Contracting Again (long)

Subject: Contracting Again (long)
From: "Nina L. Panzica" <panin -at- MINDSPRING -dot- COM>
Date: Sat, 4 Oct 1997 12:53:00 -0500

Last week someone asked me the following question in email, in response to
an earlier message on contracting I posted to this list:

>What I would like to ask you is HOW? specifically how do you get wired
>in to the local scene(especially if you are getting ready to move). Do
>you mainly use Technical Agencies or do you actually represent yourself?
>I have only used Agencies in the past and I always had a hard time
>turning down lower rates because I wanted to ensure that the agency
>wanted to help me in the future.

I'm glad you liked my message. You ask a good question, and since it's
one lots of people might want to know the answer to, I'm going to post an
anonymous version publicly in addition to sending it to you in email.

Getting wired into the local scene works a little differently
for everybody, because each local scene is a bit different, and each
person trying to get wired is a bit different and finds some ways of
making contacts easier than others, but there are a number of general
approaches you can take in almost any area where hi-tech work goes on
that yield good results.

* I think many contractors have to start out using technical agencies
because we
don't have a network built up. It's the only way (besides the occasional
newspaper job ad) to find the work. I still rely on agencies, but they
are less useful to me these days because my rate is above what most (but
not all) of them are willing or able to pay. But I still contact
hundreds of them each time I look for a contract, because once in a while
one of them will come up with something that fits my needs. Don't worry about
alienating the agencies. If telling them firmly what rate you need to
live and pay your bills is going to annoy them, you don't want to be
working with them in the first place. Most won't be alienated, however:
what you're doing is standard and accepted practice in contracting. Just
tell them up front what your minimum rate is, what you won't go below,
and then stick to that figure, no matter how much they try to low-ball
you (persuade you to take less). I've discovered over the years a strange
phenomenon that I call the five-dollar rule. No matter what rate I quote
to an agency, it seems that they always, always tell me that if I were
willing to take $5 less per hour, they could get me an interview with
their client. It doesn't matter how low or how high the rate is that I
quote them: they still call me back and try to talk me down by exactly
$5. This happens a little less these days; I'm just as likely to hear
about jobs with rates $20 below mine than $5 (sigh). If you stick to your
guns and don't let them talk you down, what most agencies will
eventually do is to enter your minimum hourly rate into their databases.
Then they'll only call you about contracts that equal or exceed your
hourly rate.

I don't know what it's like in other areas of the country, but Atlanta,
where I live, has hundreds of hi-tech consulting firms and temporary
employment agencies which specialize in placing technical people. When
working with such a large number of job shops, it's best to apply to as
many as you possibly can, because in most cases the jobs an agency calls
you about will not materialize. The more agencies who know about you, the
more jobs you'll be called about and the more likely it will become that
one of those will result in an interview and perhaps even in an actual
contract. A minor psychological benefit of applying to a lot of agencies
is that if you manage to anger one or if one of them treats you badly,
you can feel just fine about cutting them off your contacts list, as
there are scores more where they came from.

I find the most active and high-profile agencies by looking in the local
newspaper Sunday help-wanted ads in the computer or data processing
sections. I find a few more agencies by looking in the the employment
section of the local
yellow pages. Additionally, I look up likely words like "Write" and
"Technical" in the business white pages, and then call the companies
listed there that look like possibilities. As you're browsing through the
yellow pages, keep in mind that a big employment agency with dozens of
offices, like Kelly Services or Manpower, may have a technical or
professional division and, if so, that is where your resume should go):
just call one of the branch offices and ask them about this.

I don't know about your area, but Atlanta has several monthly free local
computer-news magazines that you can pick up around town at places like
bookstores and copy centers. If you read through such magazines
carefully, you can often find the names of more agencies (and also
companies) to apply to. If your city has several of these magazines, as
Atlanta has, it's important to get hold of the technical ones that
actually report hi-tech industry or business news. The ones aimed at home
consumers are virtually worthless.

