Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘careers’ Category

I see that some American states are starting to investigate the use of interns as unpaid labor. All I can say is that it’s long overdue.

So far as I’m concerned, most companies that use interns are like John Newton, who wrote the hymn “Amazing Grace” in the mid-1700s. Contrary to a popular misconception, Newton did not become a Christian and write the hymn, then turn against his job in the slave trade; instead, after writing the hymn, he remained both a Christian and a slaver for two decades before coming out against the slave trade.

Too often, companies are like Newton on a smaller scale when they hire interns. They may be environmentally conscious and contribute to charities in their communities, but their labor practices make them hypocrites hiding behind conventional business practices.

Understand, I am not talking about programs like Google’s Summer of Code that give small stipends to students who would otherwise be unpaid volunteers. Still less am I talking about companies who hire co-op students at proper entry level salaries, or about genuine apprentice programs. What I am talking about are companies that hire the young and aspiring for full-time work at far below what they would pay a new employee — if they pay them at all — while pretending that they are giving them something special.

The argument used to justify such internships is that those chosen gain valuable job experience. Moreover, because interns are generally untrained, their employers often argue that they require experienced employees to watch over them and redo their work if necessary.

However, the same arguments could be applied to new employees. In most jurisdictions, the fact that someone is a new employee is not grounds for denying them a living wage, so why should the same argument be considered valid for interns? In entry-level positions, new employees are often no more trained than interns are. New employees may receive a smaller salary while on probation, but even so they generally receive enough to live on.

When I was chief steward for the Teaching Assistant’s union at Simon Fraser University, we had a basic negotiating principle: a fair days’ work for a fair day’s pay. That is not the least socialistic (not that there’s anything wrong with that so far as I’m concerned; I can belt out “Where the Fraser River Flows,” “Solidarity Forever,” and a lot of the rest of Utah Phillip’s repetoire). Rather, it’s an insistence that our semi-capitalistic system live up to its own principles. Employees who are producing acceptable work for you deserve to be paid the going rate for that work; if their work is not acceptable, you fire them. The exchange of labor is as simple as that, and there is no excuse for making an exception for interns.

The real reason for underpaying interns — as if anyone couldn’t guess — becomes obvious when you notice that many companies delay filling full-time positions until after the interns have left at the end of August, or hire more interns than full-time staff. Such cases make clear that interns are simply a cheaper (or free) pair of hands. When you keep this reason in mind, all the the pious claims of helping interns by giving them experience becomes the modern equivalent of claims that 19th Century slaves were housed and fed better than in their homelands, or benefited from exposure to Christianity. All these claims are simply excuses for unethical business practices that conventional morality chooses to ignore because they are convenient.

True, some companies eventually hire the best of their interns. But only a handful of interns are ever so lucky. Besides, companies might as well ask new employees to pay a premium for their position, because, by giving a company cheap labor, that is basically what interns are doing when they are later hired as regular employees. No matter how you look at it, the fact that some interns are hired full-time doesn’t justify internships any more than the fact that diligent slaves were sometimes freed justifies slavery. Interns may be better off than slaves (although, considering what I’ve heard about certain gaming companies, I sometimes wonder), but the scope of the ethical dodginess doesn’t change the basic situation.

Low-paying internships would be objectionable under any circumstance. However, what makes them worse is the pretense that they are anything other than a cost-saver. At least if companies would say, “We hire interns because we save money that way,” an honest discussion could take place. But, instead, they hide what they are doing by claiming that they are the benefactors rather than exploiters.

This claim is an ethical dodge that Newton would have understood. But at least he eventually saw his own contradiction. There are few signs that, left to themselves, companies that exploit interns ever will.

Read Full Post »

When I was a university instructor, the semester was over by Christmas Eve.When I was a consultant, I could usually contrive to take the day off. Consequently, I’ve rarely had to work on Christmas Eve. But looking back, I think that the last Christmas Eve I did work was a major reason why I made the move into freelance journalism.

At the time, I was working in Yaletown, at a small software company that had limped along for twenty years without ever finding much of a market for its product. Realizing that the company’s time was running out, its board had hired a new CEO for one last shot at profitability. The CEO was full of management theories, and was fond of saying that he wanted passionate employees. At the same time, his core approach to leadership must have been modeled on Josef Stalin’s, because he had the habit of periodic purges.

