pandemic in 2020, I was out of work from March to October. My company accounts for 2020 saw a £5000 loss and a £3000 loss in 2021. In April 2021, to circumvent IR35, I joined an umbrella organisation.
Post-pandemic, IR35 played havoc with the contract market and caused an enormous drop in calls from recruitment agents.
Here's a fun fact. In eighteen years as a contractor, I worked at 45 different companies. That doesn't include about ten companies where I walked away after a few days to avoid a disaster in the making. Why did I walk? The hiring manager failed to understand the "documentation problems" and sold me a dud while management expectations were unrealistic.. Between 2004 to 2021 over 300 hiring managers received my CV and more than half interviewed me.
The last journey
In 2021/22, when I completed a long-term contract project with a Kent Based Bank, I focussed on finding a permanent role as most calls for work offered permanent work. The HR department of a County Durham-based bank (my home county) offered me an interview. However, despite an excellent discussion and a fit for their requirements, my freelancing background was challenging, and HR rejected me. So, if you are reading this, take note. I am now a permie, see what you missed.
While I had three more interviews, the sticking point was the salary. A business owner, one lady, called after finding my CV online and offered me a perm role paying £35K after a five-minute discussion.
So, when I read the Atkins job description, I thought, let’s give it a go, with nothing to lose. During the interview, the interviewer asked the inevitable question. I refer the reader to the first three paragraphs of this post.
After quitting the contract market, I am no worse off when considering my salary and the benefits I receive. I no longer worry about tax bills, dividend taxes, accounting fees and various insurances costing a fortune. A permanent role has worked for me and might work for you. Never say never.