Contractor vs. Captive

Subject: Contractor vs. Captive
From: Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET>
Date: Wed, 21 Aug 1996 13:31:00 EST

Since my original comments about contractors vs. internal writers has
generated such debate, perhaps it would be helpful if I included the
original quote, which was:

"The external contractor is often more versatile thanks to having worked in
more environments, and is often tougher and more task-oriented, valuable
commodities under tight deadlines. Internal people, on the other hand, can
often get through doors faster, know how to cut red tape, and can intercept
layouts, structures, or language that she knows won't get through the

I don't see this as damning internal writers, but it does have the implied
assumption that internals aren't usually as fast as externals. Although
internals can help speed up production by knowing where, when and with whom,
they often can't match the sheer output of a contractor. I should hastily
add that it's not as a result of unequal skills. It's the result of unequal
cultural expectations. An internal can't butt heads as readily as a
contractor can. A contractor knows that his time is inherently limited, so
he can be much more aggressive and ignore many cultural/organizational
expectations. A "jerk" contractor is almost a truism, but contractors (at
least in the best of them) have an extremely well-developed task orientation
that leads them to tromp on toes on the way to the printer's.

An internal working the same way would quickly be frozen out of everybody's
cubicles. Ideally it's best for a contractor to work well with others, but
when a SME won't come out of the woodwork, the contractor doesn't have time
to wheedle him out. It's time to go straight to the project manager and
raise Cain. An internal in the same situation is often seen as pushy and
uncooperative. A contractor's just doing his job, which is to get in and get
out. If that means upsetting people, then it can't be helped. He isn't there
to keep friends, and while that task orientation gives his projects greater
speed, it also usually guarantees hard feelings, something an internal can't

There is also a subtle but real psychological distinction between the two
worlds. A contractor has a project as his goal. An employee has happy and
continued employment as his goal. Employment implies being a member of a
group, with all of the rights and responsibilities of that group. It means
staff meetings, department get-togethers, HR seminars, retirement parties,
and all of the other bonding and housekeeping activities that an
organizational member must attend to. It's not just gossip time. It's part
of being part of a group effort. A contractor has few or none of those
distractions. He's almost a machine, an add-on. No matter how open and
accepting his peers are, he's not family. He's a hired hand. And because he
can focus on this one, single, solitary project, rather than on the company
as a whole, he can work significantly faster. But he pays for it with

This entire discussion must not obscure the fact that FASTER ISN'T ALWAYS
BETTER. A company looking to its long-term growth might opt to train and
nurture internals who will be there when the company needs help, rather than
relying on a speedier output today. The company might well benefit more from
good relations, happy employees, creativity, and all the other benefits that
come with internals who feel like part of a greater good, than it would from
getting faster output from one project, one time. It's a matter of
philsophy. I've known firms that refused contractors' services on principle,
not because the contractor wasn't any good. It just didn't set well with
them that they were slapping their own people's faces. In those places, good
faith is a corporate benefit that they won't compromise. I salute that. But
I make more money elsewhere.

Tim Altom
Vice President, Simply Written, Inc.
317.899.5882 (voice) 317.899.5987 (fax)
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