In six months, the CEO had three purges. Between the difficulties of losing key information with key employees and the waiting for the next purge, morale was deeper than the Mariana Trench, and falling.

Having just come off two successful positions in which I had been in the inner circle of decision makers, I found the CEO’s antics hard to tolerate. My frequent thought that I could do a better job was not conceit – I had done so, and little credit to me. Frankly, anyone with sense could have done a better job than the CEO, too.

Surprisingly, the CEO sprung for a Christmas party. Looking back, I wonder if he calculated that, the office being in Yaletown, an ex-warehouse district where every block had half a dozen restaurants, most people would have put in a full day before the party began. More likely, he had simply read in one of his management books that a Christmas party was a way to win over the staff.

Whatever his motivations, the party was not exactly a success. The food was better than average, but the talk was about the rumors of a new purge, which made the occasion as festive as a school tour of a slaughter-house. Spirits rose a little with the gift exchange, but it seemed a dismal occasion compared to the one in which I had participated a couple of years earlier in Indianapolis. A few games of pool and foosball later, everyone had gone except the CEO and a couple of other company officers.

Still, the party had encouraged everyone to think that the CEO might unbend enough to let people go home early on Christmas Eve. But he had said nothing on December 23, so everyone arrived the next day uncertain what was expected.

The CEO showed up early in the morning, then went out. As usually happens in an office on Christmas Eve, most people made a pretense of trying to work, and the more conscientious actually put in an hour or two . But by 11AM, people were drifting between offices, leaning in door frames and chatting. Occasionally, they shifted positions so as not to be too obvious.

By 12:30, people were concluding that the CEO wasn’t coming back. In fact, he had left without a seasonal greeting to anyone – and no mention of whether people were expected to work the entire day.

Before long, people started to sneak out. By 2PM, the last of us decided that there was no point being martyrs, and exited together. I don’t think the CEO ever did learn what had happened.

Being a contractor, I noted that I owed two hours, and made up the time in the next week. But I kept thinking of the CEO’s abandonment of his responsibilities.

Perhaps he felt that he could not officially condone people going home early, and his disappearance allowed him to offer the holiday without officially knowing what people were doing. But, considering his purges, I doubted he had such a humanitarian gestures in him. I think he left early to please himself, and never considered the employees at all – and that his behavior was only an extreme form of what I had seen elsewhere in business.

Frankly, I was fed up.

I am not one for New Years’ Resolutions, but, that year, I promised myself that I would not celebrate another Christmas at that company. By next summer, I had moved on. But the company officers at my new consulting gig proved just as unempathic, so, with Christmas approaching again, I took the jump into journalism.

I have never worked in an office since. But this year, as I’ve spent a leisurely Christmas Eve going to the bank to pay for our latest work of art, then coming home to exercise and wrap the last few presents, I feel overwhelming relieved not to be in an office at Christmas. So far as I’m concerned, people like this CEO rank next to malls crowded with shoppers – both are things I’m grateful to be able to can avoid.

Read Full Post »

Because I have been in business for myself during much of my adult life, people occasionally call me an entrepreneur. They mean it for a compliment, so I try to hide the fact that I consider the term an insult.

I can see why they might apply the term to me. I’m rarely at my best in a 9 to 5 job, and I maintain a sole proprietorship called Outlaw Communications that I occasionally remember to declare my GST on. Once or twice, I’ve even created jobs by sub-contracting.

Still, there is a fundamental difference between an entrepreneur and me. An entrepreneur is someone who wants to accumulate money or power, a whole-hearted participant in the game of capitalism set on building their own empire – if only so they can take early retirement. But I’m none of those things.

By contrast, my attitude is that of a bourgeois intellectual. Although I see no nobility in poverty, and don’t object to having a good year for income, I am not especially concerned with accumulating money. My ambition in those directions extends only so far as being comfortable, and having a good chance to be as comfortable as I am now in the future.

As for power over people, while I mildly prefer it to them having power over me, who needs the responsibility? I am far more interested, too, in interesting work now than in early retirement – especially since, if I worked hard enough to take early retirement, I probably would forget how to enjoy it anyway.

Besides, having survived on the outer edge of academia for years, I am full of anti-capitalist sentiment. Accumulating privilege seems a ridiculously trivial way to spend my time when there are so many books, films, songs, and pieces of art to appreciate – to say nothing of exercise, conversation, and food. Why make the effort, especially when it is so soon forgotten? Andrew Carnegie and John Paul Getty may have been known in their times, but their names are only half-familiar at best today.

