How IT workers get conned out of an honest wage through secrecy

A friend recently asked me to pass along information about a job opening for a project manager position at a local tech company. It’s a vendor position, meaning that an agency would hire you full time, then loan you out to a tech company, such as Microsoft, Amazon, and Google, to work for them on-site. You’d be a full-time W-2 employee of the vendor agency rather than an employee of the tech company itself.

The tech company pays the agency an hourly rate, called the client bill rate. You, the worker, have your own hourly rate with the agency. Here’s the tricky part: the vendor agency is under no obligation to tell you how much their client bill rate is. If you’ve signed a nondisclosure agreement with your agency and the on-site company, you will have no idea what your time is actually worth.

In general, tech client bill rates are at least $70 an hour. A contractor on a 1099 would receive this full amount, and then pay their own employment taxes—perhaps 40% of the total—leaving them with $60/hour if their bill rate was $100 (which is a common amount for a web developer or designer of medium skills and 5 years’ experience). However, when contractor operates through a vendor agency, she becomes a vendor, and is instead paid a W-2 paycheck based not on her client bill rate, but on her hourly pay rate with the agency.

Think of it this way: a fair bill rate for a senior developer with specialized skills and experience might be $250/hour. Taking $75 an hour of that is a 30% charge and results in $175/hour for this highly-skilled worker who is now thrilled and happy with the agency. What actually happens most of the time is something like this: the agency tells the dev that they can only get $80 an hour for their skills and then they pocket the remaining $170 as a 68% charge. And individual recruiters are incentivized to maximize the difference between the client bill rate and the vendor hourly rate—because that’s where their commissions come in. Add to that the nondisclosure, and you should be realizing now in a way you never did before: if you are working for a vendor agency that does not disclose their client bill rate, you are not your recruiter’s client or partner. You’re their product.

Tech contracting is how the tech industry gets around labor laws. Now, because tech workers are paid so much, there is little public outrage on their behalf when labor laws are skirted, ignored, or outright violated. This is a problem. Tech contracting means that the tech company can work contractors for 80 hours a week or more with total impunity, so long as they pay the agency for the vendors’ time. Then the vendor agency merely pays whatever hourly wage they have settled on with the vendor. This system, which is manipulative in its own right, also sees many common abuses, such as having a limited amount of hours that you can work your contractors each week but asking them to do work off the books or off site to “make sure this contract stays open at renewal time,” or asking them to double their hours one week and work nothing the next, while being paid as if they were working a regular amount on a weekly basis.

To make matters worse, many major companies with brand-name recognition work with only a few “preferred vendor agencies,” meaning that to take a contract position at a major company and get a feather in your cap, you must agree to work for a preferred agency, and risk being in the dark about your true value to the company. My first position at a major brand-name tech company (and let’s put it this way: I live on the Eastside in the Seattle area) was as a lead web developer. This company had a great deal of money after laying off many full-time staff to replace them with contractors who do not have to be paid benefits. Many of the contractors had previously been full-time employees of the company in question. I cannot reveal my exact rate, but let us assume that I was paid between $40-$45/hour. I found out later that my time was being billed to the company at between $110-$140. It’s very common for people with no expertise in negotiation to take the first rate offered to them, leading to an even lower rate for women and minorities than they would have had—and this difference is exacerbated by the conspiracy of secrecy around their actual value. When told that they’re not worth a higher rate, the women and minorities tend to believe it and accept the amount offered—and while in full-time employment you could never tell someone that they’re not worth the amount they ask for, a vendor agency can do so with total impunity because they’re negotiating on behalf of two parties.

That is correct: your eyes do not deceive you. The company doing nothing more than signing my paperwork as a preferred vendor agency and passing along my employment taxes to the state (about $15 an hour, at my bill rate) was making two and a half times what I was. I received no benefits, no health care, no paid time off, and no overtime extra pay—only the money I was paid hourly.

