Archive for October, 2009

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Struggle

24 October, 2009

Cathartic rant to follow.

I’ve now been out of full-time employment for a week now having finished up my arduous 4-week contract in Sydney following on from being made redundant at the Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. The reference to “arduous” is three-fold: living away from home for extended periods, stressful work and not coming home in the evenings after work to my own home and my girlfriend. It was hard and it took its toll, but I’m glad I’m through it.

So I’ve been spending the week working on marketing myself as a freelancer, following up various business opportunities, getting involved in Imagine Innovation and catching up on things that have gone unattended for far too long. If I could start billing soon I could get used to this freelancer’s lifestyle – free coffee, relaxing atmosphere, good company (my girlfriend is studying), no crappy office air conditioning and fluoro lights to give me headaches and sinus problems, fresh air, work at my own pace, flexible hours. It’s pretty awesome – but as I said, dependent on actually starting to do some billable work. It’s only a week in – things take time to work through the pipeline.

It’s funny how stressful things can affect you without you even realising it – you can gloss over events or life changes and pretend like nothing has really happened but you can’t fool yourself, drastic change is drastic change and it does raise your anxiety and depress your mood. Like when I had that heart scare ealier this year which turned out to be psychological most likely work stress related. I wouldn’t have accepted that I was suffering from increased stress at work but the hammering palpitations and declining health said otherwise.

While I am reluctant to admit it, the last 18 months have knocked me around a bit, starting with leaving my cult church of 25 years and with it my family and friends, getting into my first-ever relationship, nearly going bankrupt, stress at work and then being made redundant plus many other things I’ve had to deal with. It all adds up.

I push myself hard. There are several reasons for that:

Firstly I have high expectations of myself (and others) simply because that is my genetic nature. I’m a bit of a perfectionist – which is odd, because I’m also not a finisher. The paradox frequently frustrates me, even though it kinda makes sense to me.

Secondly, due to my upbringing in a fundamentalist Christian cult I am used to living by strict laws which covered everything from obsessive worship and church attendance to laws against over-eating, working on Sundays, not making friends with those outside the church etc. I lived in a very small psychological box, which was like trying to stand on top of a 10 foot high, 2 inch wide totem pole. I eventually fell off; the hypocrisy and anti-intuitive nature of the place was too much for me. The fallout of course was months and months of trying to come to terms with my new identity in a post-Christian life and the long tail of guilt and fear. It was a very dramatic change, and even though I downplay the effects of most of the things I’ve been though I will willingly concede that June 18 2008 was the biggest decision, the biggest change in my life. You can read more about this in my upcoming blog and book project.

Thirdly, I need constant stimulation. I find it hard to relax, to let off the throttle just a bit. I’ll do it because my body needs it, because I need space – but it will get to me, pull me down. I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I realise I have a reasonably capable mind and it is always on the go. I have to constantly feed it new information, new ideas, new problems, new challenges … otherwise it starts to overheat and break down. Metaphorically of course. When a plane stalls it stops climbing and starts to plummet. Happens to me too. It is an insatiable beast … and while I hate to feed it the 40-hour-a-week crap that comes with a full-time office job, at least it is something. This week I’ve struggled to stay motivated because there’s a lack of available stimulation needed to motivate me and I can’t get motivated to go find stimulation. I have the brainpower there to develop ideas that I can see on the fringe of my conciousness, I just can’t kick it into gear.

It’s a little frustrating – but the new me (still a work in progress) chooses not to engage with that frustration. I just see it as a signal that something is amiss and I need to address the core issue, not the symptoms. Trying to deal with frustration directly is like trying to wrangle a bull at a rodeo that’s just slurped up an entire trough of black coffee. It’s pretty futile circular reference stuff.