Consequently, I have a hard time understanding in my heart of hearts why a grown adult would be pleased to be called an entrepreneur, or imagine that I would be. Taking on that role seems to involve an obsession with the banal, and a deliberate decision to ignore most of what makes life worth living while getting nothing worthwhile in return.

Frankly, the idea of being an entrepreneur bores me. As for being called one, why would I pleased that someone considered me so shallow?

This attitude, no doubt, explains why I will never be rich. But, please, don’t strain my manners by calling me an entrepreneur. I aspire to better things than that.

Read Full Post »

What skills do English graduates bring to the job market? More than you might think – and far more than all the jokes about their unemployability would have you believe. In fact, many of the skills developed by English markets while reading novels and poems make them ideal for senior positions.

To start with, English majors may be comfortable with reading. I don’t mean simply that they can read; I mean that they can read with some ease. Many read as instinctively as they hear. It has become a reflex in them to read whatever words are put in front of them.

Moreover, because they are comfortable with reading and have practiced it, they can read more quickly than most people.

These may seem like minor skills, but when you consider the number of reports, emails, memos, and other documents that the average manager has to plow through every week, they mean increased efficiency; I’ve known at least one politician who found that the worst parts of being an elected official was reading the weekly paper work.

Even more importantly, English majors may have learned not only to be comfortable with reading, but to have gained some skill in it.

If you look at the comments beneath almost any article published online, one of the first things that will probably strike you is how few people can read a comment in context. More often, people take things out of context, and come up with the most fantastical over-simplifications, exaggerations, and misreadings.

Nor, naturally enough, can the average person summarize accurately. In fact, most of the critical skills that English majors learn when producing essays are beyond the average person. After all, you can hardly analyze or compare accurately when you haven’t read accurately. These skills are especially important if you need to keep abreast of legal matters, but they matter almost as much when you are writing marketing copy, producing a white paper on technology, or writing a business plan or competitive analysis.

Finally, like most Art students, whose grading is based largely on essays, English majors have probably learned to research – to find sources, absorb them quickly, and evaluate them both on their own and in comparison to other sources. In other words, they have learned to process information, and reach conclusions that are logically based upon that information. This ability is continually useful in daily business, and, on the Internet it can be invaluable. After all, what is the Internet, if not a giant library waiting for an expert to use it?

Of course, not every English graduate possesses these skills. Because the subject matter of English Departments is subjective, students can coast through them more easily than they can in other Departments. Even in English graduate school, you can find students who don’t read unless they have to, and whose essays have more to do with striking a pose than actual analysis.

But, having been a product manager and a director of communications, I can’t begin to tell you how often I’ve looked down at the task that I’m doing and realized that what I learned taking an English degree has helped me breeze through it.

Contrary to the conventional wisdom, English major do graduate with employable skills – in fact, ones that will help them if they ever become managers or team leaders among the creatives. The only problem is, they don’t realize everything they’ve learned, so they don’t express it.

Read Full Post »

If you’re a freelancer, you tend to be haunted by the thought of lacking work. Yet today, against all my freelancing instincts, I walked away from a source of income without having anything to replace it. It was not a step I took easily, but I had no choice if I wanted to keep my self-respect.

The problem wasn’t that the editor was doing their job. I’m a professional, and I have no illusions that my work is perfect or can’t be improved upon. I am incredibly inefficient at editing my own work (although a demon at editing others), and I generally welcome observations that make my wording clearer or more accurate.

Why wouldn’t I? An editor who points out problems before they see print makes me look good.

At the same time, I have worked with half a dozen editors, and I know what editing is generally required to make my work presentable. The number of revisions are roughly the same, no matter who the editor, and rarely require more than half an hours’ work – often less, and almost never more than an hour.

With this editor, though, revisions averaged three or four hours. I admit that he received a few pieces that I wrote while ill or under personal stress and that I should not have submitted in their current shape. However, regardless of the quality of each submission, the editor would almost always return a couple of pages of notes, amounting to a rewrite of the article.

Even if I didn’t have considerable experience, I could have guessed that this amount of revisions was unreasonable. The few times the senior editor looked over a submission, the changes were far fewer, and often minor enough that he made them himself rather than send them to me. But I continued to submit articles, partly because the pay was halfway decent, and partly because I told myself that things would get better once I learned the expected style.