Let’s add to this the fact that tech is actually a very small world, and the existence of blacklists for tech workers who have caused problems in their contracts is real. If you’re put on ‘the list’ at a major tech company, you can expect that other tech companies will refuse to consider you for employment. Similar to pursuing a discrimination suit at a major law firm—you can absolutely expect that you will never be hired to work for a large firm again. To stand up for yourself means to have only one option: to start your own firm and declare victory. There’s a good reason that top-level minority and female contractors leave high-paying contract gigs to build their own startups and companies. When you work on-site at a tech company but do not work FOR that tech company, any discrimination or harassment issues you may face are your tough luck. You don’t actually work FOR that company, so you can only sue your vendor agency if you have issues—and why would you do that? You weren’t harassed or discriminated against by your direct superior, so how do you prove a hostile work environment in a company you don’t technically work for?

Here’s the punchline: I never negotiated with the large tech company I worked for. In that first position, I was treated well, by people who themselves had no idea what my bill rate and hourly wage were. I had to negotiate with the vendor agency for my wages. As a result, the vendor agency was incentivized to lie to me with every breath (in fact, I signed paperwork saying that the vendor agency wasn’t obligated to be open with me about my bill rate, without necessarily understanding that this meant they could and would lie outright to me about my worth). I was told: “this is the way it is if you want that position at XXX Co.” I had no reason to doubt that, because I didn’t yet know of the existence of full disclosure vendor agencies.

Let’s be clear: vendor agencies serve a great purpose. In tech, investing in an employee is time-consuming and resource-intensive. If you become an employee at a tech company, it’s likely that they see a future for you there with multiple roles and an upward trajectory. However, there are a lot of positions in major tech companies that are by their nature temporary. If you have a project that must be executed in Python to work with one of your company’s client’s interfaces, and your company only has a bench full of C++ programmers, you have a short-term job that means you should hire a contractor. Think of it this way: you don’t invite the people who remodel your kitchen to stick around in case you need them again in a few years. They possess a specialized skill that you need on a temporary basis, and you pay them well to come in, do their job, and leave when they’re done, without any feeling of long-term obligation to them.

To extend the analogy, however, imagine that you have hired a construction firm that sends a three-person crew to your house, and you discover that though you are paying the company for the hours spent by that crew in your home at the rate of $60/hour per person, each of the workers themselves only make $11/hour—the minimum wage in the state of Washington. Worse, they have no idea how much you are paying for their time, can be fired for asking, and cannot share their information with any of their colleagues.

All of a sudden, your conscience starts to twinge. Why is it that the best construction business in town won’t share its rates with its own employees? Why not be honest about what you are paying for these services? It doesn’t change the amount itself. All it does is empower the worker to choose an agency that treats them with respect and transparency.

This is why I do not pass along information on jobs from vendor and contracting agencies that will not disclose their client bill rate. If you’re a vendor agency, it is understandable and appropriate to charge anywhere between 15-40% of the client bill rate for your services. After all, you’re handling employment taxes, W-2s, accounting, paperwork, direct deposit, and possibly benefits as desired. You should be making a good profit on your service to both parties. Taking 85% of the client bill rate and leaving scraps for the actual worker, all the while hiding behind a non-disclosure agreement, is simply morally indefensible.

You should refuse to work for agencies that do not disclose, and I pledge now that if I am in a position to engage a contract or vendor agency to fill open positions for my company, I will not work with one that does not disclose my rate to their developers.

Look, it’s easy to lack sympathy for people who make sixty bucks an hour sitting in a chair. Realize, however, that these folks work hard, many have student loans that they took out to get their specialized training, and even more have families they support. Just because the amount of money they make is more than a construction worker does not mean they’re not facing the same kind, if not degree, of injustice.

If this article makes you angry (and I hope it does), please use the comments section to make your own pledge about refusing to hire vendor or contract agencies who use NDAs.

I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors: the perfect go-away email.

Stop feeling bad for telling people that they’re wasting your time. I don’t mean Radical Honesty; that’s a great concept, but not very helpful in business and technology. Instead, when people email you with a request for your time, and aren’t capable of clearly articulating why they want to talk to you in person or on the phone, make them choose between being clear and leaving you alone.

