Springfield Wahala (Trouble)!
There are no direct flights to Springfield, Missouri from any city of note. To get to Springfield from New York City, I had to take a flight from New York's La Guardia airport and transit for an hour in Memphis, Tennessee. That one hour transit turned out to be a 3 hour delay, due to bad weather.
I landed in Springfield shortly after noon. The project manager had arranged for me to be picked up by Mike, another consultant on the project. As I surveyed my environment, I had instant regret about agreeing to take this engagement. The environment was cold and desolate. Springfield, Missouri was literally in the middle of nowhere.
The Springfield, Missouri Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA) comprises several counties --Greene, Christian, Webster, Polk & Dallas counties and has a population of over 400,000 people. However the town of Springfield itself has a population of just over 150,000. The Queen City of the Ozarks as Springfield is known has more bible colleges per square mile than any other city I’ve been to. Nationally the percentage of black folks is 12%; Springfield's percentage is 3.2%. If you are into food, Springfield is not a bad place to be. If you are in to anything outdoors, Springfield is a great place to be. Fishing, hunting, camping all thrive in the Ozarks.
I arrived in Springfield on a Wednesday. My contract had been negotiated, but not signed. It was the typical independent consulting contract, with some minor amendments. The consulting company was going to pay me an hourly rate and in addition take care of expenses. Since I was cash low, I specifically had a clause inserted that meant they would take care of my hotel expenses directly. I would take care of other expenses and get reimbursed after 30 days.
Consulting on this level is not for the weak spirited or the cash strapped. Moreover, my contract specified that I was to keep weekly expenses within $1200. That included airfare. $1200 sounds like a lot of money, until you factor in a return plane ticket of between $300 to $600. Sometimes that ticket could go as high as $1000, depending on time of year and time of purchase. Travel to small airports that require a transit stop is not cheap.
There are a lot of things a consultant needs to keep in mind when negotiating a contract. First of course is that after you've signed the contract, the terms of the contract are pretty static. Not much can be changed. So load up that contract with every thing you can possibly extract. The reality of course is that if it is a consultants market, you'll get most of what you want. If however, demand is weak for your particular set of skills, you'll take what you can get.
The hourly rate is typically the main issue. A true independent consultant has his own company and works on a 1099 basis as opposed to a W2 basis. Under the Internal Revenue Tax code, if you are 1099, the firm you are working for pays you without deducting any tax or social security amounts. You or your company is responsible for making those deductions. Hourly rates can be straight plus expenses or 'all-inclusive'. All-inclusive as it sounds, means that if the consultant accepts a rate of say $125 an hour, he or she is responsible for taking care of lodging and other expenses. In a down market, this is typically all you will be offered, and you'll be happy to take it, even though it means you will have to lodge in a $20 to $30 a night hotel and not be able to travel home every week. Of course, if it is a local gig, these issues do not come up. Rates vary and simply depend on what the market will bear. Today, if you are a KALIDO developer, you can pretty much name your price. If you are one of several thousand JAVA developers, you will take what you are offered. In today's market, rates vary from a very low end of $40 an hour for a one dimensional programmer to $200 an hour for a senior enterprise architect who knows not only the nuts and bolts of hardware and software, the critical in demand buzz words of SOA, MDM, Open Platforms, but also understands how technology needs to interact with the business to affect the bottom line.
A consultant must always have a signed contract before they report to a site. On the rare occasion that you break that rule because of a personal relationship, you will find yourself in deep regret.
An unsigned contract with all your terms is not a valid contract. After negotiating the terms of my Springfield engagement, I got on the plane without a signed contract. My friend, who worked for the consulting firm, said they needed me right away. I booked a one way flight and was on the plane to Missouri in a couple of days.
It turns out that the firm had brought me to take over from a soon-to-be departing consultant who had gotten weary of Springfield after almost a year in the middle of nowhere. Me being me, I chatted amicably with the soon-to-be departing consultant as she started her knowledge transfer. I slipped out that I had actually not sent in my contract yet. This was the worst possible thing I could have done, particularly since she apparently had second thoughts about departing. For the first week, things seemed to be going well. I picked up the knowledge I needed from her. I signed and 'fedexed' my contract to the firms office in Dallas, Texas. A week later and I had not gotten a countersigned contract back from Dallas. Hmmm! I started to smell trouble. My instincts were accurate.
My soon-to-be departing consultant had now become a no longer departing consultant. She had second thoughts. Who would not? Especially in an increasingly recessionary economy! Besides, she was able to negotiate an arrangement that would allow her not to be in the middle of nowhere USA week after week. In other words, she would be able to work from home and come in to Springfield only when absolutely necessary.
I was now a dead consultant. A consultant without a countersigned contract in the middle of nowhere USA! Several lessons here! Firstly, always, always have a counter signed contract before you start an engagement. Secondly, trust no one. If you have a big mouth, put tape across it. Do not go around telling another consultant that you have not yet signed a contract. Thirdly, try and have a penalty clause in your contract. A firm needs to suffer some pain if they let you go before 30 days. It should not simply be a payment for services rendered.
When the project manager called me into a private office to have a discussion with me, I knew what was coming. She placed a call to the firm's vice president, also a lady. Unlike the project manager who was warm and engaging and liked to talk, the vice president was cold and clinical. She had to be! Better to hitch your wagon to a familiar no longer departing consultant, than the newly arrived more expensive consultant. The project I was told, no longer had a role for me. I would get paid for my billable hours and expenses. Business is just that, business!
Naturally I was angry and bitter. I had not ever had a situation like this happen. In retrospect, I had no one to blame but myself. I had committed the grievous error of starting an engagement without a countersigned contract.
The next day I put myself on a flight back to New York City. My quest for a new consulting engagement began anew.
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