The trouble was, the comments never lessened. Each article I wrote for the editor took twice as long to complete as anything else I wrote. If the revisions weren’t about typos, they were about content.

By my count, about one-third of the comments were legitimate improvements to the article. Another third consisted of explanations of how the editor would have written the article or shibboleths such as insisting that an article should never end in a quote, and one-third nonsense such as labeling a long but grammatical sentence a run-on sentence. I didn’t mind the legitimate improvements, but, to say the least, I felt that I was humoring the editor about the rest just to receive a pay cheque.

Asking other writers, I found that I was not entirely being singled out. Other writers told me that they also expected to waste half a day answering the editor’s notes. But the experience of others showed that the editing process was clearly being used to assert the editor’s authority.

In fact, the criticism was so unrelenting that I began to entertain serious doubts about my writing ability. Once or twice, when I was sick, I was so rattled about the thought of the revisions to follow that what I submitted was definitely below my usual standards. Why bother for quality when you know your article is going to be shredded regardless?

Even so, I might have endured the process while I waited for better times if the work had been regular. But the editor started forgetting my submissions – or so he said – and the one article per week slipped to one article every two weeks. Answers to my queries were delayed so that I had less time to research and write. I strongly suspected that the editor was pressuring me to quit so he wouldn’t have to take any action himself.

This morning, a submission of better than average quality received the same treatment as usual. Annoyed, I queried a couple of points – including one about the slant of the story, which I had based on the senior editor’s request – and received the usual ungracious reply.

Suddenly, I had enough. I was receiving less and less money from the editor anyway, so I had little to lose. Abandoning all plans of waiting until I found replacement work, I emailed saying that I was withdrawing the story and would not be submitting more. With an effort, I refrained from saying anything else.

The reply was a cheerful thanks for my work and best wishes for the future. So far as I was concerned, it was proof that my email had given him exactly what he wanted. Anyone who placed any value on my work, or didn’t want me gone would have asked for reasons.

I still feel nervous and wonder if I have done the right thing. But you know what? I feel so much better now that I’m out of a toxic situation that the challenge hardly daunts me. I’ve already been through far worse.

Read Full Post »

OK, I confess: I am not a team player – at least, not in the sense that the expression is usually used around an office.

This admission is so burdened with nasty connotations that finding the courage to make it has taken most of my adult life. Nobody ever says so in as many words, but the implication is that something is wrong with you if you are not a team player.

In an office setting, not being a team player means that you are uncooperative, unwilling to make sacrifices for the sake of the company for which you work, and probably first in line to be fired. It suggests that something is deeply wrong with you, and that maybe you have other nasty habits as well.

In many ways, the usage reminds me of the admonition by a crowd to be a good sport. In both cases, the implication is that you should conform and do what others want to do, regardless of your own inclinations.

In other words, the threat of being called “not a team player” encourages you to be polite and do what is expected of you. Otherwise, you are letting people (or the company) down.

Such behavior may make daily life easier for a manager. If nothing else, people afraid of having a negative label applied to them can be coerced in endless hours of over-time. But, while I don’t go out of way to be unpleasant, personally I would rather eat sushi made from raw slugs that conform for no better reason than someone else’s convenience.

More importantly, from my observations the sort of behavior implied when the concept of a team player is raised is the exact opposite of what you want when you need to accomplish something.

When I was growing up, I did my share of team sports, mostly soccer and rugby. Perhaps, I was lucky, but, at the time, the pseudo-military atmosphere that prevails in football had no place in those sports. Nor could it; you can easily memorize a few moves from a standard position, but soccer and rugby both require a more active sense of smarts that can adjust to an ever-changing situation.

In such fast-moving games, the last thing you want is conformists. Instead, what you want to know is that the people on your team can think for themselves – that they will be in the position for you to pass the ball to them because they have anticipated what is about to happen on the field. You relied on your team mates’ competence, not their dedication to the team.

In my favorite sport, long distance running, this lesson was even more obvious. Sure, there were cross-country teams and points were tallied for each school at a track meet. At times, someone who was slower might even run interference to help a faster team member break away from the pack. But, mostly, you were alone with your own training and sense of strategy. If your team won, it was because those on it were prepared and alert.

