From Contract to Permanent

my transition from contractor to perm

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 told me that contracting can be a long-term career choice. However, transitioning from a contract to a permanent position can be challenging. He offered various reasons, but I went ahead; I couldn’t afford to be out of work.

trnsition from contract to perm

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 contract and permanent jobs. 

However, some agents were reluctant to forward a contractor to a client wanting a permanent technical author. 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 and provided a laugh. 

Note: To be a technical author, you need a sense of humour and 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 contract gap. During that period, Blackberry offered me a permanent role. 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 when she arrived at 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—her two years of experience against my 13 years.

Yet, look on the bright side: with more contracts under my belt, I developed more skills: 

  • SharePoint (Document Management)
  • Confluence
  • Help Desk support, transition from contractor to perm
  • policy & process writing, 
  • VISIO process flows
  • ITIL (incident and change management), 
  • ITSM. 
  • PCI/DSS, 
  • 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.

The cost of Technical and Process documentation
The cost of Technical and process documentation

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. When we arrived, the PM had used most of the budget to prepare for an audit, which involved hiring an expensive external consultant with high 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. 

Hiring managers and project managers often struggle with the dynamics of documentation projects. 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 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

    • I am 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 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
    • The Government fails to grasp that we risk takers don’t have holiday pay, sickness benefits, or 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 reinvented 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 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, after I completed a long-term contract project, I focused on finding a permanent role. Most calls were for permanent work. The HR department of a County Durham-based bank (my home county) offered me an interview. However, HR rejected me because of my contracting background. So, if you are reading this, take note. I am now a permie, see what you missed. 

transition from contracting to perm

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.

And Finally…

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.

Technical Writing | Sourcing a technical writer

When sourcing a technical writer, ensure their experience matches your requirements. The best candidate will have the correct background and expertise. Listen carefully to their answers as many like me at the interview dispense advice and why a particular route may not work. If they don’t talk through that experience, keep searching until you do.

Productive years as a Technical Writer

An experienced Technical writer can only be an asset to your team or project. The longer their career in various businesses, the broader and more in-depth their experience will be. However, the only way to be confident is to read their CVs carefully.

Read the CV, and discuss the project. My rule is this: if you cannot see it on my CV, then I haven’t done it. That does not mean I will turn down unfamiliar tasks.

Do they use Social Media or have a website?

Check out LinkedIn for their profile; If you cannot find it or a website describing their experiences, what have they be doing?

During the interview, did they communicate?

During an interview, be wary of a candidate who sits, listens, and says very little. An experienced TW will respond to your questions and offer suggestions on elevating the project with innovations you may not have considered.

Effective communication

An essential part of our job is communicating with SMEs to gather the right level of detail for the documentation. If you have a TW and the documentation appears vague, it might be time for a chat.

Do you want a contractor or permanent TW?

Do you want to build a team that includes a TW to keep the documentation up to date, a person who will grow into the environment? However, I caution against hiring a permanent Technical Writer unless you are sure there will be ongoing work.

Work cycles can dip, so be careful how you use the Technical Writer. During one of my earliest contracts, the project engineer referred to me as a secretary and treated me as one, as did the rest of the team. In a much earlier role, my line manager used me as a general dogsbody.

A proactive Technical Writer between writing, researching and interviewing could improve the company’s documentation. However, once they get on top of the tasks, the role could become routine and repetitive. There will be an odd spurt of activity within the working life cycle; hence, the position of Technical Writing lends itself more to contract work than permanent work.

To summarise: if you hire a permanent Technical Writer to ensure you have plenty of contingencies to avoid your TW developing itchy feet, I suggest you discuss additional tasks that may add value to their experience. Allowing a member of staff use them for jobs for which you employ an office junior will not go down too well.

A word of caution

Unfortunately, our profession attracts its fair share of triers. You can reasonably expect CVs from candidates who have had minimum experience preparing ad hoc documentation on projects at work. Unfortunately, that minimal experience does not translate to full-scale projects requiring a technical writer. In many cases, it turns into an expensive flop.