New people often want to talk to someone in person about Hack The People, our mentoring in tech initiative.  They may have questions, want to share their stories, have administrative questions, or want to form a group in their area. Every so often, someone emails one of our coordinators with a request to talk in person or on the phone rather than simply saying why they’re contacting us. We’re still a small group with only two dozen or so part-time staff, organizers, and directors. We ask why a person is emailing so we can direct them to the correct local HTP group, handle a media request (which should be clearly marked MEDIA REQUEST in the subject line, btw), or get them signed up as a local organizer. We cannot help you if you don’t have a question to ask.

This happens to me a lot for Fizzmint as well. People email me and ask for my time without being able to clearly articulate why they want to talk to me. Often, it’s specifically because they want to get me on the phone to sell me something, or $DEITY help them, they want to try to recruit me to a junior Ruby contract dev gig in Austin. Even more often, it’s because outsiders to tech and very junior people feel very uncomfortable clearly stating what they want and need from me. They want to spend fifteen minutes over coffee or on the phone feeling me out and seeing if I’m sympathetic enough to help them. I’m more likely to be able and willing to help if they’re clear and efficient in their communications.

Here is my first reply: “Can you please email me your questions? I’ll see what I can do to help.”

If they double down on the request for personal time, still without telling me why, here is my second reply: “I’m sorry, it seems like you’re not able to tell me why it is that you want to meet with me. I’m happy to answer any specific emailed questions you have, and I wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors. Thanks!”

If you get still another request for your time from someone after sending that email, you can feel free to ignore it/trash it. They’re clearly not able to socially understand that they’re wasting your time. Alternately, if they do clearly tell you what they need and you want to continue the conversation, you can.

Your time is valuable. It’s truly the only thing you possess, and people will eat it like Cheetos if you’re not careful. Being clear with people in email and in all communications is a courtesy to you, and one you and everyone else deserves. Insist on it, and practice it yourself.

The Best Way To Deal With Piracy

I have personally uploaded my technical interviews DVD and booklet to help women prepare for technical interviews here, at Demonoid. I’d rather have people listen than not, and I realized that when it comes to piracy, there are two possible outcomes: either my video is pirated because someone likes it, or no one pirates it because no one knows about it. In the first case, I’d rather have my letter to torrenters included, as well as a good quality MPEG rip and the full PDF of the 40 page accompanying booklet. In the latter case, I’m not making any money off the DVD sales anyway.

So, I decided to release it myself. This way, I can directly speak to torrenters and ask that if they like the DVD, to tell me why they didn’t buy it. I guaranteed them that I would never ever personally go after them for copyright infringement, and in fact, to please spread it far and wide. I offered
the steepest discount codes I could in the torrent so that if people DO want to buy it but price is a bar, I get that information too. Here’s the letter:

_______________________________________________________________________

TECHINTERVIEWHELP.COM

Hi!

My name is Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack, and if you’re reading this now, it’s because I haven’t created the right kind of value to get you to buy my DVD and booklet online instead of downloading it from Isohunt or Pirate Bay or Demonoid or wherever.

You can find my DVD/booklet product at techinterviewhelp.com. I made this video to help women get jobs in technical fields; women are TERRIBLE at negotiating with and interviewing for men. I want to show the ladies how to communicate well with their future bosses, and I think that as a senior coder and experienced development manager that I have a lot to offer them.

nI had a lot of fun and a lot of pain making this video. It’s been several months since the day I shot this video, since it takes quite a while to write a good booklet and have editing done. I spent over $1600 of my own money just on the video shoot; I paid the folks you see in the credits to help me make a great product. We worked on that day for 16 hours straight to get me made up (high definition powder itches fiercely, people), get the video shot with retakes and scene changes, and lighting changes. I brought in some of my good friends and a few people I hadn’t met before to help me. Then, I spent several months getting the booklet written, the video edited with music, and marketing campaigns developed. I do my own web development; techinterviewhelp.com is all me including backend work and analytics on the site.

