Ramblings from the Warrior's Den
Monday, July 19, 2004
Confessions of a Microsoft Contractor

Recent posts at Heather's "Marketing at Microsoft" Blog and Technical Careers @ Microsoft have gone briefly into the subject of working as a contractor at MS. Both Gretchen and Heather admit to not being all that knowledgeable about the subject of contracting. Reading the posts, as well as the comments from each of their posts, it seems that there are some misconceptions floating around about contracting, some of which may be even scare people off. In this post, I'll try to briefly summarize the contractor experience, and some of the good and bad poitns of doing so. But first, the olbigatory disclaimer: These are my own opinions, and do not reflect those of Microsoft, the contract agency I work for, or anyone else, for that matter. Also note that the info here may apply somewhat to vendor (v-) positions, but since all of my experience so far is in contract (a-) roles, I am writing this primarily with those in mind.

As you may already know, contractors at Microsoft are employed by a number of different agencies. Although I am not completely familiar with the system, these agencies all draw their open positions from the same pool of jobs offered by Microsoft, and as such are competitors to each other. As a condition of employment, this means it will often be required that you agree to a non-compete, which generally means that once you accept a position with a contract agency, chances are that any future contract positions you get will be through them as well. Your benefits, such as health care, will be administrerd by your contract agency. There are some minor differences in the benefits each agency offers, but chances are you won't fnid a whole lot of difference between them.

Probably the biggest drawback to working as a contractor is the annual 100-day "Break-in-Service" required. What this means is that after working for a year in a contract position, you will be required to be off for 100 days before you will be allowed to start a new position (or in some cases, return to the one you were previously at.) Some contract agencies have arrangements that will allow for some short-term non-Microsoft positions during this 100 days, but generally you're on your own. Also note that if there is a period of time off between two contract positions of less than 100 days, it will be counted toward the year you're allowed to wotk.

Another occasioanal drawback of contracting is that if you end up doing a lot of it, somewhere along the line you'll probably find yourself at least once having your contract ended on either short or no notice. The formal term used for contractors and vendots at Microsoft is Contingent Staff (or CSG) and "at-will" employment is a condition of the contract, which means that they (or you) can terminate your employment at any time for any (or no) reason. Usually you'll at least have some indication of when your contract is set to expire (the MSTT system that serves as your timecard has an "estimated end date" prominently displayed on the main screen) but on occasion, there just may be nothing left to do, or a sudden reduction in headcount, and you can find yourself out of work without warning (the worst one to get is the phone call at 10:30 at night. I've had that happen once before...)

And of course, you don't have access to a lot of the benefits that Microsft FTEs have. A lot of events on campus are limited to the FTEs only (althoug on occasion there will be one that CSGs will be allowed to attend) and even within your team there may be morale events, ship parties or other things like that which you won't be invited to. On the other hand, I also find that as a contractor, I get to skip some of the more boring meetings... How you will be treated really depends on the team you're on, and your manager. While I don't have any of the horror stories that some people have about this, I have found that some managers tend to treat you better than others as a contractor. One thing that I will say is that I have never found my status as a contractor to be a hindrance to getting my assigned duties done, and at a professional level, I've always been treated reasonably well. And yes, contractors can drink the free soda too.

Where exactly you'll end up doing your work as a contractor varies by the team you're on. It so happens that where I'm working right now, I'm in a shared office (although I don't see much of the other person in there, who works on a different team than I do.) On other assignments, I've also been in a lab (I understand that this is pretty typical, especially for testers,) a cubicle (something you won't find a lot of at Microsoft except at PSS), crammed into a conference room with 12 other geek guys for three months (and one occasionally beleagured lady running the show, and trying to keep us all in line...) and in a little lounge area off the hallway next to two conference rooms where nobody ever closes the door (but hey, it also had windows, and as an unintended consequence I got the biggest whiteboard in the building.) If you do end up in a lab, keep in mind that they're generally air-conditioned, and may be a little chilly for some people's liking. I find this is usually a good thing to ask about during interviews.