Many recruiting agents have a minimum expertise sourcing Technical Writers. When they speak to prospective candidates, they hear a few buzzwords and place candidates forward for a role for which they are not suitable. Be sure to check that they have the right experience and background.

To avoid problems, apply the following advice:

Be careful hiring a Junior Technical Writer or one that has worked in a permanent position for the last five years.

Why: a permanent position can be very repetitive, which limits the Technical Writer’s experience. That also goes for junior writers. For high-profile projects, hire a seasoned contracting professional who can talk through the project with you.

Finally, budgets – ensure you are buying the experience you need. In the world of Technical Writing, the price you pay determines the standard you accept. Hiring the wrong candidate could be a costly mistake.

Where else can you source a Technical writer?

You have found me. However, I may not be suitable for the role. Check LinkedIn, Social Media sites and online Job Boards. Ask other companies and fellow professionals if they have used Technical Writers and, if so, what was their experience. They may have recommendations that, in the long run, could save you money.

Technical Writing | Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Technical Documentation vs Helpdesk – Despite the reluctance to invest in technical documentation, many managers bypass a proven way to cut back on calls to the Helpdesk. No doubt many helpdesks provide an excellent service and manage the demands of the users. The problem with most technical documentation including user guides is that it is incomplete and full of gaps. Documentation needs to flow and provide practical tips on how to get the best from the software.  If your customers had well written and comprehensive documentation you could substantially cut back on costly calls to your helpdesk.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

I have experience in manning a premium line Helpdesk and have spoken to many angry customers whose subjective complaints about the company and the guilty software lead to comments such as:

  • The product is bordering on rubbish, and it doesn’t work, is it bugged?
  • annoyed with the company because the software is garbage
  • I can’t follow the user guide because it doesn’t belong to my version of the software
  • I can’t follow the instructions

When documentation fails to deliver the answer, the Helpdesk records a steep curve in calls. Customers who feel forced to call the Helpdesk Support can hold mixed feelings about the product and company.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

technical documentation vs helpdesk
technical documentation vs helpdesk

Customers are the lifeblood of any organisation, and their demands can vary.  To facilitate their requirements, I created a feedback option to enable internal and external users to point out where the documentation appeared vague.

The developers and helpdesk provided a more detailed solution based on their knowledge and experiences. I created a FAQs knowledge base (or Wiki) for external users and placed the information in the back of the document. The internal staff received the content via a RoboHelp *.chm file.

The FAQs were a success and helped cut calls to support by 80%. I had created searchable information that was easy to find and accessible to all staff.

Experienced technical writers can produce audience focussed documentation that helps customers maintain productivity.

Technical documentation vs Helpdesk

Always treat your documentation and your information as an asset’ and invest in the necessary resources maintain the documentation. The savings could be significant meaning satisfied customers.

Technical Writing | What is technical writing and why you need it

What is Technical Writing?

Technical writing is a skill and should you hear a Project Manager or Subject Matter Expert say: ‘anyone can write so “why do you need a Technical Writer?” continue reading.

Technical Writing like many jobs has many facets. The fact you see Writer in the job title suggests to the uninitiated that primarily we write. You could not be more wrong! The writing takes only a fraction of the time allocated to the project.

Let’s get to the point

Our time is taken with analysing content and listening to Subject Matter Experts.

Our Writing is concise and to the point. We are not novelists describing a beautiful character down to her laughter lines. A poorly written novel will not hold the attention of a reader; the same goes for poorly written technical documentation. A user wants to read the document and understand say – the function of multiple servers and Operating systems within a significant infrastructure. Know how to follow a process or service within a few sentences. We can create a document from the viewpoint of the reader by listening to the user and offering document(s) based on the best solution.

Technical Writing is – as it explains in the box – technical. We speak to Subject Matter Experts and translate their language into content that a technophobe will understand.

We produce documentation in several formats in such a way, to get the message across to our many audiences. What I have written – you too will be an expert. Give yourself a hand.

Key elements of technical writing

Using a consistent language with regards to terminology.

Creating Glossaries to help readers understand the terminology used within the document.

Formatting document headers with the same font size and tables and drawings labelled the same way are important.

