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Candidate FAQ.

Synergistech takes seriously our role as a trusted ally in your job search. We are your advocate, not our clients' servant. Even though our clients pay us — and you don't — we place a higher priority on earning and maintaining your trust than anything else (yes, even including our ability to convince clients to hire you). Our success stems from respectful relationships, and we create those by staying informed, communicating promptly, clearly, and candidly, and keeping our word.

We don't sell; we inform. We're not impartial, but we also don't manipulate. And we keep our commissions modest, so no one feels exploited.

Key to our role as your advocate is sharing our advice regarding the job market's opportunities and challenges. Here are our answers to your frequently asked questions. Got questions we haven't answered yet? Ready to let us get to work getting you work?

  Another recruiter sent my resume to a company I like. Nothing's happened. Can I go direct?
  I used to manage but want to be an individual contributor. How can I get there from here?
  I can wear multiple hats. Should I try to communicate all my skills in one resume?
  I'm torn between appearing disloyal to my employer and taking my resume off the job boards.
  I get no response from jobs for which I'm well-qualified. What's with this "black-hole" effect?
  I want to keep doing what I do well, but can't find any appropriate jobs. Did someone move my cheese?
  I've had some promising interviews, then never hear another word. Should I take this personally?
  Where has Synergistech been all my life, and what can it do for me now?
  I hear that Synergistech 'Version 1' did career coaching. Does Synergistech's new incarnation do so too?
  Should I use a recruiter for my job search?
  Do I limit myself if I conduct my job search only through recruiters?
  Are there some kinds of candidates recruiters just can't help?
  Recruiters ask for my SSN, W2s, references, and details about where I'm interviewing. Eh?
  I've heard that I shouldn't get paid 1099 by a recruiter. Why, and what do I have to lose?
  If working 1099 through a third party is so risky, why does Synergistech offer 1099-based contracts?
  I want to contract, but all I'm seeing are staff opportunities for my skills. What should I do?
  Is there a "hot" time of year for contract hiring?
  I've been at my job for three years and am not gaining new skills. What should I do?
  What hiring trends does Synergistech see in the current tech pubs market in Silicon Valley?
  Where do you gather your market intelligence?
  What traits do employers look for in "staff" hires these days?
  Are keywords the way to get my resume noticed, and if so how should I integrate them?
  Will Synergistech remain tech pubs-centric? If not, what are the company's longer-term plans?
  Why do employers require a drug test before they'll hire? What is Synergistech's stand?
  Many recruiters appear greedy, ill-informed, and unreliable. Why, and is Synergistech different?
  My company wants to offshore my job. How can I persuade management to reconsider?
  Does Synergistech alter my resume before sending it out to hiring managers?
  Are the pricetags on Synergistech's job listings the actual amount I will earn after your commission?
  What is Synergistech's markup?
  How can Synergistech help me find work?
  Will you call me with suitable opportunities?
  How long will my resume remain active with Synergistech?
  What does Synergistech expect from me?
  Does Synergistech require contractors to sign exclusivity or non-compete clauses?
  Will Synergistech pay a W2-based contractor even though the client may not yet have paid you?
  As a Synergistech contractor, if I introduce someone to our client, must they work through you?
  Do you provide W2-based contractors with benefits?
  Does Synergistech collaborate with other recruiters?
  Does Synergistech place technical communicators outside the San Francisco Bay Area?
  Does Synergistech place people who aren't technical communicators?
  How do I share my portfolio when that work is covered by a Non-Disclosure Agreement?
  Why are there so few tech comms jobs in downtown San Francisco?
  Does Synergistech present more than one candidate for a given job or contract?
  Should I apply for a posted job or contract even if I'm not a perfect match?
  Why do some of Synergistech's contract positions pay less than I could get on my own?
  I'm a contractor. Should I consider incorporating, and why or why not?
  Will Synergistech continue to charge a commission for all contract work I do for a client you introduce?
  It's the summer of 2008; what are the going rates for contract technical communicators in Silicon Valley?
  It's September, 2008; are there fewer tech comms opportunities out there, or is it just my imagination?
  It's June, 2009; where's my stimulus?
  Should I accept a project where I get paid under-the-table?
  What should you do when your interviewer wants to sell you something?
  How have experienced SF Bay Area technical communicators succeeded in the current (Summer, 2009) job market?
  Which one factor outweighs the rest in determining a technical communicator's professional prospects?
  Apart from competence and finding work, what is a consultant's biggest challenge?
  How can a technical communicator reliably generate profits for a company rather than being a 'necessary expense'?

Q1: I sent my resume to another recruiter and gave them permission to represent me at a company. Since then, nothing's happened. I'm aware that sometimes recruiters post listings to gather resumes even though they don't have an actual, authorized job listing to fill. What are the risks of going around a recruiter?

