Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Lesson: Control

I realize my blogging has shifted. Since my layoff, work has taken over a larger share of my creativity. On the other hand, I've found there's a huge reserve of creativity that was untapped before. I guess this is a sign that my life is improving, though I'll wait and see if I can make a living six months from now before I hand down a ruling.

I do have a new idea for a nomic-like RPG combining blogger and wiki that I'm going to post later this week, I promise.

In the meantime, my tip for the day is this: when you're working in someone else's work environment, try to have direct control over the resources you need to do your job. If it's a document, keep your own backup. If it's hardware, know that the hardware has been set aside for you or have access to your own. Wasted time is an annoyance to a salaried employee, but it's slow poison to an independent.

Dealing with Staffing Agencies

For those of you who don't know, I was recently laid off from work. Since then I've been working very hard hunting down jobs, be they temp, contract, or permanent. One creature I've run into quite a bit in my travels is the staffing agency.

Staffing agencies make their money by finding people to fill jobs for other companies. Microsoft seems to use them quite extensively. The staffing agency gathers qualified people, send resumes to the client, and brings people in for interviews. In return, the agency gets a fee.

Now some of these agencies are good, and some are bad, but most have a mix of both. I'm starting to learn that there are a number of tips and tricks that everyone who deals with staffing agencies should know.

I have to stress that I'm a beginner in being an independent agent, and my insights probably reflect my inexperience.

  1. Know the difference between contracting and staffing: Staffers fill a job description. Consultants solve problems. If you're talking to a customer, diagnosing their problems, and designing or implementing the solution, you're really consulting. Consultants typically get paid more and are expected to apply a higher level of expertise, insight, and commitment. Also, consultants need a higher level of control and autonomy to be effective. The people you work for may not always understand these distinctions, but you definitely need to.

  2. Know your Job Title: A job description corresponds to a title, and a title corresponds to a rate. The titles are usually things like "Developer II", "Project Manager", "Senior Technical Writer". One way to figure out the job titles is to look at job ads at large companies in your area and industry. Find the jobs you are qualified for an note their titles. If you're a Developer II, don't be too quick to accept a job that looks like a Developer I position.

  3. Know the Rate: Every job title has a corresponding rate. In my market, the descriptions and rates are largely defined by Microsoft's job titles and rates. Every time you learn that a specific job is offered at a specific rate, that provides a clue as to what the going rate for that job is. Eventually you'll have a good idea what you can charge.

  4. Negotiating a Rate: Don't be afraid to say no. Better yet, say yes to a higher rate. Most companies don't mind paying a little more for something better. If you're prepared to tell the recruiter why it is that you represent a better value for the money, the recruiter may be quite happy to pass that information on to their client, and you may end up being hired for more than was originally offered.

  5. Talking to Recruiters: Some recruiters haven't the faintest clue what the job they're trying to fill actually requires. They job description may say "knowledge of technology X", but the recruiter doesn't necessarily know anything about technoloy X. Some recruiters may even ask you to help them figure it out. I'm divided on this, but I'll usually spend some time talking to the recruiter if I think I understand the job better than they do. I figure if they have the good sense to know the limits of their knowledge, they're a good contact.

  6. Know how Recruiters Work: I don't know anything about this from the recruiter's side. What I have observed from my side is that a job that's underpaid tends to come around again. I've been called about the same job as many as three times from three different agencies at three different rates. If anyone out there knows more about how the recruiting business works, I'd appreciate any insight you can offer.

These are just a few things I've learned over the last couple of months. This is by no means a complete list. I'd be happy to hear from others about their experiences

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

The Red Couch - Dinner with Fired Google Blogger

The Red Couch: Dinner with the fired Google blogger

Robert Scoble had dinner with fired Google blogger Mark jen. The resulting blog post is a good quick guide to the hazards of blogging from work and how to avoid them. Good words for all those of you with jobs. ;)

Monday, February 07, 2005

Thought for the Day

Back when I started doing writing contracts for Microsoft, when you wanted to learn a new technology, you'd search MSDN until you found the right article. This was usually named "Getting started with technology X." I taught myself ASP entirely from MSDN articles.

Over time, these articles dwindled away. It's now much harder to find newbie-targeted user friendly content of this sort. That's frustrating if, like me, you're always having to learn new technologies on the quick.

Enter newtrain. The newtrain is "non-traditional" content delivery through blogs, webcasts and the like. The newtrain gives you content with a human voice. You can interact with it; ask questions, get answers.

On the other hand, you've got to work a bit harder. No, I take that back. You don't have to work harder, but you do have to be more engaged. That's only fair, though. The people writing the blogs are engaged with the technology every day.

