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The Contractor Attitude

business_professionals_standout_1600_clr_5372Having recently been invited to the latest MEWT, the theme being “What is Professional Testing?”. I’m putting the proverbial pen to paper to share with you my perspective on the subject.

I’ve been a freelance test consultant for a number of years now and previously described myself as a test professional; in any engagement I always strive to be professional and as the roles I’ve been involved in have been related to testing activities. I’ve never had a problem with that description. The brief for MEWT has the question “what exactly does it mean to be a Professional Tester?”. This got me thinking as it’s a subtle difference in the wording because in this case the ‘Tester’ part is defining a specific role and is more contextual than my description which, for me at least implies that I’ll be professional in all test activities.

I started thinking about what I perceive to be “professional” within the context of test roles I’ve undertaken. As mentioned above, I strive to be professional. I do this by performing my tasks to the best of my ability and do what needs to be done to get things over the line. But this is my perception of being professional. Exploring this further it is clear to me that the perception of being professional can be highly subjective for both individuals and within the workplace. For example many workplaces have dress codes. If in one workplace you don’t wear a suit and turn up wearing shorts and a T-shirt this could be perceived as unprofessional behavior; in another workplace however there will be no such perception. Some companies let their workers wear headphones; in others it’s not allowed and again will be deemed unprofessional behavior.

In my roles over the years I’ve held positions at varying levels of responsibility and applying the same thought processes about differences in perception I realised that there are the same subjective differences here. Having a bit of banter with colleagues on the shop floor is not perceived as being unprofessional by them, try the same banter in the board room and there will be a good chance that it will be highly frowned upon. A colleague I used to work with whom I’ve met up with on several occasions since, told me how in a senior role he was in it was seen as unprofessional by his peers if he didn’t put his suit jacket on when walking from his desk.

So where does the contractor attitude fit in with professionalism? Over the years I’ve unintentionally surprised  colleagues as they learn that I’m ‘a contractor’, when asking why they are surprised I normally get something along the lines of “you don’t act like a contractor”. We are all predisposed to stereotyping, its inbuilt to the way we think but in the case of a contractor attitude where does that stereotype come from?

I’ve encountered perceptions that contractors clock in and clock out on the dot just doing their contracted work hours, but in my experience this perception is very much misplaced, granted there are people that I’ve worked with over the years that you could set your watch by but I’ve met as many permanent staff (if not more) as contract staff who adhere to this way working.

Another misconception I’ve encountered which is possibly more damaging is that contractors are mercenary,

“why do you care? you’re only a contractor”,

“your contracts nearly up it’s not like you have to support this when you’re gone”

These are examples of phrases I’ve heard a number of times in conversations over the years not just to myself but to other contractors I’ve worked alongside. Why wouldn’t I care? If I’m to perform a conscientious job and have pride in my work how would I do that without caring? Why would I leave a detrimental legacy behind? I know I’m not alone in this way of thinking; I’ve worked with a lot of contractors who share my ethos. There are times where contractors are bought in to do the most mundane tasks and they will just go through the motions, do their hours and take the money but wouldn’t a permanent member of staff do the same in that situation?

So where does this perception come? Like the term “professional”, “attitude” is abstract and subjective. People measure these based upon their observations and experiences which are influenced and shaped by their work places. People will form stereotypes based on not only their interactions with contractors but also from perceptions of those around them. As contractors tend to be fewer in numbers (and unfortunately in some cases are not generally perceived as being equal) to their permanent peers within a work place it is easier to associate a trend to the smaller collective should one of them exhibit some of the stereotypical behaviors above than if a permanent member of staff exhibits the same behavior. The likelihood however for either contractor or permanent staff doing this is the same.

In conclusion I believe that being professional within a role is about doing the best job you can and fulfilling or even exceeding the expectations of your employer or customer whilst being respectful to those you interact with. The attitude employed by individuals is theirs alone and not defined by whether they are a contractor or not. In short the contractor attitude is a myth.

I’d like to thanks the organisers of MEWT and AST for kindly sponsoring the event.