A: It's hard to prove that your recruiter isn't authorized to recruit for a given company unless you know someone in HR there and they owe you a big favor. The existence and terms of recruiting agreements are usually kept confidential, and it would be challenging to convince them of your "need to know".

As we see it, here are the risks of going in to a specific company on your own after you've authorized a recruiter to represent you there:

  1. you will alienate your recruiter
  2. if the recruiter has already sent your resume, you will cause a conflict of interest for the company
  3. you may damage your chances of being hired

Regarding #1, recruiters expect exclusivity when it comes to representing you to their client. A few state this expectation in writing up front, but most only imply it. The length of time during which they expect such exclusivity varies, but we've never seen it last less than six months. This agreement also typically applies to all openings at the company, so having a recruiter represent you for Position A means you are also implicitly represented by the same recruiter for Positions B and C (although it's wise to tell your recruiter about other opportunities you're aware of at the same company for which you'd also like to be considered.)

By sending your resume to a company after you've discussed an opportunity there with your recruiter, and that recruiter has agreed to represent you and identified their client, you are violating your recruiter's trust. Unless you plan never to work with this recruiter again, that's inadvisable.

Regarding #2, the agreement recruiters sign with companies states that they'll only receive a commission if they are the first to introduce a candidate who subsequently gets hired. The company is the sole arbiter of who gets the resume to them first, and unless they really want to hire you and are willing to alienate your recruiter forever (as well as run the risk of a lawsuit), they will probably honor their contract with the recruiter no matter how little that firm does to advance your candidacy. Some employers consider "going around the recruiter" evidence of untrustworthiness on the candidate's part, and have a policy of flatly rejecting candidates in those situations. Other companies will simply notify you of the conflict, put your candidacy "on hold" until you have worked things out with your recruiter, and continue their search in the background. Unless you can prove that you didn't authorize the recruiter to represent you at all, and the recruiter formally relinquishes his or her claim, the company will likely remain worried about the legal risks of hiring you.

Of course, if you suspect that your recruiter never had a recruiting agreement with the company in the first place, and you're willing to call their bluff, you won't damage your chances of being hired and you will discredit your recruiter when he or she comes to the party late and without an invitation. It's risky, but we don't discourage it completely because it helps rid the industry of unscrupulous middlepeople.

Regarding #3, companies want to hire people who'll solve problems, not create them. If a company suspects that you've been unethical, untrustworthy, or have actually violated a contract by sending in your resume as well as being represented there by an approved recruiter, they are unlikely to hire you. You may be the best candidate for the job, but any kind of lawsuit is expensive and time-consuming to defend, and we don't know any companies eager to go to court regardless of whether what they did was legal.

As a footnote, Synergistech is among a handful of recruiters with an explicit candidate's agreement, to which you must agree before we'll present your resume for an opportunity. That agreement compels you not to send in your resume (for any position) to a client to which we've introduced you for six (6) months after the date you agreed to let us represent you there. However, if you do opt to work with any of our clients, Synergistech's agreement has no non-compete clause that would restrict your right to continue working for that company independently after the project ends.

Q2: Hiring managers look at my resume and think I have too much experience and would probably cost too much or present a 'flight risk' when a better paying job comes along. I used to be a manager but am happier as an individual contributor. How can I account for the managerial experience on my resume?

A: In your situation we would do one of two things:

1) Put two resumes on the job boards you frequent, one detailing your managerial experience and seeking more of the same (in your resume's Objective statement), and the other seeking Senior or Lead 'Individual Contributor' work and changing your managerial titles to "Lead Developer" (or whatever). It's understood that Leads manage projects and occasionally colleagues, and it's shorthand among resume evaluators for "I've been a manager and don't care if I never go there again, so please don't hold my experience against me." You can be confident that a recruiter (or even a hiring manager motivated to use his or her imagination) will use the resume that suits him or her to build a case in favor of interviewing you. The details can be discussed then. The Lead resume can also truncate your experience and omit purely managerial responsibilities you've held. In resume-land, omission is not a sin (as long as you don't expect to be paid for undocumented experience).

2) Change your resume's Objective to emphasize your 'individual contributor' ambitions, and change your job title to "Working Manager" (we know, it's a tautology) or "Sole Developer" (or whatever) to emphasize that your responsibilities were primarily those of an individual contributor. This hints (loudly) to hiring managers and recruiters who may worry that you are too experienced or expensive that you would prefer not to spend your life in meetings and don't expect to be compensated for knowing more (sorry, having more relevant experience) than your boss. If they plan to hire someone without managerial experience so they can exploit them by assigning unmanageable tasks, relax, you didn't want that job anyway. The key is to document the kind of experience for which you want to be paid going forward, and to downplay (or omit, when ethically possible) experience that could imply you wouldn't be a perfectly happy camper in the role you seek.