Between you and me, there’s a solid reason I know where to post this DVD and booklet packet online. I know where the torrents live, because I’ve
been there a time or two myself 😉

I like to think that I contribute to authors and content creators as directly as possible. I have a moral code that doesn’t let me go jack Wil Wheaton’s books from Demonoid, because he directly publishes them and gets paid directly. I donate directly to Hijinks Ensue; that’s a badass web comic and Joel Watson makes me laugh every day. I get a little fuzzier on whether I think that giant studios who have already paid off the talent who made their movies should continue to get paid years later through residual royalties, even though all the people who worked hard on their product are long since gone. I really get cranky when operas that were written by Mozart and recorded fifty years ago by the London Symphony Orchestra still cost $200 because someone bought the back catalog.

I am personally releasing this DVD and booklet to the torrent sites. I have a whole new perspective on my work being used and
enjoyed without any compensation coming my way, but I also know that it’s better to be heard than ignored. I think that the people who feel the way I do about content creators will pay for this DVD and booklet, knowing that I’ve done the best I can to make a great product to help women get technical jobs. I think that there are people out there who would never pay anyway for my work, and though I disagree with you, I still want you to hear what I have to say.

Finally, as your reward for reading this, I want you to know that I will never, ever personally pursue anyone who torrents this (though I’ll ask you to keep these files intact, including this message). In fact, I am going to occasionally offer coupon codes for you. Right now, you can go use the code “LIVEFREEORDIE” on my site to get a 60% discount on my DVD set. I’ll release 20 or so of these codes at a time; I can’t afford to cut more than that off the price, or it doesn’t pay me to produce and ship the materials.

I want to know why you didn’t buy this DVD and booklet; please go to my site and give me some comments. You can consider that your payment if you cannot help me out any other way. Or, tweet or Facebook me. That helps me…not as much as cash, but you would be giving me a hand.

https://twitter.com/#!/techinthelp Hashtag: #TechIntHelp
https://www.facebook.com/technicalwomen

I look forward to hearing from you, and I wish you the best of luck in your interviews!

Tarah Wheeler Van Vlack
http://tarahwheeler.com
http://thetarah.com

TECHINTERVIEWHELP.COM

__________________________________________________________-

It’s more important for women to hear what I have to say than it is for me to go after people who can turn into my fans when
I publish future books and study materials.

SDCC Just Didn’t Think About The Ladies This Time.

I normally never critique a company for not hiring female devs or DBAs; I tend to think it’s the responsibility of women to be good enough to deserve employment. This time, however, I think it’s quite appropriate for a system that seriously screwed with women who have two last names after marriage.

I’ll start by saying I got my San Diego Comic-Con badges just fine. Two 4-day with preview night badges successfully purchased for myself and my husband…but it nearly didn’t happen, and it certainly didn’t happen because I followed instructions.

You may all remember the giant cluster that was last year’s registration process. Comic-Con spent an extra five months trying to fix their problems concerning server balancing and site overload. They set up a system using preregistration for member IDs that had to be verified in advance. I applaud the effort; it seems that with a few hitches, this year went much better than last. There were two
serious issues, however.

In a predictable moment, the link included in the Comic-Con registration email (http://www.comic-con.org/cci/badge_sales.php, for all of you who maniacally clicked it hundreds of time) went down due to tracking on the URL from the email. Their tracking and analytics system was their bottleneck. As a dev, I had some advantage here, since I expected that to happen and had already set up two machines in front of me with two different browsers and the link pasted into the address bar ready to hit ‘enter’. I popped in at #1906 in line on my main box in FF and #3222 on my netbook in Chrome.

Turns out that in a moment of epic (pun intended, as Epic Registration is the in-use system) failure, San Diego Comic-Con Member IDs created by people with spaces or punctuation in their names were utterly useless. In the badge registration email, I was told to register with the last name of VLACK, though my last name is Wheeler
Van Vlack. After VLACK didn’t work, I tried WHEELER VAN VLACK and was deeply fortunate that it worked. Chelsey St. Juniors has a space and period in her last name, and missed out on her badges entirely, since the information in her badge registration email was incorrect.

Others complaining on Facebook say that people with a space in their last names have not received confirmation emails. One woman’s comment (Lisa Wong Rodriguez, if I remember correctly) concerning her Member ID and last name not working has been deleted.