There are some good points to working as a contractor at MS as well. For one thing, it's generally a lot easier to get a foot in the door as a contractor than it is to try to get in directly as an FTE. A lot of the lower level technical positions these days are filled by contractors. Generally for a contract position, you'll get an abridged version of the standard Microsoft interview. Instead of the all-day ordeal you might have heard of, you'll generally only interview with three people (give or take), and are told to plan for a couple of hours. Although I've never been through an actual full MS interview, the content of the interview is roughly equivalent to what you'd expect on one of those. a contract position is also a good chance to familiarize yourself with the way that Microsoft works, and what you would be doing there. It's also valuable experience for a future career. This is particularly helpful for someone such as myself. When I started contracting, I had relatively good computer skills, but aside from two years in tech support, little practical experience relevant to the field. Since then, I have picked a two-year college degree in programming as well as more than a year and a half of experience as a software tester. Even now, I tend to think I'd be something of a borderline candidate for a FTE position. Fortunately, as a contractor I have the means to get the practical experience needed for a future career.

All in all, I don't think that contracting is a bad way to get in to Microsoft, at least to start out. Sure I wouldn't mind having the extra perks that the FTEs get, and it would be nice if the Break-in-service policy wasn't there, but I can live with it for now. In fact, I've met some people who actually happen to prefer to remain as contractors, although they tend to be in positions where having three months off a year isn't necessarily a bad thing. It seems that most articles I've read that talk about contracting at Microsoft seem to either focus on the break-in-service policy or the long-since-settled contractor lawsuits which I started to late to benefit from, but have to deal with the consequences of. Because of this, I do tend to think there are some misconceptions about the role of contractors. As always, your mileage may vary, but until I can be considered for a FTE posiotn somewhere, I don't mind contracting.

There are some differences between contracting agencies. Some charge a fee for medical benefits and others pay a lower hourly rate, which means you pay more for your benefits if you work more hours and generally the rate difference is out of proportion with the benefit value.

For FTE's benefits are fully paid by Microsoft from day one with no co-pays.

You said there is a 100 day break after a year meaning a year with no 100 day break in service. Actually it is after 365 days, which is only different on a leap year. So if you work 1 day and take 99 days off then you can only work 265 days more before a 100 day break in service. These are all calendar days.

If you are on contract you get paid for overtime. For some agencies this is straight time and for some time and a half. I have known groups where individuals voluntarily worked overtime for free. Generally you will not have much overtime as a contractor and will be expected to work lots of overtime for free as an FTE.
Another thing is stock options, which were worth a lot more in the old days. The law suit arose because of stock options. And FTE's have access to the company store where they have an allocation for software where they can buy Microsoft software for a great deal less than in the stores even less than students pay.
The contract rates at Microsoft are incredibly low.

They are known for low salaries but hey why do you think they employ the useless 25 year old MBA's from the 3rd world that are running the place. The contractors don't earn much more than the useless permies.

In the 3rd world medical benefits are an issue of course.

If I were you I would try to get a visa to Europe, competent contractors actually earn muny over there - that's the whole point in contracting.
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Contractors are used by Microsft and Agencies

Microsoft will give you all the work to do with their FTEs running off to thier Pro Club appointments.

The agencies will try to get you for the cheapest rates

Once you sign up for their NO COMPETE CLAUSE you cannot sign up with any agency for 180 days or more for Microsoft even if your CONTRACT WAS TERMINATED FOR NO REASON WHATEVER.

Warning-be very careful about temping for Microsoft. Skills you would need to be an FTE WILL BE

Kissing up the your peers and boss
Keeping quiet when you know that unethical stuff is going on
Keeping quiet when the product is in no condition to be shipped and released but still is

No surprise their products suck
Sounds like "somebody" is disgruntled after not qualifying for a job at Microsoft. Boo-hoo, crybaby!
Thank you for the posting. It was very helpful.

I have some questions about the 100 day break from Microsoft and the difference between a- and v- roles.

I have heard conflicting stories from recruiters about the 100 day break. Some have told me that after an a- assignment I can return to work at Microsoft as a v- without having to complete the 100 days break. Others have told me that isn't the case.

I start an a- assignment on Monday that is only extended out for 3 months. If I have to take a 100 day break after only 3 months I'm in big trouble because Microsoft is by far the biggest employer over here in the Puget Sound area.

Do you have any specific knowledge about what the policies are surrounding these contract roles?
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