Q3: I can wear multiple hats. For example, I'm a Technical Writer but also a Marketing Writer, Editor, and Project Manager. Should I try to communicate all these skills in one resume?

A: The best solution in today's market is to tailor your resume to the specific opportunity on offer. Downplay the less-relevant experience in favor of whatever's in demand. Certain opportunities demand all your skills, but many don't — and you won't get an interview if you present an unfocused, incompletely relevant resume because hiring managers don't want to pay for experience they can't use. In other words, leave the kitchen sink at home.

Good ways to focus your resume include a) fine-tuning your Objective statement, b) switching the order of some of your bullet points, c) deleting (or at least rewriting) entries that are too specific to skills that don't appear necessary, d) elaborating on responsibilities and accomplishments that seem relevant to the hiring manager's requirements, and e) altering your job titles.

Yes, we're recommending that you create and maintain multiple resumes. Hiring managers are reluctant to overpay (or use their imagination), so showing evidence of more than they need can create problems. To get inside the hiring manager's head, ask yourself "what will convince this decision-maker that I'm perfect for his or her opportunity but also that I won't abandon it for an even better one as soon as it comes along?"

When managers believe a candidate is "overqualified", what they are thinking is a) "this resume is unfocused and doesn't convince me that the candidate will commit completely to doing what I want done," b) "this candidate has skills that are more valuable than the ones I need, and will be a flight risk", and/or c) "this resume inflates the candidate's accomplishments and makes me doubt their veracity."

If you're posting your resume to a job board and want to get full 'credit' for each hat you can wear, post multiple customized resumes instead of one "consolidated" version. Just be sure your Objective is sufficiently different in each and that you only include relevant responsibilities and accomplishments. When searching for a Project Manager, most decision-makers won't care about your editing and marketing communications skills.

Q4: I think I'm secure in my current job and don't want people there to see my resume on a job board and question my loyalty. But I'm not confident enough to take my resume down completely. What should I do?

A: If you don't want to disable your resume on the job boards on which it's posted, edit it to make your current employer/client (and perhaps also your name and email address) anonymous. This way most people who encounter your resume won't recognize you, and those who suspect they do know you will have trouble proving it.

If you're working through an agency, another option for preserving your anonymity is to change the employer on your posted resume to the name of your intermediary. Never in a million years will a recruiter tell another prospective employer the name of the company at which you're working through them. It's also a wink to those who know that the named company is an agency, basically saying "I've said all I have to say on the subject. If you want to know more, pick up the phone and tell me why you're curious."

Q5: I get no response to resumes I send for jobs where I think I'm well-qualified. I'm really frustrated with this black-hole, "don't call us, we'll call you" syndrome. What should I do?

A: It's easy for jobseekers to get frustrated by the lack of feedback typical in today's job search. Jobseekers rarely learn more than companies want to tell them. Finding work is a lonely task, but you're definitely not alone. In other words, we sympathize.

It might help to understand what's happening behind the scenes. Most companies' human resources teams are understaffed and overwhelmed by the volume of responses to their job listings. To save time, they actively avoid "connecting" with candidates. They rely on keyword search tools to screen resumes, and don't publicize their own direct email addresses or phone numbers. They're convinced they're hunting for a needle in a haystack, and that any time spent on an apparently "imperfect match" — even to acknowledge receipt of an application — is wasted.

Our view (in case anyone cares) is that this behavior is myopic, narcissistic, and disrespectful. It's also bad business. Most of the best hiring choices are the results of referrals, and discarding candidates based on unchecked assumptions not only wastes goodwill but is the quickest way to ensure you won't gain access to untapped talent. If someone has to spend an extra moment to respond to each interested candidate, and by so doing preserves or even boosts the company's stature, to us that's not even a choice. As we all know, however, good manners and long-term thinking aren't in vogue.

Given the reality of robotic gatekeepers, it's tempting to see your job search as purely a numbers game, where you're more likely to hit the target by firing more bullets. We strongly urge you to remain discerning and avoid an unfocused approach. Unless you are a true chameleon, you'll do much better in one kind of role than another, and as much as you'd like to be employed, when it comes right down to it you know that accepting a role that's wrong for you will do more harm than good.

Here are more reasons to avoid applying indiscriminately:

  1. it dilutes your credibility with gatekeepers — for example, if the same person sees your resume for two or more different jobs
  2. it further erodes your own confidence
  3. it can ultimately lead to your settling for the wrong role

Desperation isn't an attractive trait, and hiring managers are keenly tuned in to any evidence that you might not stick around.