I predict that this phenomenon is going to help Microsoft a lot as it grows. Not only does it mean more credibility, but I'm willing to be it'll mean better products.

So my thought for the day is to open up some RSS feeds. Get engaged.

.NET for Office Blog
Office Zealot

It's amusing to reflect that writing the title to this post caused a small thrill of transgression. The MS manual of style prohibits using company or product names in the possessive. Actually, it's not so much amusing as slightly pathetic.

Friday, February 04, 2005

Getting Started with VSTO - Thanks to Blogs

Office Developer Center: Getting Started with Visual Studio Tools for Office: Best of Blogs: Visual Studio Tools for Office, Version 2005: "Since we started aggregating blogs for conferences such as Microsoft Tech Ed and Microsoft Professional Developers Conference (PDC), over 50,000 articles from more than 500 bloggers have passed through our system. "

This is a great place to get started learning about Visual Studio Tools for Office(VSTO). What's really cool is that it's not your typical MSDN article, it's a collection of blog articles and feeds.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Get Staffed

Would you hire a person who didn't know the difference between your product and a flour sifter? Who didn't care? Then why do you hire a staffing agency to find your documentation writer?

If you find a recruiter you can trust, that's as valuable as happening across a brilliant programmer or a gifted writer.

Your Web site claims that your company prides itself on its communications. Then why is your job ad barely literate? How do you expect to attract good writers this way?

I've had a lot of conversations with people from staffing agencies in the last three weeks. Many of them don't have a clue, but the good ones aren't afraid to admit it. They ask questions. I’ve had conversations with recruiters where we both went away with a better understanding of the job. I wasn’t the right person for some of these jobs, but if the recruiter understands both my qualifications and the technology better, then it’s more likely we’ll work together in the future.

A staffing agency is a tool, nothing more. It can't provide passion or brilliance. It doesn't solve any problems on its own. It helps you solve problems you already understand. If you’re not sure what to do next in your project; if you're experiencing friction and you don't know why; if things aren't working and you can’t diagnose the problem, then you don't need a staffer, you need a consultant.

If you know what needs to be done but lack the time or precise skills to do it, call a staffing agency.

If you're looking for someone who can engage your project actively and intelligently, don't count on a staffing agency to find them. You might get them, but if you do, hire them right away because you got a lucky break.

In most cases the recruiter is a middle man who understands less about the job (and the technology) than the people on the ends.

I've talked to 2 or 3 recruiters who seem to get it. I want to work with them again.

A lot of staffing recruiters think of you as nothing more than a resume or a way to fill a seat. They're easy to spot. Ask them how you can provide better value and you'll see it right away. They aren't interested in someone who goes above and beyond.

Yes, I've only been "out there" for a month now, but this stuff isn't very hard to see. I’ve had some good interactions with staffing agencies, and I’ve had some bad ones. I’m starting to understand that good recruiting is a bit of an art. Bad recruiting reeks of spam.

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

I Want my SciFi Blog

I met the editor of the science fiction magazine Neo-opsis at Norwescon last year and sent him a copy of one of my stories soon after. The other day it came back with a rejection E-mail. It was a personal note, however, and the editor was good enough to enquire how my novel was going and invited me to submit more work. So I did. 10 minutes later. Two hours after that I got a an electronic rejection notice that included the name of my story, its submission number, and personal critique with suggestions for improvement (hint: in the unpublished writer world, a personal rejection is a good thing; it means they bothered to read it).

This got me to thinking. Fiction magazines are routinely swamped with submissions. Editors resort to rejecting manuscripts outright on the most superficial grounds (wrong font, wrong size, first sentence isn't spectacular). I wonder if a savvy internet solution might not improve this situation. Wouldn't it be great if when a submission came in it was automatically given a ticket number and tagged with notes on past submissions and communications? What if the story was presented to the editor in the reading format of their choice? What if the editor, opening the story, immediately saw the history of their correspondence with that author? Would editors find this useful? Would it speed up the winnowing process?

While we're at it, lets publish our magazine online. And instead of trying to make it look like a print mag or Web Design 101 project, lets make it a blog. Instead of publishing once a month, we'll publish every time we get a good story. We'll invite the authors to correspond with readers in the comments section. For some reason, I haven't seen anyone doing this.

Periodically we'll publish a paper anthology for subscribers to generate some revenue, or we could try a premium search service, advertising, book sales, or Amazon associateship.

Right now I have the latest print issue of Locus in front of me. It's their annual "Year in Review" issue, featuring dismal looking charts of declining circulation of the major Science Fiction and Fantasy fiction magazines (hint: the lucky ones have only lost half their circ in the last 20 years). Yet the consensus seems to be that more fiction is being written and that people still want to read it. Do we need a paradigm shift? Anyone?