Should You Become a Contractor?

Should You Become a Contractor?

By Stephen Gauer

At the 10- to 15-year point in their careers, some tech writers decide to make the leap to contract work, where they give up the security of a full-time staff position to work on their own as freelancers.

Contract refers to the work arrangement: you’re hired by a client at a fixed hourly rate for a period of anywhere from a day to six months to work either full time or part-time on a specific documentation project.

Should you do it? Consider the following questions.

Do you like variety?
Contract work gives you a new challenge with every assignment. You’re rarely in maintenance mode, as you often are in a staff job — you’re either creating something from scratch, or overhauling something old and tired and making it new again.

Your clients could range from small software firms to major banks and law firms. You might get work with cool tools and actually have an impact on how large organizations conduct business, train their employees, and communicate internally and externally.

Do you want to make more money?
The top contractors in Vancouver bill more than $100,000 a year for 45 to 50 weeks work and earn every penny of it. They have expenses to pay out, of course, including RSP contributions and medical and dental coverage. If you work from home, and manage your money (and deductions) wisely, you can clear $90,000 a year.

Do you like responsibility?
As a contractor, you come into a project as the expert, and that means clients look to you for guidance, problem solving, project management, hand holding, cheerleading, and many other things. If something goes wrong, they look to you to fix it.

Do you like to work hard?
You will work harder as a contractor than as a staffer, conscious that you’re billing every minute you spend on a client’s project. There’s no goofing off, or coasting because it’s Friday afternoon and the sun is out and the beach is calling. You’re being paid top dollar to produce and clients expect results.

Are you a fast learner?
As a contractor, you may have to master a new tool over the weekend and come into the office Monday morning confident that you can put it to use on the project.

You’ll need to be a quick read of people, too, since contract work puts you into new environments, sometimes highly political, where your judgment of people’s skills, authority and credibility may affect the success of the project.

Are you a good communicator?
Communications skills are crucial for contractors. You will have weekly status meetings with senior managers to keep them up to speed on the project and they will be keeping a close eye on you (especially for the first contract) and how well you deliver the news, good and bad, about the project.

Do you like flexibility?
As a contractor you run your own show. You can take vacations when you want. You have, to a varying degree, control over where and when you work, and the type of work you do.

Can you find the work?
This is the most important question of all. You may be the best technical writer on the planet, but if you can’t find potential clients and convince them to hire you, you will fail. Successful contractors know how to network, use LinkedIn and other social media tools, build compelling websites for themselves, and clinch the deal with a confident “Yes I can do that” when required.

Stephen is a senior technical writer with more than 20 years experience writing for corporate and hi-tech clients in Vancouver and Toronto. He is the past president of the STC Canada West Coast chapter.