Instead, get clear on what you're good at and want to do, focus on who is likely to need those skills (regardless of the role's title), then search, network, and if necessary design your own job. This strategy won't work every time, but you'll be surprised how often it does and how fulfilling it can be.

The best advice we can give is the following:

  1. customize your resume to match the job responsibilities as you understand them from the job description
  2. write a succinct cover letter that demonstrates you know exactly what the company needs and that provides clear examples of how you've already met the challenges they face
  3. use www.didtheyreadit.com to ensure that the intended recipient actually reads what you send. This tool uses beacon technology to tell you (unbeknownst to the recipient) whether your message was read and for how long, if it was forwarded, and to whom.

Q6: I know what I do well and I want to keep doing it, but I can't find any jobs like those I used to do. Did someone move my cheese?

A: Yes, someone moved your cheese. Some kinds of work have moved out of the area, or offshore, forever. It's the globalized economy in action. Other jobs have merged into 'superset' roles involving new responsibilities and requiring additional skills.

Don't waste your time waiting for the job you used to do to reappear. Instead, take inventory of your skills, interests, accomplishments, and goals, and actively reinvent yourself. Using similar skills in a different context can be liberating, not to mention very lucrative. Search the job boards and university career centers, network with former colleagues as well as through professional organizations and services such as LinkedIn, do informational interviews, and figure out what kinds of job titles match your new 'configuration'. You might need additional training and even certification to assume your chosen role, and it might not be a quick or cheap transition, but it's very worthwhile. Not only will you regain a sense of purpose and hopefulness, but you'll have the chance to focus on what you enjoy (and consciously discard what you don't). Also, once you're back in the workforce, it'll be much easier to navigate to (or even create) the role that matches your skills even better than the one you have.

Initially, recruiters are less likely to be able to help career changers than candidates with current, relevant experience in the roles companies seek to fill. Don't let this stop you, though, because smart companies often seek out candidates transitioning from one area of expertise to another. For example, a Software Engineer who becomes a Technical Writer can make IT industry hiring managers start a bidding war.

Q7: I've had some very promising interviews, but often never hear from the company again. Should I take this rejection personally?

A: Perhaps. If you don't sense that your interviewers share your enthusiasm, either you're alienating them or the job is not one you'd be happy having. Get a second opinion from a colleague (preferably not a friend or family member) about exactly what you heard and saw, and what you said and did. You may realize that you were so nervous that you didn't shut up, or that you got too comfortable, or that you contradicted yourself or said something that would give a potential boss reason to reconsider. If this is the case, don't blame yourself (or them) but try harder next time to control yourself.

Alternatively, if you sat silently and didn't actively express interest in and aptitude for the job, we can tell you right now what went wrong: you didn't sell yourself to the decision-makers.

If you were the perfect, enthusiastic professional and everything "felt right" in the interview, there's another plausible explanation. This one has nothing to do with you, and is increasingly common in the current climate of corporate fearfulness and beancounter-controlled hiring decisions. No, it's not that you're too expensive. It's that your would-be manager (who would probably hire you in a heartbeat) has no control over his or her budget. And more often than not, since the job opening for which you interviewed was posted, management's perception of the "most critical need" has shifted to another department, along with funding for a new hire. Until management's perception changes again and the spotlight is back on your boss-to-be, you've got no chance of being hired by that company.

The unfortunate truth is that most managers these days don't control their own budgets. Funding for new hires is allocated based entirely on senior management's perception of need. It's allocated on-the-fly and with no promise that the money will still be there when the hiring manager is ready to spend it. So unless that manager has advertised the job recently and interviewed the perfect (qualified, willing, available, and affordable) candidate, no one gets hired. Sound familiar?

This may appear to be a crazy way to run a company, but it lets management "stay responsive to the market while keeping tight reins on expenses," and Wall Street loves to see that. So don't expect public or IPO-minded companies to shape up any time soon — they need great candidates to remain interested and available, but can't afford (legally or financially) to make those candidates any promises. In our experience, young and private companies who aren't primping for their IPO are a little more considerate of their candidates — they tend to make hiring decisions faster and not go silent quite as often. And even when they do go silent, hiring managers at small companies are often swayed when they receive email from a great candidate saying "I enjoyed our interview but need your decision soon or I'm accepting an offer from your competition."

Q8: Where has Synergistech been all my life, and what can it do for me now?

A: Synergistech recruited technical communications professionals in the San Francisco Bay Area from January 1995 to November 16, 2001.

The neutron bomb that ended the dot-com boom left the buildings standing, but very few technical communicators survived. Synergistech went from having an average of 130 open staff and contract listings to fewer than five in the spring of 2001, devastating our formerly thriving six-person company. Instead of shutting down completely, however, we kept all our staff in place and stayed open for more than six more months, redirecting our efforts toward creating Life's Work Services, a resume-writing and interview-coaching enterprise.