Another place to find agencies is on the Web. By searching under key
phrases such as "Atlanta jobs" or "Georgia contract employment" I turn up
the Web sites of individual agencies and also associations of
temporary-placement agencies located in my area. Doing a general search
under "temporary employment" also turns up national associations of those
agencies. If you then visit the Web sites of such associations, you will
often find a national membership list consisting of the contact information
for hundreds or even thousands of placement agencies. I print
such lists, find the Georgia agencies, and send them my resume. If you
live in an area with a lot of hi-tech, you will find Web sites at which
lots of local technical agencies post jobs. In Atlanta, for instance,
_the_ place on the Web to find the local agencies is a site called The
Atlanta ComputerJobs Store. When you go to such a site, you'll see
places to post your resume or to search for specific types of jobs, but
again, what you want to do is to find the membership directory, the list
of agencies, and then make sure that each agency on that list gets your
resume. On some of the most popular national resume-bank sites (use your
favorite search engine to search for the terms "resume" or "resume
banks") there is also a membership directory, composed mostly of
agencies. Occasionally such a directory is geographically organized, and
you can quickly copy and paste the agencies listed in your city or state
into your contacts file, but even if it isn't, it can be worth searching
it if you're having trouble finding the names of agencies in your area.

One last place I look for agency contacts is on the USENET newsgroups.
There are a number of Web-based news-group search-engines that only look
at the job newsgroups (of which there are several hundred). I list one such
engine on my technical writer resources page
( If you enter keywords
like your city name or state name and also the words "contract" and
"programmer," you'll turn up a good-sized list of jobs posted by local
agencies. (I use the keyword "programmer" instead of "technical writer"
when specifically searching for agencies on newsgroups. This is because a
search for "programmer" turns up more agency names than a serach for
"writer and it's been my experience that if the agency handles programmers,
they often also place technical writers.)

* To find contracts that do not come from agencies, there are at least
two routes to pursue. The first--and most lucrative route in the long
run--is to network with other local writers. Join the STC or other
technical writing organization in your area, and attend the contractor
meetings. If you're new, introduce yourself (many meetings let new people
speak up and say hi), and mention that you're looking for work. It's
possible that you'll hear about some job leads after the meeting, as
already employed contractors are often called up by organizations trying
to fill positions. These firms, when hearing that a writer isunavailable,
will often ask him or her to recommend someone else for thejob. If you let
other writers know you're looking, that recommendedperson could easily
become you. Get to know the people at these meetings: what they do, who
they work for. This takes time, but it can pay off handsomely over the long
run, as such people may someday call you when the company they work for
needs another writer or if they run their own company and need to
subcontract out some work. One of the best ways to become well known in a
technical writers' group is to volunteer for a project. That makes you more
visible to the other members of the group. Find out if your local
contract writers group distributes to members, as the Atlanta group does,
its own list of local companies and agencies that work with technical
writers, or if there is an employment officer (who, if she's anything like
the one in my area, will be able offer new contractors extremely valuable
advice about local employment conditions, skills under demand, how to
price yourself in the market, and how to handle taxes and insurance), a job
hotline, a resume database, or a printed
contractors' directory, etc. and then take advantage of these resources.
Also, find your local STC chapter's Web page, and explore any employment
resources listed there.

If you decide to make yourself known to other local writers who may
someday subcontract work to you, don't neglect seeking them out on the
Web. Large general search engines, such as Yahoo! and Infoseek, list
hundreds of technical writing businesses online. Another lucrative online
source for technical writers are the business yellowpage directory Web