People on the Comic-Con International’s Facebook page who are commenting on this issue are being deleted, or so they claim. In a bit of investigative journalism, I’ve posted a comment there as well and already received a response. Far from deleting my comment, Comic-Con has acknowledged that they screwed up people with multiple last names. Still, note Tina’s comment at the bottom.

I want to congratulate Comic-Con for acknowledging their fault, but really–how many men have two last names like these women do? I’ll pay Comic-Con the compliment of assuming there were no talented female devs or DBAs available to do a quick smoke test for stupid.

__________________________________

QUICK UPDATE:

Comic-Con has responded to my post on Facebook, and they say that the system was broken for all
people who had strange last names with any spaces or punctuation. I absolutely agree: their system was broken. They assert that because men sometimes have spaces and punctuation in their last names (Sr., Jr., etc), that they were affected too; I heartily concur. I never said that this was a deliberate attempt to keep women out of Comic-Con; what I said was that hiring a woman to look over the system might have prevented this problem. Women were, I think, disproportionately affected by this error–and I’m open to refutation on this point. I think that, proportionately, there were more women with multiple or hyphenated last names who didn’t get their badges than men who have a Sr. or Jr. tacked-on.

The ‘Just’ Syndrome

There’s a tendency among those who don’t work with computers in any real capacity to fail to understand the complexity of the work we do. I encapsulate that concept in the phrase: the ‘just’ syndrome.’

“Can’t you just…”
“I don’t see why you can’t just…”
“But if you just…”
“All you have to to is just…”
“All I want is for you to just…”

You usually hear this when a person doesn’t comprehend the intricacies of their request. I often hear this when someone wants a div moved a few pixels and overlaid with another, with no real understanding of the notion of an inline-block layout. I’ve also heard it from people who don’t comprehend the difference between flat HTML and a backend or dashboard like WordPress or Drupal. Here’s the difference: MySQL. If you want control over your content, you need a database…but you’d be surprised at how many people can’t see the difference between a flat site and multi-tiered
architecture.

I’m given to understand that this is endemic in any relationship where one party doesn’t understand the skill involved in performing a task that seems simple.

“I just want a 1040…”
“I just want the house painted really quick…”
“I just want the carburetor replaced…”
“Can’t you just take a quick look at this mole…”

These seem like simple tasks, but have complicated components that require a deep understanding of the field each of these professionals are in to even answer a ‘simple’ question.

The moral of the story: respect the skills of the professional you’re talking to, and don’t request a ‘simple’ anything that will only take up ‘just a bit’ of their time.

“Murder” or “Theft”?

Hello! This is my first post over here, so hopefully you all will be kind, and allow me to run my legal mouth off just a touch. ^.^

In honor of the Hallmark Holiday that is the fourteenth of February, I thought I’d revisit an oldie but goodie from the annals of “Seriously? It’s just a game!”

I used to play a number of MMORPGs, and the one that held my attention for the longest was a Korean-based free-to-play one called MapleStory. It was fun and cute and you could play through most of the quests without actually having to interact with
too many people, at least in the States. Where things started getting a little sticky for players and the company, however, was when they introduced the ability to “marry” other players. You got special items and could go on special quests as a couple, and apparently you could have problems in real life as well.

After being dumped by her online husband in 2008, a Japanese woman hacked into his account, and deleted his character. After being interviewed by the police and admitting that she was responsible, she faced up to years  in prison or a $5000 fine. But wait a minute, I hear you saying, can you really “kill” an online character? Should that be punished the same way as “real” crimes?

It’s not clear from the various news stories who focused on the jilted lover aspect of the story, but it’s likely that the crime for which she was punished was the “hacking into his account” and not so much the “deleting his character.” In the States, we have the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act (
CFAA) which makes it unlawful to use someone else’s login information to do illegal things, and Japan probably has similar provisions. Technically, even if she’d had his information for legitimate reasons, she still could have been prosecuted, because there is a provision about “exceeding the authority” to use that account or computer.

