- Many people turn contract positions into full-time opportunities
- Contractors are often treated much differently than employees
- Corporate environments continually change and evolve
- Mergers usually create radical changes within a company
- When the going gets tough, the people with options leave
- A good technical writer knows to choose words carefully
The good times
Despite the problems with organization and equipment, PHPS was actually a pretty pleasant place to work for most of my stay. The flat management structure didn’t provide much direction, but it also allowed me a certain degree of freedom to experiment and learn. I had quite a few friends at PHPS too. Most of the contractors came from the same agency and worked in the same area as I did, so we often went to lunch together. I had also made some friends among the regular employees, and some of us took Tai Chi classes together after work. I was putting out user manuals at a steady pace and the reaction was mostly positive. More than once, people at the company asked if I would be interested in coming on permanently.At one point it seemed almost certain that I would be hired after my year contract was up.
Merged and managed
Things began to change at about the eight month mark. PHPS had decided to merge with another company in Phoenix. The Phoenix company was larger, and was going to be setting most of the new rules, even though they would be keeping the PHPS name because PHPS was more highly regarded. As the merger progressed, the first thing to go was the flat management structure.
The new version of the company divided out the development group and added new team lead and a new manager. The team lead (for both programmers and business analysts) was a really nice guy with some good ideas and solid leadership skills. He fit in well with the team and helped to solve day-to-day issues. The new manager wasn’t so great. It was clear (at least to us) that his loyalties were to the company first, the Phoenix team second, the Tucson team third and the contractors dead last. Rather than have team meetings as a whole group, he held separate meetings with the regular staff and the contractors. The meetings with the contractors were chilly. In the very first meeting, when the lead programmer (who was a contractor) brought up a couple technical issues, the manager stated flat-out that any contractor who didn’t like the situation should leave.
The problem with telling this to the lead programmer was that he was by far the best programmer they had. You don’t make a contractor your lead programmer unless he is really, really good. There were six programmers at that point — three contract programmers and three regular employees. On a six man team Lynn, was easily responsible for half the output. He was that good and that fast. He was also in demand.
Lynn wasn’t happy. His problem (until then) hadn’t been with PHPS, it had been with the consulting agency that employed us. Much like PHPS, the agency was going through a merger and conditions were changing. We went from being paid every two weeks to getting paid twice a month. We still had to bill weekly though, which made for some odd-looking hours sheets that made the managers nervous. We also went from having the VP at the agency fly in once a month and treat us to dinner to reporting to an unseen guy out of Phoenix who rarely returned calls. Lynn didn’t need to put up with those problems. Twenty minutes after that first meeting Lynn was on the phone, and two weeks later he was working out of his home for $12,000 more a year. PHPS, finally realizing they were losing a valuable person, offered to match the money and bring him on permanently but by then it was too late. He wanted out. The other two contractors didn’t stick around long either. Within a month, I was the last contractor standing.
A hitch in my get-along
Once the other contractors had left, the company saw no reason to keep me with the development team, even though almost all of my work was with them. Instead, they moved me to the help desk team. I didn’t man the help desk, but I reported to their manager. My first meeting with the help desk manager (a one-on-one lunch) went about as well as the first meeting with the development manager. I discussed some of the obstacles I was facing (equipment problems, a lack of feedback/direction) and I was told that if I didn’t think I could do the job, I should leave. I backed off and stopped raising issues. Unlike Lynn, I didn’t have a dozen other companies trying to lure me away and I actually wanted to be a permanent employee. He told me if I wanted to stay I needed to put “a bounce in my step” and “fly with the eagles.”
I knew I was in trouble. At 300 pounds, I didn’t bounce and I didn’t fly. Things bounced or flew off me. I did what I could though. I removed the six-foot cardboard cutout of the Starship Voyager from my cube and began wearing slacks, long-sleeved shirts and ties to work on the days he came down from Phoenix (even though the company only required polo shirts and khakis). I walked faster. I faked a positive and outgoing personality as best I could. I adopted a name for this persona, “Dynamic John”. He was the guy with the enthusiastic can-do attitude. I could keep it up for about six hours, which was usually enough. This technique worked for a while because I only had to see the guy once a week. The rest of the week I could be my normal self and get work done.
A poor choice of words
Because I still worked with the development team, I still attended the development team meetings. The other contractors were gone, but the rest of the team remained intact and they had hired one new full-timer to replace the contractors they lost. As we were waiting for the meeting to start, someone mentioned that Shelly, one of the trainers, was being promoted training supervisor. I said that would be terrific because she was so organized, except I didn’t say “organized”. I said “anal”, as in “anal retentive”. It was a quick thoughtless statement in a longer conversation and nobody reacted badly at the time. I didn’t realize I had done something wrong until my new manager came by to see me the next day…
- Peopleware: Productive Projects and Teams by Tom DeMarco and Timothy Lister: A book about right way to create high performing creative and technical teams.
- The Key to a Successful Merger of Cultures? Look at Employee Demographics by Alice LaPlante: An argument in favor of getting rid of people who resist a merger.
- What experiences have you had with corporate mergers?
- What do you think makes a good manager?
- Do you change your personality when you go to work?