Fourthly, I am continually trying to evolve – both towards something (still trying to figure out whether that future ideal is my invention or the cult’s) but mostly away from something. I need to distance myself from my roots, where I’ve come from, who I was. Apart from other things, I used to be terribly shy – I hated talking to people and was terrified of public speaking. So I threw myself into it, over and over again until I got over it. That’s just one example of how I push myself.

So this week I’ve been surfing above an undercurrent of growing anxiety and malcontent. I can feel its presence, but I’m staying above it because only in this clear headspace can I continue to work through setting up my freelance career, addressing these lifechange issues and stay happy. I know once I solve my mid- to long-term income stream issues and these projects come through then that black undercurrent will dissapate so it’s not like I’m ignoring the issue. I have a solution, and it doesn’t involve tackling the “What if?” stampede of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt head-on.

As always, I am grateful for having a wonderful, caring girlfriend who is also a qualified psychologist. I know that in my selfishness and self-centeredness I often forget to recognise and appreciate her and during my emotional outages I simply forget all that is good in my life. And then I hate myself for that, and the cycle perpetuates, amplifies until … well, I always manage to pull out in time.

So – there you go. I’m not sure if that’s even readable, but I needed to do that. I think I’m trying to acknowledge something, but I can’t appear weak. No, can’t have that! It’s ok – I’m coming to terms with my humanity. Slowly. Continuing to purge the post-zealot brainwashing and reach the centrepoint, the balance, the calm. Swinging like a pendulum through that middle every once in a while is not stability. It’s when the pendulum actually comes to rest in that point. So it’s not a linear path. It’s like when you’re on a swing and you scrub your feet on the ground on every pass to slow yourself down before you’re lifted into the air again, helpless until you gain traction for another brief moment.

Thanks for listening – I feel much better now, even if it doesn’t look like I got anywhere with it. But writing, sharing, reflection … they’re my traction points, they slow me down just that little bit more, bring me closer to that goal. And I will have to do it over and over again just as I did with my personal diary of quarter of a million words which I for the most part abandoned at the commencement of my current relationship last year in favour of from then on sharing with a Real Person™.

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My jQuery Persist Helper Text plugin

24 October, 2009

I wrote a jQuery plugin last night. Pretty simple, but yeah, my first published plugin.

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What goes into a consultant/contractor rate?

19 October, 2009

It might look like a big number, but it’s not really. Here’s why:

  • Consultants and contractors don’t have a reliable income stream so they need to be able to tide themselves over between jobs and it’s only reasonable that clients contribute to that because they benefit from having access to that expert resource as a consultant or contractor.
  • Consultants and contractors have to maintain a high level of professional development because their knowledge and expertise is their personal brand, their offering. No one hires a consultant who’s knowledge is 5 years out of date. Attending conferences and buying books costs money.
  • Remuneration is also used as a way of ranking indicating level of seniority and expertise within an industry. Juniors start at a low rate and work up to a higher rate. So unless someone is deluding themselves as to their worth (in a professional sense) then generally You Get What You Pay For. You opt to go for a cheaper consultant then you’re probably going to end up with a junior with little experience – but could be perfect for the role you want them for. If you want someone more senior, more experienced then you expect to pay more.
  • In a way you’re licensing their intellectual property. The contract you have with them will likely mention IP but perhaps not in these terms. An experienced contractor will have been working in their industry for 10 years and has accumulated a wealth of knowledge that they bring with them when you engage their services. Part of the rate you pay them includes a license to access that information.

    As I said, it is unlikely their contract with you will state that because technically all IP belongs to other employers and clients they’ll have worked for – but nonetheless you still benefit from those previous engagements.

