Not too long ago, I made a living working as a contractor where I would hop from project to project. Some were short term where I would work for a week and quickly deliver my service. Others lasted a couple months where I would make enough money to take some time off. I preferred the short ones because they allowed me to charge a much higher rate for a quick job. Not only I felt like my own boss, but I also felt like I didn't have to work too hard to make a decent living. My highest rates were still reasonable, and I always delivered high quality service. That was until I landed a gig with a large company.
This company contacted me in urgency and the manager told me they needed someone right away. Someone who required minimum training for maximum performance. For better or worse, that was my motto. This project was exactly the type of work I liked. It was short, fast, and it paid well.
After negotiating a decent rate, I received an email with the instructions. They gave me more context for the urgency. Their developer left without prior warning and never updated anyone on the status of his project.
We need your full undivided attention to complete this project. For the duration of the contract, you will work exclusively with us to deliver result in a timely manner. We plan to compensate you for the trouble.
The instructions were simple: Read the requirements then come up with an estimate of how long it would take to complete the project. This was one of the easier projects I have encountered in my career. It was an HTML page with some minor animations and a few embedded videos. I spent the evening studying the requirements and simulating the implementation in my head. Over the years, I've learned not to write any code for a client until I have a guarantee of pay.
I determined that this project would be a day's worth of work. But to be cautious, I quoted 20 hours with a rough total of $1500. It was a single HTML page after all, and I can only charge them so much. They asked me to come on site to their satellite office 25 miles away. I would have to drive there for the 3 days I would be working for them.
The next day, I arrived at the satellite office. It was in a shopping center where a secret door led to a secret world where a few workers where churning quietly in their cubicles. The receptionist presented me with a brand new MacBook Pro that I had to set up from scratch. I do prefer using a company's laptop because they often require contractors to install suspicious software.
I spent the day downloading my toolkit, setting up email, ssh keys, and requesting invites to services. In other words, I got nothing done. This is why I quoted 20 hours, I lost 8 hours of my estimated time doing busy work.
The next day, I was ready to get down to business. Armed with the MacBook Pro, I sent an email to the manager. I told him that I was ready to work and that I was waiting for the aforementioned assets. That day, I stayed in my cubicle under a softly buzzing light, twiddling my fingers until the sun went down.
I did the math again. According to my estimate, I had 4 hours left to do the job, which was not so unrealistic for a single HTML page. But needless to say, the next day, I spent those remaining 4 hours in a company sponsored lunch where I ate very well and mingled with other employees.
When the time expired, I made sure to send the manager another email, to let him know that I had been present in the company only I had not received the assets I needed to do the job. That email, of course, was ignored.
The following Monday, I hesitantly drove the 25 miles. To my surprise, the manager had come down to the satellite office where he enthusiastically greeted me. He was a nice easy-going guy in his mid thirties. I was confused. He didn't have the urgency tone he had on the phone when he hired me. We had a friendly conversation where no work was mentioned. Later, we went down to lunch where he paid for my meal. It was a good day. No work was done.
Call me a creature of habit, but if you feed me and pamper me everyday, I get used to it. It turned into a routine. I'd come to work, spend some time online reading and watching videos. I'd send one email a day, so they know I am around. Then I'd go get lunch and hangout with whomever had an interesting story to share. At the end of the day, I'd stand up, stretch, let out a well deserved yawn, then drive home.
I got used to it. In fact, I was expecting it. It was a little disappointing when I finally got an email with a link that pointed to the assets I needed for the job. I came back down to earth, and put on my working face. Only, after spending a few minutes looking through the zip file, I noticed that it was missing the bulk of what I needed. The designer had sent me some Adobe Illustrator files, and I couldn't open it on the MacBook.
I replied to the email explaining my concerns and bundled a few other questions to save time. At that point, my quoted 20 hours time had long expired. I wanted to get this job over with already. Shortly after I clicked on send, I received an email. All it said was: "Adding Alex to the thread," and Alex was CC'd to the email. Then Alex replied where he added Steve to the thread. Steve replied saying that Michelle was a designer and she would know more about this. Michelle auto responded saying that she was on vacation and that all inquiries should be directed to her manager. Her manager replied asking "Who is Ibrahim?" My manager replied excusing himself for not introducing me.
As a contractor, I am usually in and out of a company before people notice that I work there. Here, I received a flood of emails welcoming me aboard. The chain of emails continued for a while and I was forced to answer to those awfully nice messages. Some people were eager to meet me in person. They got a little disappointed when I said that I was all the way down in California. And jealous, they said they were jealous of the beautiful weather.
They used courtesy to ignore my emails. They used CC to deflect my questions. They used spam to dismiss anything I asked. I spent my days like an archaeologist digging through the deep trenches of emails, hoping to find answers to my questions. You can imagine the level of impostor syndrome I felt every time I remembered that my only task was to build a single static HTML page. The overestimated 20 hours project turned into a 7 weeks adventure where I enjoyed free lunches, drove 50 miles everyday, and dug through emails.
Of course, the video meeting was rescheduled a few times. When it finally happened, my work and I were not the subject of the meeting. They were all sitting in the same room somewhere in New York and talked for a while like a tight knit group. In fact, all they ever said about the project was:
Person 1: Hey is anyone working on that sponsored page?
Person 2: Yeah, I think it's done.
Person 1: Great, I'll merge it tonight.
When I went home that night, I realized that I was facing another challenge. I had been working at this company for 7 weeks, and my original quote was for $1,500. That's roughly the equivalent of $11,100 a year or $214 a week. Or even better, it was $5.35 an hour.
This barely covered my transportation. So, I sent them an invoice where I quoted them for 7 weeks of work at the original hourly rate. The total amounted to $18,000. I was ashamed of course, but what else was I supposed to do?
Just like I expected, I got no reply. If there is something that all large companies have in common, it's that they are not very eager to pay their bills on time. I felt like a cheat charging so much for such a simple job, but this was not a charity. I had been driving 50 miles everyday to do the job, if the job was not getting done it was not for my lack of trying. It was for their slow responses.
I got an answer the following week. It was a cold email from the manager where he broke down every day I worked into hourly blocks. Then he highlighted those I worked on and marked a one hour lunch break each day. At the end he made some calculations with our agreed upon hourly rate.
Apparently, I was wrong. I had miscalculated the total. After adjustment, the total amount they owed me was $21,000.
Please confirm the readjusted hours so accounting can write you a check.
I quickly confirmed these hours.