From using Excel spreadsheets, Template creation, document versioning, documentation content and types of material, clear document titles and subjects – working with either a shared drive or a document management system and talking to SMEs every day your average technical author is a ‘rare breed’ indeed.

If you have not already read my post titled “Technical Authors are not easy to find’ we do not attract many candidates.

Technical Writing | Hire a Technical Writer sooner, rather than later

As a Technical Writer with over Twenty Years of experience, I need to address a problem which haunts documentation projects. I aim this at Project Managers who scope such projects as part of a more comprehensive project.

Have you ever planned a project (PCI, GDPR, ISO27001, ITIL, Policy and Process) where documentation is critical? If so, how did it go? Crucially, did the project deliver ALL the documentation? If not – do you know why the plan failed?

First: Did you speak to a Technical Writer for a realistic appraisal of the expected outcomes?

Second: was your budget a few pennies short?

A collective failure of technical / process documentation projects is the lack of knowledge and expertise during the planning and discovery phases. Many project managers do NOT grasp the reality of a documentation project.

If the PM does NOT know the difference between a written process, a documented plan, and the purpose of a policy and its processes, your project could be in trouble.

The planners do not understand the lifecycle of a document, from the initial draft through various reviews and sign-off. The process takes much longer than expected.

How long does it to write a document? My default answer is “I do not know”. Technical Policy and Process documentation, depending on the project (PCI, GDPR, Operations, ITIL), will have many requirements and factors which delay the following stages:

      • the information gathering,
      • the interviewing
      • opinions
      • the writing,
      • review stages,
      • amendments
      • opinions, and
      • sign-off.

The likely reality of writing a 30-page A4 process document containing:

      • VISIOs (3 or more) comprising between 10 to 30 steps
      • Process narratives (3 or more) of between 10 to 30 steps
      • Appendixes (2 or more)

It will take at least 8 – 12 weeks of effort before the review stage. My advice is not to plan such a project without professional help.

Compliance projects such as PCI and GDPR generate a lot of policy and process documentation. If you are starting from scratch, the list of required documents could exceed 60 or more. In timing terms, you are looking at 12/18 months of work. To be safe, let’s say 24 months. If you have partially written documents, DO NOT expect timings to diminish to a few months. If the papers are scattered throughout various drives, the technical author must first attempt to get the documentation into a consistent state. That could take months of work.

Finally, there must be a management agreement to help the PM and TA find the resources to succeed. Any failures will multiply costs.

Hire a Technical Writer

My advice is this: If you have a project that requires documentation, hire a Technical Writer, not a Business Analyst, for advice from the start of the project, NOT when the end date is in sight and when the budget is running out. The TW can highlight issues, risks, and bottlenecks and help you manage expectations within the allocated time assigned to the project.

The Technical writers will need:

    • to assimilate the project
    • Time for training on any tools
    • access to Subject Matter Experts (SMEs)

Add in contingencies for illnesses, holidays and unplanned absences, and resignations from the project. They happen.

If the budget and the timelines become fixed (in stone) with multiple documents to complete in a short period, then produce quality rather than quantity.

To ensure quality, rank the documents across the set:

    1. Required
    2. Nice to have
    3. Not important

Or use The MoSCoW method.

    • M – Must have this requirement to meet the business needs
    • S – Should have this requirement if possible, but project success does not rely on it
    • C – Could have this requirement if it affects nothing else on the project
    • W – I would like to have this requirement later, but delivery won’t be this time.

Additional Points

    • Travel: Will the TWs need to travel abroad or nationally?
    • References: Identify any useable archived documentation.
    • Reviews: decide who will review and who will sign off a document
    • Scope: Could there be any changes which will add to or change the size of the project

In summary,

Documentation projects fail due to:

    • poor planning
    • the lack of experience and
    • not allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

In contrast, documentation projects succeed due to:

    • excellent planning
    • understanding of documentation lifecycles
    • allowing enough time to complete the documentation.

Finally: If the project’s success depends on the documentation (Disaster Recovery Plan, PCI/DSS, BCP and ITIL)—why do PMs and SMEs allocate so much of the budget to non-documentation resources?