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.