Even if she had been within the law in how she accessed his character, did she break the law by deleting his character? Is an avatar “human” such that it can be “killed” under the law? Well, probably not. The worst charge would probably be one of theft or conversion, or malicious mischief at the lowest end. And online games have an additional layer of complexity about who owns pixels, because with “free-to-play” and online games there isn’t a physical transfer of ownership which would constitute a “sale” in the legal sense.

Even if you pay money to use premium content (like if you want to get married in MapleStory…) the Terms of Service makes
it clear that players lease the game from the developer, and don’t actually “own” any of it. So the spurned woman may have caused problems for her erstwhile lover, but the property she “destroyed” didn’t even belong to him. He was just using it under a license for as long as he followed the rules.

But “Woman Arrested for Hacking Lover’s Computer” doesn’t have the same sense of absurdity, does it?

Google Wave, Google Wave–wherefore art thou gone?

Google Docs Gets A Dose Of Gmail Features

At least Google Docs is getting some love and integration with more useful features. Given the inherent nature of shared documents, and now that Google Wave has waved bye-bye, we all need a document collaboration tool that is more efficient than attaching text to emails and losing track of them in the process.

I use Unfuddle to track version control for project notebooks and store repositories for various code trunks, and I cheerfully pay for those features. $9 is ridiculously tiny for the level of configuration and service provided by those kind folks, but on an every day level, we all have a document (a contract, a business letter, a memo, or a price estimate) that needs to be passed back and forth between a small group of people for changes and editing about five or
six times until it’s ready. Google Wave was the absolute best way to get that done; without it, the new Google Docs–which I’ve been lovingly poring over–is the new best way to share and edit a document so that people aren’t waiting for their ‘turn’ in the email chain.

It also means that the last person on the email chain doesn’t unwittingly delete or re-add elements to a document which have been carefully excised or composed for reasons they can’t see at the moment. Google Docs isn’t Wave yet, but it’ll do for now.

And in the meantime, I’m planning on creating a VPS and hosting my own Wave server. Cuz it’s fun. And nostalgic.

Wikipedia and Virtual Feudalism

I’m tired of having my edits on Wikipedia immediately rolled back without so much as a by-your-leave. The purpose is so that those who have set themselves up as monitors on a range of pages within their area of expertise can read and review my changes to approve them before permitting them on the page.

Why is it perfectly fine for people to squat on pages, roll back any changes made by anyone other than themselves, and only re-enter the information themselves if it seems truthy or can be easily Googled? The purpose of Wikipedia is a democratic approach to the concept of shared knowledge; it’s being hijacked by people who have so much time on their hands that they can’t POSSIBLY be gainfully employed in the area in which they claim to be experts.

The backlash has been against paid editors who monitor content to ensure a ‘pro’ slant on any page they’re paid to manage; I think the real danger comes from those who monitor pages to
roll back any changes they didn’t approve.

RAGE!

How to hack a hard drive in almost any OS.

Most of you know that it’s simple to get around the password-protection in almost any OS. I startled the heck out of my brother two days ago when I popped a Meerkat disk into his machine, booted up, mounted his data partition, and pwned his WoW folder, all without breaking a sweat or needing any password. He simply didn’t realize how easy it is.

Here’s the steps:

(1) Make a Live CD from any *Buntu distro. I heart Kubuntu, and 10.10 works just fine.

(2) Insert the disk into a target computer, and reboot into the “Try Kubuntu Without Installing” option.

(3) Open a terminal. Navigate to the top level of the file system. Navigate into the device directory. Look for all the devices listed:


cd ..
cd ..
cd /dev/
ls


Is something like sda1 there? Usually, the hard drive will be named sda or hda. The first partition, sda1 or hda1, will be the data partition, especially if there are no
more partitions. If you see sdb or hdb, that means there’s likely a second hard drive; check those partitions as well.

(4) Now that you’ve found what is likely to be the data partition, create a working folder and mount the partition to it:


sudo mkdir /home/pwnage
sudo mount /dev/sda1 /home/pwnage
cd /home/pwnage
ls


Do you see the files?

You’re welcome. Questions, anyone?