Synergistech hibernated for a number of years, but continued to distribute technical communications-related job listings for free on behalf of hiring managers. The company's president, Andrew Davis, used that time to get a life, get married, move to New Zealand for six months, become a father, then set up shop in the Bay Area once again. We're now back in action, having retooled and refined our operations, and we're ready to help you build your career in any way we can.

Today's Synergistech remains focused on advancing the careers of Bay Area technical communications professionals. We can help those seeking work with our clients prioritize their job-searching efforts, and those who already have the skills our clients seek receive generous job and contract offers. We want to be your "go-to guys" for the most lucrative, stimulating, and fulfilling technical communications careers in the San Francisco Bay Area.

Most of our current clients develop enterprise software. In that context, here is a list of the professionals we recruit frequently:

And here are the kinds of technical communications professionals for whom we have only occasional opportunities:

Q9: I hear the old version of Synergistech did career coaching. Will Synergistech's new incarnation do so too?

A: Synergistech did indeed offer low-cost career coaching to aspiring and perspiring technical communicators, many of them seeking solutions to the Catch-22 of "no experience, therefore no job".

We have recently revived our one-on-one career coaching offering, and recommend it to those for whom the resources on this site prove insufficient. We continue to have lots of (informed) opinions and remain enthusiastic about helping people craft and/or land their dream job.

We wish to make clear, however, that our service is not meant to substitute for formal career counseling now available from many 'branded' sources. Since we began our informal coaching service in 1993, the field of career counseling has matured tremendously. It is now much more effective at assessing skills and guiding people to appropriate resources for developing them. As an example, Andrew's father (a Harvard MBA, author, and seasoned international consultant) recently earned an executive coaching degree — and we know better than to try to compete with his credentials. In addition, during the aforementioned nuclear winter, many of the resources to which we used to steer sincere seekers (such as the Career Action Center and Alumnae Resources/Lifeprint) simply vanished.

For those seeking referrals to accredited career counselors, we're happy to inform you that Synergistech Communications' and Life's Work Service's own Cliff Flamer now holds a Master's degree in Counseling and makes his living as a coach and resume writer. And Synergistech's former Office Manager and Assistant Recruiter, Nell Weatherwax, provides academic counseling to Arts students at the University of Indiana.

In this context, we're fully aware that it might seem pretentious to suggest that Andrew's insight could be part of a modern career-coaching solution. Please understand that we try only to complement what the pros can do by applying our in-depth understanding of the local technical services market. In the spirit of humility, we do not intend to market this service outside of this site.

Synergistech's career-coaching service is further described here.

Q10: Should I use a recruiter for my job search?

A: It depends. Assuming that you have the qualifications companies seek, no, you shouldn't use a recruiter if you are an experienced, well-connected jobseeker, have great negotiating skills, need to earn more than most companies are willing to pay a recruiter-represented candidate, and don't mind learning by trial-and-error.

On the other hand, yes, you should use a recruiter if you have no time to conduct your job search, lack interviewing or negotiating skills, don't have a viable network, or have a poor track record finding the job you want on your own.

Q11: Compared with the late 1990s, I'm seeing far fewer opportunities through third-party recruiters and many more directly from employers. Why is that? Do I limit myself if I conduct my job search only through recruiters?

A: Companies are more cost-conscious and not as well-funded as they were in the late '90s. They're saving money by hiring in-house recruiters or inexpensive contract "search researchers" who scour the job boards and "surface" candidates (but no more). Independent, full-service recruiters like Synergistech have their place, but typically are in most demand when the candidate supply has shrunk to the point where it takes a dedicated specialist to find a specific kind of needle in the haystack.

As of the Spring of 2006, there was once again a discernible need for Synergistech's services, but for almost a year after high-tech hiring resumed in earnest (in early 2005) most companies wouldn't even return our calls or, if they did, demanded deeply discounted commissions. The perception was that they could wade through stacks of resumes to find the candidate they wanted, so didn't need to waste money on us. Ask any experienced hiring manager today whether that's still true, and you'll hear that it isn't.

Should you limit your job search solely to opportunities presented by external recruiters? No, don't limit yourself that way unless you are being intensely picky and have the rare luxury of being able to take your time finding your next job. Recruiters' services cost companies a healthy percentage of your annual or hourly compensation, so hiring you will cost them less if you apply on your own.

Given its inherent disadvantages, why might you want to enlist Synergistech's help?

An effective recruiter such as Synergistech helps companies by educating them about candidates' skills, preferences, and compensation, challenging hiring managers to 'get real,' and then by screening candidates and presenting only those genuinely interested in, and demonstrably capable of excelling on, the job.

