Archive for November, 2012


Thanksgiving: some things I’m thankful for

November 21, 2012

This morning I only needed to wave my fingers like a composer to be sung awake. My husband is the best. He deserves more than this one point but I'll tell him more specifics later (in person).

I'm not in the ICU, it was a terrible way to spend Thanksgiving. In fact, I'm very healthy. Maybe that is a better bullet point to be appreciated.

I've met all of the goals I had as a child. That has been terrifying me lately but still something to spend a moment thinking how amazing that is and how grateful I am that I'm here. I just need new goals. Maybe next year I'll be appreciative of them.

I have a job that I usually like (and that I'm good at) even if I'm a bit bored with the mechanics right now. I know it will get better and I have the freedom (if not quite the gumption yet) to change what I want to change.

This evening, I'm getting my toes painted with little pictures while hanging out with a good friend. There are lots of little pieces in there that I'm thankful for but let's keep it wrapped up as a bigger pedicure metaphor.

Plenty to eat and warm. I know how very lucky I am. Also, hot showers fits under this point. As does cold champagne. And the utter ridiculousness of stores devoted to cupcakes.

Hiking at Wilder ranch, on the beach and the cliffs above the beach, on T-day will be 70F and clear as a bell. Not to mention completely empty. Except for me, him, and a few friends.




Looking around furtively

November 15, 2012

I mentioned submitting conference proposals a few posts ago. Did I mention that I’m chairing a track? Ah, yes, well, that started today. It has been the most educational twenty minutes I’ve had in the last six months.

As track chair, I admit, I haven’t got a clue what I’m doing. I’ll get instructions tomorrow or Monday.  To check my ID, I logged into the review portal where I can see all the submissions waiting for my blessing. I’m to give them 1-5 stars and write a comment about the proposal. Easy-peasy.

One submitter helpfully used my track to submit a test proposal (where he copied in the information that was supposed to be filled in, that is under Submitter Comments, he wrote, Comments – 800 characters max). This should make it startlingly easy for me to put this proposal in my “review complete” list.

However, looking at the other ones, I’m struck by the information here. The session about something that sounds super nifty, exactly what I would want to see myself. The session by people who are clearly just looking for a really long commercial. The session by these strange people who want to have a chat in front of alive audience (oh, heck, I’m on that proposal, I’ll have to ask what to do with scoring myself).

More than that, I’m struck by the amount of work that went into some proposals. But not others.

Shifting topics for a second, whenever I participate in science fair judging, I talk to friends who are parents and gush about how they really, really need to sign up to judge if they ever want their child to win. It isn’t about gaming the system but about understanding what is happening on the other side of the curtain. What do the science fair judges look for, how can they look at two hundred projects in two hours and get to an award, and what pieces matter (and what pieces don’t)?

Back to the conference proposals. I suddenly get it. I understand why last year I got a very odd phone call about the session I wanted to put on because it didn’t fit the mold of the rest of the proposals (moldiness in some cases).

I’ve played chess with myself (heck, I learned the undefeatable tic-tac-toe strategy by playing against myself, it was for, um, kindergarten research, yeah, not because I didn’t have any friends, um, yeah). I strongly encourage new interviewees to practice interviewing each other so they can see what the other side of the table sees.

But I’ve never applied it to conference proposals. Duh. I am happy to be able to see what others are doing, to understand the rules. Usually, I look around furtively, trying to figure out if I’m doing this right by following along and hoping I’m blending so no one notices if I’m out of step.


Let me see if I can sum up my findings… remember this is the twenty minute education:

  • There are a lot of proposals. Title really counts. Funny is great. Funny and informative will get you two stars all by itself.
  • Scatter your submissions around the conference tracks. There are four proposals by one guy. When I dug in and read his bio, he’s just a guy. He’s not going to get all four sessions because I want some variety in my track.
  • You aren’t being judged alone, you are being judged against other people. It isn’t a good or bad call, it is a better or worse judgement. That can work in your favor but it also means you shouldn’t take it personally if your proposal gets axed.
  • More information isn’t necessarily better. At this point, a commercial for your session is more important than a dissertation. I’m happy to see you have a dissertation because it means you thought about it. But I don’t want to have to read it before figuring out if you are in the correct track.
  • Realize the proposal is going to someone, a human who is tired and busy and doing this between other activities. You’ve been there, write your proposal for the Friday-afternoon you. Don’t assume too much knowledge and write something nice in the comments, even if it is “Thanks for your consideration, I hope you enjoy this proposal. If not, please let me know what you’d like for next year.”

Well, I’ve got things to read. I should get back to that. I suspect it will be even more educational over the next week or so.



Consulting rate

November 11, 2012

People don’t like to talk about how much they make. Fair enough, I’m not going to be a trend breaker. On the other hand, engineers new to contracting often have questions about what they should charge. It really all depends. But I can give a slightly more useful answer than that.

You could take the salary you currently make, divide by 40 hours/week (or however many you work), then divide that by 52 weeks/year. This is what companies want to pay you and what some companies expect you to take. Unless you are hurting for work this is a really, really bad deal.

See, you don’t work 52 weeks a year in a full time job, with 10 paid holidays, 5 days off sick and 10 days off for vacation, you’d only work 47 weeks a year. A full time job pays part of your social security which you will now pay as self employment tax, 13.3% for 2012. If you’d found you were making $1/hour in the initial calculation ($2080/year), you probably find you are closer to $1.25.

And a full time job has perks, health care is the big one that can be expensive to manage as a solo contractor. But don’t forget the dental and vision coverage, retirement savings programs, lunches, stock options, and assorted other benefits. Even if they aren’t contributing to your 401k, they may have the benefit in place so you don’t have to deal with it yourself. It can be a hassle.

Oh, and as a contractor, you are supposed to provide (and maintain) your own gear. This can be good (tax deductible gadgets!) but can get expensive. And billing hours and dealing with clients who haven’t paid you is part of being a contractor so you need a little buffer in your month for that.

You could keep adding things up but for a back of the envelope calculation, I go about it all differently.

How much would you want to make in a full time salary? Use or whatever is good for your industry to figure out a range for what you should make. If that research shows you should make $1,000 per year, then you should be charging $1/hour. Where the divide by weeks and hours method gave you a lower bound, this one usually gives a higher bound.

From this higher bound, I often give discounts (and occasionally adders) based on how much I like the product, how much I’ll learn about technology I’m interested, if they’ll be engaging a little time (more expensive) or lots of time over months (less expensive). If I know I like the people, I’ll charge less. If the client tends to need high-priority emergency time, I’ll charge them more (because it is harder to fit in other projects without good planning). And if the client wants short term loans from me, they get charged more (about 5% per 15 days after the initial 30, I do not appreciate net-90).

So do I charge different clients, different rates? Yes. And usually if multiple clients want things at the same time, I work on whichever one is paying the most (with exceptions whenever I’ve promised a completion date, promises before cash). And I’m upfront with my clients that they aren’t only ones I’m working for so they understand this.

I don’t usually carry more than two clients, heck I don’t always carry more than one since I like to work on my own projects but I try to treat my project time like client time (I even clock in and out of my own lab books sometimes).

It is easy to think about every hour of your day being billable (e.g., “I should have pizza delivered instead of spending an hour making dinner”). That can be dangerous to your mental health. Sleeping is just money being thrown away.

Finally, a bonus suggestion for new contractors: figure out what you can live on and make goals for yourself. Put upper bounds on your goals as well as lower. Getting burnt out or physically hurt (or not hired because you aren’t doing good work because you haven’t slept in six months) is more expensive than reasonable goals.