As an adult, I find the same lesson in the free and open source software (FOSS) community. Operating systems like GNU/Linux or applications like Firefox, or Apache have not excelled because they were made in an organization of conformists. Instead, they have succeeded because their development model assumes the competence of those involved. For the most part, people coordinate their work with everyone else, then do it largely on their own and return it to the community for peer review. It is this system of individuals coordinating their separate work that is the secret of such projects’ successes.

A group of team players in the ordinary use of the term needs to work much harder to achieve the same level of excellence as such projects – assuming, that is, they can reach it at all. As for innovation, forget it. So-called team players simply aren’t geared for it. Nor are they likely to have the degree of personal responsibility and discipline needed to work in such a loosely-knit way.

When I have worked in offices that emphasize teamwork, I have always found that my efforts to achieve excellence swamped by the need to appear loyal and to swallow my opinions and interrupt my concentration with endless meetings. Team-players are skilled in jingoism and giving the appearance of getting work done, but the chances of them achieving anything beyond the bare specifications is minimal. When they do, you almost always find that the source of the excellence is someone on the fringes of the team who works on their own as much as possible.

If that is what being a team player means, then I, for one, want nothing to do with the label. To me, it is a code word for mediocrity. I achieve more personal satisfaction – and, in the end, help those around me more (including my employers) – if I work on my own with consultation as needed, and can trust those around me to do the same.

Read Full Post »

For a freelancer, complacency can mean loss of income. This is a lesson that freelancers can never hear too many times – and one that I apparently need repeated more than most. A few weeks after I blogged about how I had managed to replace the income I lost with the closing of Linux.com with other assignments, I found some of those assignments failing, and suddenly found myself scrambling to replace them.

Fortunately, the job-hunting skills I’d learned as a communications and marketing consultant soon paid off.

As before, basic survival wasn’t an issue. We had income for basic survival, and, since we own our townhouse and have never lived beyond our means, we had no worries about debt. All the same, the situation was disconcerting. I thought I’d solved the income problem.

The problem arose because of two clients. In the first case, the client had at first seemed willing to commit to two stories per week from me. However, after a few weeks, they confessed what I had already concluded from their actions: That they were unable or unwilling to take more than one story per week.

In the second cases, the editor forgot that they had agreed to take two stories from me in February, and budgeted the money instead for articles from other people. Since this was a short term arrangement, it wasn’t as important as the first one, but it was still the first time that an editor had reneged on me for any reason, so it came as a shock. For one thing, I rather liked the editor, and preferred to think well of them. For another, I had counted on having a month to figure out a replacement for that income. Coming on top of the other case and some personal bad news that I choose to keep private, it felt like one damned thing after another.

For a day or so, the situation got to me. I even went so far as to consider revising my resumes and looking for straight work. Despite the recession, the work for writers, editors, and instructors of my experience were plentiful in the Vancouver area, but it all seemed dull and routine compared to what I have accustomed to in the last four years.

Then common sense took me by the scruff of the neck. There were still plenty of outlets for free and open source software articles that I hadn’t got around to trying. I spent an afternoon on the Internet learning about the potential clients (something no freelancer or job-hunter should ever neglect), and prioritizing them according to how their needs compared with my areas of knowledge, the size of their audience (which is often found on pages for advertisers), and, where possible, how much they pay per article.

The next morning, I started phoning. I could have emailed, and my queries easier on my nerves, but, for serious business conversations, there’s still nothing as direct as a phone call. Hearing a voice is personal in a way that email or even chat isn’t, which makes a phone call a way to distinguish yourself from anyone else and have yourself remembered.

To my surprise, I appear to have been lucky the first time out. Details are still being worked out, but I expect to be doing an online blog and a print column, as well as contributing other articles.

You’ll have to imagine me dancing around my living room and pumping my fist in the air (or maybe you shouldn’t; it isn’t a pretty site).
But, while I’m glad of the respite, I hope I’ve learned my lesson. I can’t say that I don’t make the same mistake twice, but I hope to say that I won’t make it three times. I still have other a prioritized list of markets (something I should have readied a long time ago), and, if any other client disappears on me, I’m ready to find replacements.

Given the current economic conditions, I wouldn’t be surprised if I’ll have a use for that list again in the next few months. But, so far, I can still repeat what I said in my earlier post: Freelancers are better equipped to survive the recession than most – and should generally survive better.