* The second route is to contact companies that hire technical writers
directly. Again, this is a long-term project that will probably only pay
off long down the road, but you'll sure be glad you did it then. I use a
number of approaches to find and to contact such companies. I scour the
Sunday help-wanted ads for software development companies or other
hi-tech organizations, and I mail or fax them my resume. I've discovered
through trial and error that it is best not to address your mail to the
human resources (HR) department: most resumes sent there get lost and
are never seen by the people likely to hire a writing contractor (nothing
is more galling, by the way, than to have an agency call you about a hot
writing contract position at Company X when you directly sent that
company's HR department your resume only a week or two ago!). So I address
all my mail these days to the documentation or development department in
the hopes that it'll just get passed on to that area without first being
shunted to the black hole of HR. I try to wait two to three weeks after
such a company has published a want ad before sending them my resume,
because during the initial week after publication, these companies are
swamped with hundreds of resumes, many of them not applicable to the job
they advertised for, and I suspect most such unsolicited resumes get
dumped into the circular file.

Another way I find local hi-tech companies is by finding out the names of
the software or hi-tech organizations or professional groups in town. I
then try to get a membership list for these organizations. Often such
organizations have Web sites, and often they publish their membership
list, free for all, on their Web sites. A month ago, I spent a couple of
days contacting several hundred companies that I found on such a list by
email, and I got a much higher percentage of positive responses to my
email than I ever have to the resumes I've sent to companies who post
help-wanted ads. I've found that it's best to send such people a simple
one-paragraph query letter _without a resume attached_, asking them if they
ever work with writing contractors, and if so, could you please send them your
resume. If they say sure, I then send them my resume. Most companies seem
to perceive this as more polite than dumping an unsolicited 20k-50k Word
file in their download directories. Can't say that I blame them.

As I mentioned above, if your city has one of those hi-tech industry
monthly or weekly magazines, you can often get several dozen to several
hundred likely company names from a single issue.

* In the time that is available to you, do your best to keep as accurate
and as complete records as you can on every company or agency you contact
and that contacts you. At the very least, write down the firm's name (and
its acronym, if
it uses one) and whether it is a company or an agency on a rudimentary
contacts list. If you have the time, record each organization's phone
number, fax, contact
name, and address into a list or a contacts database. You may also wish
to add notes about the organization, such as the day they contacted you
(or you contacted them), how the contact was made (email, fax, US mail),
what sort of company they are, what they were looking for when they
contacted you, etc. Such records accomplish two things: if you've
contacted hundreds of companies, you'll begin to forget, when you see a
name in the paper, whether you've sent that particular firm your resume
or not. Your list of names will save you from duplicating your efforts.
Secondly, the next time you have to look for a contract, you'll have a
ready-made contacts list to use. You won't have to do the research
described above all over again.

*It's easy when you start looking for work on the Web to go overboard.
There are so many resume banks, job lists, and other employment resources
out there! In the last few months, I've discovered that putting a little
time (maybe 10%-20% of the time avail able to me to look for work) into
online searching and posting my resume on Web sites is worthwhile, but
beyond that it's a waste of time. It seems that there are only a few
national employment Web sites that get most of the business. The ones
that, for m e, have resulted in the most calls (and realize, please, that
this might be a local phenomenon: maybe these resume banks advertise more
in Atlanta than in other venues) are Career Mosaic, DICE, HeadHunter.Net,
and a couple of others (I have links to most of these on my "resources"
Web page). You can find which national sites are well-used in your area
by asking various agency recruiters which Web sites their company posts
jobs to and by seeing which sites local employment resources (like your
STC chapter page) link to. Curiously enough, the Monster Board, although
it has a high profile, has never resulted in a single local job contact
for me. One agency offered me what may be a partial explanation for this:
their rates to employers looking for contractors or perm. employees are
very high compared to those on other sites. I have gotten many more phone
calls from the popular local Web site, Atlanta ComputerJobs Store, than I
have from any national resume-bank Web site. I've also gotten a few
decent nibbles when I've posted my resume on USENET in the appropriate

Hope this helps,
Nina P.


Nina Panzica
Masterpiece Media
(404) 237-7889
Can't reach me at the above number? Try my pager: 404-596-7889
mailto:panin -at- mindspring -dot- com

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