Synergistech helps you, the candidate, by clarifying the company's needs and then, if you're qualified, interested, and available, by marketing your skills and negotiating tenaciously on your behalf, as well as by counseling you so that you don't make expensive mistakes along the way. Our connections, experience as both individual contributors and working managers in the Tech Pubs trenches, and our perspective on the technology as well as employment markets all affect the advice we offer. Most people rely on us as much for that advice as for our actual recruiting efforts.

We've yet to see a job search that wasn't stressful, or a company's job description that told the whole truth about the culture or opportunity. If past experience is any predictor, Synergistech's candidates will continue to benefit from having a seasoned, respected recruiter on their side. Our insight, relationships, and negotiating expertise — before, during, and even after your job search — make us a worthwhile ally.

Q12: Are there some kinds of candidates recruiters just can't help?

A: Yes, there are. Recruiters are paid to find people with specific experience and skills who've proven themselves effective in a specific context. This means that a recruiter selects candidates based not only on their skills and experience, but also their motivations, temperament, track record, and goals. Recruiters typically must surrender their commission if their candidate quits or is terminated during their first 90 days on the job, so they tend to pay attention to any clues that a jobseeker isn't a complete match for a company's needs.

Here are some characteristics of candidates that Synergistech cannot help:

  1. Only an AS degree or a certificate
  2. Less than 18 months' relevant commercial experience
  3. Out-of-date skills (relative to hiring managers' current needs)
  4. Lukewarm, unreachable, or nonextant references
  5. "For cause" termination from a recent job or contract
  6. Lengthy unexplained absences from the workforce
  7. No portfolio samples (if seeking work as a technical communicator)

Synergistech typically can help candidates with all of the following characteristics:

  1. Four-year degree,
  2. At least two years' commercial experience,
  3. Marketable skills (relative to hiring managers' current needs),
  4. Good references from past employers/clients

Essentially, Synergistech doesn't create demand for its candidates nearly as well or as often as it matches real humans with superhuman expectations. Although we do market certain kinds of candidates proactively to our clients, our primary strength is in bringing realism and sane priorities to unrealistic job descriptions and then helping hiring managers find productive, skilled candidates who'll thrive in their jobs. We are unashamed to acknowledged that almost all our placements are creative compromises based on the well-informed trust of all parties.

Q13: Recruiters are asking me for my references, and even my Social Security Number and W2s, long before I've even been interviewed. I'm concerned, but don't know how to fend off such requests.

A: You're absolutely right to be concerned. Recruiters who demand references before they've secured you at least a second interview seldom have your best interests at heart. They're either insecure and on a power trip, mediocre and looking for leverage, or they're beginners reading a script. Beware.

Your decision to share your references with a recruiter boils down to whether you truly trust that recruiter. Remember, trust is not a right, but a privilege — it must be earned. And like a delicate object, once broken it's irreparable. When you learn what unscrupulous recruiters can do with this information, you'll think twice (or more) before sharing it.

Like most salespeople, recruiters are trained to exploit every source of leads available. To a hungry recruiter, your references are leads. So unprincipled recruiters won't think twice about calling your references and asking, not about how wonderful you are, but rather how that recruiter can help your reference either fill a position — maybe yours — or find another job him- or herself. Sleazy? Unethical? You bet. Common? Very. (This is the best reason we know for not including your references on your resume when you post it to job boards.

To decline a recruiter's untimely request for your references, try one or more of these responses:

  1. "I'll supply references once the company tells me it's ready to make me an offer."
  2. "I've been burned before by recruiters' indiscretion (or outright treachery), and won't take unnecessary risks until I've found a job I want."
  3. "Do you promise me your company will only contact my references about my candidacy, and not solicit further opportunities or try to recruit my references from their jobs? They know I'm working with you, and will let me know if you break your word."
  4. "My references get too many calls already, and will refuse to help me if I don't protect them. They've asked me to give out their information only to serious hiring managers. How serious is your client?"
  5. "I'm working with several agencies, and I have to ensure my references they don't get burnt out. I will only share my references with the agency that brings me an offer I want. That hasn't happened yet."

Regarding requests for your Social Security Number (SSN), if you're a contractor there is no reason to disclose this information to a recruiter before you accept a W2-based assignment with the recruiter's client company. (We recommend you fill out your own W-4 and I-9 forms rather than letting the recruiter do it for you.) If you're incorporated and seeking only corp-to-corp contracts, you're operating under your own company's tax ID number so your personal SSN is irrelevant. And if the recruiter proposes an arrangement in which their client pays them and then they pay you on a 1099 basis, refuse outright — it's the quickest way to get reclassified as an employee and presents a huge liability to both you and the company for which you're performing services. Learn why. Then learn how Synergistech uniquely solves this dilemma.