Now, though, I would add: A few job-hunting skills don’t hurt, either.

Read Full Post »

Six weeks ago, I wrote that freelancers were better equipped than full-timers to survive a recession, because they were more accustomed to looking for work. At the time, I had only the vaguest suspicions that I would be putting my confident words to the test less than ten days later. Linux.com, which was buying most of my articles, was going along much the same as usual, and, and, because SourceForge, its parent company, is publicly traded, I knew it had money in the bank. If anyone were recession-proof, then surely I was. And, in the end, I was right, although not in the way that I had expected.

By freelancing standards, I had grown complacent. Ordinarily, I try to diversify my sources of income. But I was already writing the maximum number of stories that I could write per month without increasing my work hours, so I hadn’t done so as much as I might. Instead, I had allowed myself to become heavily dependent on a single buyer.

Imagine my surprise, then, when my main buyer suddenly stopped buying stories – just in time for Christmas.

After I picked myself up out of the bomb crater, my first reaction was relief that I had at least diversified enough that I could cover my monthly expenses. But I wouldn’t have much left over, and I didn’t feel like giving up my newly acquired art habit, even if it is a luxury.

As I exchanged a flurry of emails and IRC conversations with my fellow writers, I realized that I had to move at once. Quickly putting together a mental list of the most likely buyers for articles on free and open source software, I sent out some queries – not detailing what was happening, but simply saying that some slots in my writing schedule had opened up.

The results, to say the least, were gratifying. Five hours later, I had replaced 85% of the income I had obtained each month from my main buyer. Within three days, I had not only replaced it all, but had done so with a reduced work load. I didn’t even have to go through half my list of potential buyers, although I still might.

Of course, for the past month, I’ve been kept busy getting to know new editors and their ways of doing things. Also, there was paper work — all the more so because I’m a Canadian writing for American-based sites. But all that’s a small price to pay for self-preservation.

Am I lucky? I am painfully aware that I am, especially when I had let myself become so comfortable. But, to some extent, I made my own luck. I still had enough of a freelancer’s instinct to know what I had to do, and that I had to do it fast before anyone else did. And, apparently, despite the vocal minority that like to badmouth me, I seem to have developed a reasonably good reputation – in fact, some of that reputation seems founded on the grounds that anyone badmouthed by certain people must be all right.

Still, my escape was far too close for me to be self-congratulatory. To some extent, I’m still in panic mode.

I don’t know if Linux.com will still be a market for me when the dust clears. But, just now, I doubt that I will return to becoming so dependent on it – or any other single outlet. More than anything else, I am coming out of the last month with my belief intact: As a freelancer, I really was equipped to handle recession.

Read Full Post »

Even if you’re an extrovert, meeting new people takes energy. To reduce the required energy, whenever I’m networking or at a business meeting, I like to come equipped with at least one conversational hook – a detail about me that make people curious and give them something to talk about when they approach me.

The term is borrowed from the writer’s idea of a hook, or first sentence that makes people want to read more. For example, when Charles Dickens started A Christmas Carol with, “Marley was dead to begin with,” he hoped that readers would be intrigued about why he would mention the fact. More subtly, when Jane Austen began Pride and Prejudice with “It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife,” she is announcing that her subject is courtship, hoping that it will interest them (and also, as you soon find out, being ironic, since the last thing that either Bingley or Darcy are thinking of at the start of the novel is getting married).

A conversational hook works the same way. Just as a literary hook lures you into reading, a conversational hook is designed to make others think that you are worth spending time with. It’s not as extreme as an eccentricity. Nor is it a pose, because, to be successful, a conversational hook needs to be backed up by the ability to talk about it. Rather, it is an expression of your individuality that attracts attention.

A conversational hook can be as simple as a T-shirt. When I am at a developers’ conference – and, sometimes, just on the street – My Linux Journal T-shirt, with the slogan, “In a world without fences, who needs gates?” (a reference, of course, to Bill Gates and Windows) is sure to evoke a laugh. And, once you have shared a laugh, talking with each other becomes easier.

