Spreading the love: a guide to collaborating as a contractor
Contractors are squeezed between a rock and a hard place when it comes to collaboration. Nobody wants a hired gun who can’t connect with the rest of the business. But giving 100 percent focus to multiple clients is equally unrealistic.
Fortunately, there are proven strategies for establishing yourself as an indispensable member of the team, even when the relationship isn’t a long-term marriage.
Being a good collaborator and maintaining healthy independence are not mutually exclusive. Allay concerns that your part-time or limited-term commitment makes you less valuable by being proactive about communication. “As a freelancer, I found that I didn’t have to be the most creative guy out there. If I treated people better than everyone else out there, I’d get the business,” says Josh Mabus, president and founder of Mabus Agency. “I wasn’t aloof or combative, I’d just communicate with them.”
Some clients have a difficult time distinguishing between the independence of a contractor and the all-hands-on-deck, all-the-time expectations they may have for their own employees. Mabus recommends a straightforward strategy to cut off those concerns: never miss a deadline. When clients know they can count on their key contractors to deliver as expected, many of the cultural considerations simply never come to the surface. “When you’re busy working, you might feel that the quality of the work will supersede missing deadlines or expectations,” he says. “You need to communicate well enough so that if you’re going to miss a deadline, you can move it. If you don’t, you’re screwed.”
Organization goes a long way
Robin Harbron, co-founder of P1XL Games, has offered contract programming and game design services to clients around the world for over 10 years. In his experience, effective collaboration begins with clearly defined specifications. “Even if it’s just a wiki or a Google doc, it works very well,” he says. “You can sell people on the need for specifications by telling them they will save time, and therefore money.”
Between the client and contractor, someone needs to be designated as the project lead, and the importance of a dedicated, full-time project manager grows as the size and complexity of the project grows. Project management software is an effective tool as well, but useless without everyone invested and engaged. “You need a central place to organize your communication and deadlines, but software doesn’t manage projects—people do,” Mabus says.
Harbron seconds the importance of a strong project lead, and spoke particularly highly of the lead on a recent linguistics app he developed for Linnaeus University in Sweden. In addition to being prompt with answers and clarifications whenever he sent her a question, she was quick to admit when their own pipeline was temporarily dry, freeing him up to work on projects for other clients until the university was back up to speed. “It was good communication and good scheduling,” he says.
“THE HOLE IS TOO BIG!”
Working with diverse clients means that, some days, you will simply have to accept the communication breakdowns and fight through them, doing whatever it takes to get things back on track. Early in his career, Harbron was involved in a particularly difficult project, an electronic racing game. The toy’s steering wheel behaved oddly in the first prototypes—the car would wiggle down the road even when the wheel was straight.
The main hardware designer had already quit the project, leaving Harbron, the lead software developer, to try to diagnose the problem. The manufacturers in China blamed the software, but the code was already extensively debugged. After extensive review Harbron discovered two hardware flaws in the design, including a loose connection between the steering wheel and circuit board. Explaining the problem to the manufacturer, however, was another matter entirely. “It was 2 AM and I was yelling into the phone, ‘THE HOLE IS TOO BIG!’” he says.
With soldering iron in hand, Harbron gutted it out, engineered a fix, and saved the project from language-barrier hell. But the resolution was born mostly of perseverance. “It was the closest thing to a nightmare.”
Choosing your clients, and your timing
Contractors enjoy a great deal of freedom to choose the work they take on, which also comes with the responsibility to select clients who are a good fit for your own temperament, expectations, and work style. If the expectations and pressures of one industry are too much, seek a different pace. Non-profit and research-oriented organizations can offer a welcome trade-off between compensation and aggravation. “The encounters I’ve had with academia have always had more relaxed schedules than other projects,” Harbron says.
The greatest advantage to having a contractor’s freedom to manage a relationship is the freedom to pick your battles. One of Mabus’ favorite pieces of advice about timing is never to pitch on a rainy day. “That’s meant literally, and figuratively,” he says. “If the day before you had a fight or a contentious call with a client, push back the meeting. There are going to be more questions, and you can’t sell your work as well.”
Some days, it’s easier to avoid a fight than to spread the love.