Incidentally, the IRS, your state's tax board, and your local unemployment office would be very happy to hear from you with details about a recruiter who orchestrates a three-party 1099 relationship where you are paid by the recruiter. You'll be ensuring that recruiter a nice long tax audit, and probably one for all its participating client companies and the candidates it has placed. The other way to sink a recruiter who's placed you on a 1099 project and paid you directly (rather than allowing the company to do so directly) is to file for unemployment after such a project.

Companies hiring you on a W2 basis, either as an onsite hourly worker or a salaried employee, may seek a background check before making you an offer. Larger companies do this more than small ones. They'll be interested in your criminal and driving record, education and employment history, evidence of drug usage and, if you'll be handling money, your credit report. If such a company requires a background check, they typically use a specialized third-party service, which in turn will request your SSN but is contractually bound to keep it secure and to destroy their records once the results are reported. The background checker's request is legitimate, assuming you're interested in employment with the company in question. But it is no reason to share your SSN with your recruiter. To be clear, you can give your SSN to a background-checking service but not to the recruiter helping you secure the job.

If a recruiter requests your prior year's W2s or tax forms as evidence of your current salary, just laugh. They have absolutely no legal right to this information. Tell them "if you don't believe me, you don't have to work with me." If he or she insists, walk away and advise everyone you know to do likewise. Worst case, hand the recruiter a completely redacted version of your tax return(s) — that is, black out every instance of personal information from the form(s).

Q14: I've heard that it's not kosher to get paid on a 1099 basis by a recruiter. Is this true and, if so, why and what do I have to lose?

A: Engaging in a three-party 1099-based relationship with a recruiter and their client and receiving a Form 1099 from the middleperson, while not technically illegal, virtually guarantees that you'll fail the 20 Questions test and that, if IRS, the state, or your employment tax office investigates, you'll be reclassified from an independent contractor to a W2 employee. This reclassification is a huge liability to both you as a contractor and the company for which you're performing services. Lots of less-informed recruiters and service providers don't know it, but they're putting both their contractors and clients at risk by paying workers this way. The specific tax law provision is Section 1706 of the 1986 Tax Reform Act. What it does, specifically, is remove the "benefit of the doubt" (with respect to independent contractor classification) from technical services providers working through recruiters or other middlepeople. In effect, the worker is automatically classified as an employee.

By paying you on a 1099 basis and not paying payroll taxes (unemployment and workers' comp insurance, social security taxes, and so on) or overtime, a middleperson saves their client money (presumably pocketing the majority of it), but they also make their client vulnerable to audits by their state unemployment department and tax board (in California, that's the EDD and FTB).

What's at stake? Companies served by contractors working on 1099 through middlepeople are almost certain to be penalized for not paying the worker's payroll taxes and employee-related benefits. There is ample precedent nationwide for penalties of up to 50 percent of the compensation originally paid, even if the contractors paid their own self-employment taxes and filed estimated taxes appropriately. Such audits get ugly fast, take a long time, and spread to other contractors the company engaged. In fact, fear of mis-categorizing contractors is one of the main reasons larger companies retain the services of "onsite agencies" and contractor-compliance services such as ABE (now WorkforceLogic), ManPower, Spherion, Adecco, and Kelly Services.

What do you, as a contractor, have to lose in a reclassification audit? At a minimum, your business-related tax deductions will be disallowed because you will have been recategorized as a W2 employee. W2 employees don't get to deduct commuting expenses, the costs of their tools and training, and lots of other investments in their business. As a W2 employee, your adjusted gross income (AGI) — and thus your tax bill — will be much larger.

Recruiters and other middlepeople are also likely to be caught up in such reclassification audits and bear the same responsibilities as the client company. We've seen agencies put out of business in this way. At the very least, they can expect never to work with the audited company again.

Apart from the perils of reclassification audits, Synergistech advises contractors being paid by their middleperson on a 1099 basis to take a very close look at their contract. In many such arrangements, middlepeople agree only to advance contractors their earnings, and retain the right to demand full repayment if their client should fail to honor the middleperson's invoice. Essentially, these intermediaries are fronting money to their 1099-based workers but — unlike with W2-based arrangements — remaining in control of whether that money is actually a loan or payment for services already rendered. In such situations, contractors risk getting into serious financial trouble by misunderstanding that their paycheck isn't actually theirs until the company pays the middleperson's invoice.

Q15: If working 1099 through a third party is so risky, why does Synergistech offer 1099-based contracts?

A: We're glad you asked, because we have an elegant solution that everyone who's used it likes. First of all, please bear in mind that the following information makes much more sense in the context of our response to Question 14.