More recently, I have found my three inch copper bracelet by Tsimshian artist Henry Green to be another conversational hook. Larger than usual, made of a metal that you rarely seen in jewelry, and featuring a stunning design, the bracelet offers all sorts of topics that people can use to approach me. First Nations people, especially artists, are especially interested in it, but the interest cuts across all sorts of demographics. One friendly acquaintance who has watched too much Doctor Who calls it my chronoplate, while others ask if I am wearing it because I believe that copper helps relieve arthritis. It helps that the bracelet is more suitable for formal occasions than a T-shirt, too.

You can use the same idea to make yourself stand out on a resume. Although I maintain several different resumes, I always include two or three lines under the heading of “Interests.” Currently, the section reads, “Running; parrots; punk folk music; Northwest Coast art; history, science fiction, and 19th century novels; Linux.” This summary not only says a lot about me and positions me – I hope – as a well-rounded individual who is worth interviewing.

In addition, when I am called into a job interview or consulting session, it gives other people a starting point. I have lost track of the number of times people have begun by asking me what punk folk music is, and many other meetings begin with an exchange of stories about running or science fiction. And I still remember the forty-five minute interview that consisted of five minutes of talk about the contract, and forty exchanging cute stories about our parrots.

Conversational hooks work because most people are nervous meeting new people. By giving them something to talk about, you set them at ease. In doing so, you generally create a favorable first impression – and first impressions, as you probably know, are frequently the basis for the impression that people take away from a meeting. Not only can you help yourself by creating hooks that draw other people in, but you can be on the lookout for hooks that others may be consciously or unconsciously offering.

Either way, you’ll find that conversational hooks are a great way to take the nervousness out of meeting people for everyone.

Read Full Post »

Earlier this week, The Globe and Mail ran an article about freelancers who were considering finding full-time work in response to the recession-cum-depression of the last couple of months. Being a long-time freelancer myself – and someone who has never been happier than when working for himself – I found some wry amusement in the assumption that freelancing is riskier than full-time employment. Not only do I believe that freelancing is generally safer than full-time employment, but I suggest that freelancers are better equipped to weather the uncertain economy.

Admittedly, a recession is a bad moment to begin a freelance career, if only because so many other people may be attempting the same change. Obviously, too, a freelancer’s ability to survive depends on what services they offer; for instance, if you offer web design services, in hard times people might be tempted to put off improvements and changes to their web pages as non-essential.

However, in general, freelancers have distinct advantages in troubled times:

  • Freelancers are already established: As full-timers are laid off and try to support themselves on freelancing, established freelancers already have the contracts and – most importantly – the reputations to keep themselves employed. Many of them have an established customer base, and they can focus on assignments rather than on marketing themselves – a process that usually takes a few months.
  • Freelancers are more versatile: Full-time employees are generally slotted into narrow specialties. By contrast, freelancers can offer new, related services as the opportunity or need arises. For example, if you are a technical writer who finds that clients are putting off updating their documentation, perhaps you can branch out into public relations or graphic design.
  • Freelancers are used to working on multiple contracts at the same time: While full-timers often have the luxury of concentrating on one project at a time, most freelancers juggle multiple projects at the same time. Part of the reason may be freelancers are so afraid of being without income that they often overbook themselves. However, an even larger part of the reason is that they don’t always find a single project that brings in enough income by itself. A recession simply makes this situation even more likely. So, in this sense, the habits of the average freelancer become a useful survival mechanism during a recession.
  • Freelancers have established social networks: In any sort of job-hunting, connections are important. But, while full-timers often neglect networking because of their false sense of security, freelancing is like constantly looking for work. The result is that freelancers may be prepared to replace work lost to the recession with other assignments.
  • Freelancers are better prepared psychologically for losing work: Many full-timers invest a lot of their self-image in their employment. When they lose their position, they are devastated. But freelancers do not nurse the full-timers’ dream of a job for life. They expect to work on many contracts during their careers. So, when one contract is canceled, it means very little to freelancers – unlike full-timers, they are not devastated. While they may regret the loss, freelancers know that some work will never materialize or be canceled, even in good times.
    In other words, a recession is only a freelancer’s regular situation intensified. They know how to deal with the situation, and don’t need to change their attitudes to survive – unlike full-timers.

I’m not surprised that The Globe and Mail could find freelancers who were considering full-time employment, but I suspect that they are in a minority. Although all the freelancers I know are alert to the economic situation, they seem reasonably confident of their ability to survive it. Unlike full-timers, they find little new in troubled times.

Read Full Post »

« Newer Posts - Older Posts »