Taking on a contract?

Subject: Taking on a contract?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Kevin McGowan <thatguy_80 -at- hotmail -dot- com>
Date: Wed, 25 Jan 2006 09:25:06 -0500

Kevin McGowan wondered: <<I'm going to meet with the reps from this company tonight, and am looking for a bit of advice as to what specific questions to ask. Basically, they are a small company here in Ottawa, about 14 people. They've all been doing the writing (tech manuals, marketing blurbs, help files, etc). To quote my friend there: "we're tired of doing the writing because we're tripping all over each other." At the moment, they are creating a lot of XML files and they apparently want to turn that source into nice looking PDF files (probably with Word).>>

The biggest and most important question is to get a good description of their development process: how things are designed and created. This tells you whether you're aiming at a constantly moving target with no way to guess where it's moved, whether the target is changing but at least they'll tell you, or whether they actually understand the concept of a blueprint. <g> This tells you how much to pad your estimate and how much grief to expect.

Next, you need to pin them down on the details of what you'll be documenting. Those details form the basis for your contract, and any changes to those details are billed at your usual hourly rate--or possibly a higher rate if this leads to insane deadlines. (Define insane, of course. In software development, it's kinda subjective and relative. <g>) This protects you against feature creep.

Pin down the review and revision process. My usual contract says "you get one review and one free revision in response to that review; everything after that is on the meter". That's an overly simplistic version of a longer and more detailed discussion that comes down to the following: "I'm prepared to do a reasonable number of revisions, but if you guys can't get your shit together and do the job right, you'll pay for the privelege of making me do it dozens of times".

Speaking of which, make sure there's a "due diligence" clause: you'll do your best to get the facts right, but you're not the expert--they're the experts, and must take responsibility for approving what you've done. In short, "cover your asciii". If it's a moderately long job, get payments at frequent intervals, and add a clause such as the following: "payment represents approval of all work submitted to that point".

The rest is all relatively obvious: discuss tools, deliverables, milestones, deadlines, and payment dates. I find the easiest way to come up with this list is to roleplay the process: imagine myself going through the entire documentation process, from the first day on the job to the final celebratory beer, and make notes of everything that happens along the way. If you don't know exact details of those happenings, ask to find out.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca
(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)
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Taking on a contract: From: Kevin McGowan

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