  • Other costs include rent contributions (for home offices), travel, downtime, insurances (workers comp, professional indemnity even car insurance – thanks Donna) etc.
  • Contractors, consultants and freelancers don’t have paid leave entitlements. So if they they get sick, need to care for a family member or want to take a holiday they stop earning money. So they need to take this into account too; and once again it is reasonable to expect clients to help contribute to that as they’re the ones who benefit from having access to these expert resources – and especially regarding recreational leave, you do not want a burnt out consultant who’s worked 7 days a week for the past 6 months. People need downtime, and being a contractor (with all the expectations placed upon you) it’s a highly stressful situation that requires them to be able to take breaks and holidays to recuperate. It’s in the client’s best interests (thanks Marianne).
  • Also, most hourly/daily rates are inclusive of superannuation whereas salaries are generally published as exclusive of superannuation.

Any other components of a contractor’s rate you can think of?

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Lessons learned: Self-project management

17 October, 2009

Got back last night after my fourth and final week working in Sydney. It’s been interesting, my first full-time private sector gig in over 7 years and at a different level than the $22k junior web application developer role I had at Catalyst Interactive where I last worked in private sector before joining the APS.

Brought back memories, especially as the client in this case and the sort of work was similar to one of the projects I had back in 2001 – pixel-perfect designs, cross-browser compatibility etc.

I’ve learned a lot from the past few weeks; important things that will help me kick off my new freelancing career – and I want to record them and share them here. I should note that my advice below should not be taken to indicate that the project I’ve just completed suffered all these problems – but it did at the very least inspire me to think about these issues and solutions:

Project ramp-up and initialisation:

Be wary of projects that have no clear baselined documentation and specifications! It is likely that new documentation, new requirements or changes will reveal themselves over the duration of the project and without a firm foundation to estimate and work from it will make life difficult. Obtain baselined documentation and commit to work from that. If new requirements are revealed that supersede that baseline, then stop, analyse the discrepancies, re-evaluate your time and resource estimates and escalate. Don’t just absorb it into your current timeframe and work plan.

Demand a proper project briefing and initialisation, at least a kick-off meeting with everyone involved at a low level. Know who you’ll be working with and engage with them, build a good work relationship with them as soon as possible. State your expectations of them and let them reveal their expectations of you.

To “hit the ground running” does not mean you should forfeit this opportunity. Even if you’re dropped in the middle of a current project, your work is still a project in its own right.

Project management and methodology:

Do not assume that the absence of a process and methodology implies that people do not expect it. Methodologies are used for a reason – for predictability, for risk management, for reporting, for planning, for resource allocation and issue response. You need these requirements to be accommodated, so having no process at all will not do.

At the very least identify the phases of your work and disclose those to the client. Allow yourself an adequate analysis and evaluation phase, a design phase, development, testing and deployment or whatever phase framework suits the work you’re doing. Even an agile methodology has phases. Just bumbling your way through it as fast as you can without any plan is not agile. It’s a disaster.

Estimates:

Never provide an estimate for just the main component of your task. Just as you have a ramp-up and ramp-down for your project, each task will have other activities wrapped around it. If you quote for just the main part of a task then you’re locking yourself in to do all of the work associated with that task in a greatly reduced timeframe. Don’t expect project managers or clients to pad out your estimate for you.

Don’t commit to others’ estimates. Never say “yes” to an estimate – always give your own, in your own words with any caveats and assumptions, and yes I know to assume is described as being the “mother of all fuck-ups” but assumptions are an important part of project management – you can’t have all the facts and you have to draw the line somewhere. If those assumptions fail, your estimates fail. If you haven’t stated your assumptions and made it clear that you can complete task by X date but only as long as Y and Z remain true … and then if Y and Z fall through, then you fucked up.

If working for a fixed period of time that was set before you started then you are being hired to work for that fixed period of time, not to complete a deliverable. Make that clear. If you haven’t been given the opportunity to properly evaluate the work, to assess the environment and the relationships, the allocated resources, attitudes, other influencing factors and are being engaged on someone else’s estimates and assumptions and being commited to complete deliverables then you’re walking into a trap. You might have to just do that … but know the risk; if their estimates are off, if there are no baselined requirements, if resources change, if there’s no project management methodology then you’re lining yourself up for a nice stroll through the fires of hell.