The quick answer to this question is that, when it comes to orchestrating a 1099-based relationship between you and a company, Synergistech creates legal and business synergy — and we do it by disappearing once you sign your client's contract. We control nothing. We retain no leverage. Essentially, we aren't a third party at all, even though we've rendered all the services you'd expect of one (and more).

The more complete answer is that Synergistech has consulted with tax attorneys, California's Franchise Tax Board (FTB), and the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to come up with a solution that doesn't jeopardize the client company or the contractor. This system isn't complicated, but it relies on trust and full disclosure, which is why no other middlepeople have (to our knowledge) ever adopted it.

Here's what we do:

  1. Synergistech confers with the top candidates for a given project to determine an appropriate rate of pay for their services.
  2. We then negotiate an hourly rate for that contractor directly with the company.
  3. The company contracts directly with the contractor and pays them the negotiated rate.
  4. When the contractor gets paid, the contractor keeps the amount agreed to in our initial discussions and cuts us a check for the difference.
  5. The amount the contractor pays us is fully tax-deductible as a legal and marketing expense on line 17 of their Schedule C. That means that even though the client's 1099 to them shows a larger number, they only have to pay taxes on the amount they keep after paying us.

Here's why people like it:

  1. We collaborate with our candidates so they have input into their pay rate.
  2. Our "referral fee agreement" with the contractor explicitly states our markup percentage — nothing is secret.
  3. Contractors never need to worry that their independent contractor tax status will be jeopardized by Section 1706. In fact, the company engaging their services seldom has a formal contractual relationship with Synergistech, so no one can argue that the contractor is represented by a middleperson.
  4. We provide completed Forms 1099 and 1096 to contractors who send us more than $600 per year in January of the following year, showing Synergistech as the payee as well as the amount we received, and including instructions on how to file this form with IRS. It couldn't be simpler.
  5. In special cases we volunteer to restrict the term for which we are due our commission. In effect, if the contractor continues to work for the same company after that period has expired, he or she gets an automatic raise.

Our solution is further described here.

Q16: I want to work as a contractor, but all I'm seeing are staff opportunities for my skills. What should I do?

A: First, it helps to understand what motivates companies that say they want a staff employee. Companies with short-term requirements and project-based funding prefer to hire contractors to get a discrete deliverable out the door then say goodbye. Companies with longer-term requirements often prefer to add to their 'permanent' teams a resource who can work on multiple projects across multiple product lines. Relative to staff employees, contractors are paid from a different budget line item — partly because they don't require training, insurance, office space, equipment, or payroll services — and cost a company less in the near term. But all else being equal, in the longer-term — longer than three months, on average — it tends to be more cost-effective to hire a salaried employee.

To market your services on a contract basis to companies seeking a staff employee, you have to differentiate yourself from candidates likely to accept salaried work. Convince a company that you're faster, more knowledgeable, more reliable, and more efficient, and you might get an interview. As hiring managers get impatient, especially with the lack of qualified would-be employees, your inquiries may generate more responses.

Here are tips on how to engage a hiring manager seeking a staffer when you're not willing to go captive:

  1. Demonstrate empathy. Show that you understand that the manager would prefer to hire an employee. If you don't do this, you're inviting the manager to discount your inquiry as misinformed and simply delete your email or voicemail. Empathy buys you the opportunity to sell yourself.
  2. Read the job description and demonstrate interest in the details of the specific opportunity. Too many contractors come across as undiscerning and hungry. How would you feel if someone called trying to sell you something you've explicitly told the world you don't want?
  3. Explain concisely how your skills and experience relate to the company's needs.
  4. Discuss how you'd make yourself available to the company to meet the team, come up to speed, and ensure their success.
  5. If (and only if) you'd be willing to consider a staff opportunity after an initial contract, say so.
  6. Offer to prove your value by providing relevant work samples, references, and even performing a short (say, 3-4 hour) demo project for free. If those work samples are bound by a non-disclosure agreement, see our answer to Question 41.
  7. If the hiring manager is not currently able to give you an answer, ask whether you may follow up in a week or two to inquire whether the opportunity is still available and possibly discuss it further.

Above all, don't lie. For example, if you only want an offsite, short-term contract, don't pretend you're willing to accept anything else. Not only will you poison the well for others who fully intend to keep their word, but you will damage your own future marketability. High-tech people (especially managers) talk, and word spreads fast.

Q17: Is there a "hot" time of year for contract hiring?

A: Yes, historically there have been better times of the year than others for contract hiring. Contract opportunities tend to abound in January and February (before annual budgets take shape) and after October, when people start taking vacations and staff hiring decisions take longer to make. Contract hiring during the summer is often slow.

When many companies all take aim at the same target, a shortage of qualified staff employees ensues and contractors get hired to make sure teams can meet their promised ship dates. When companies find too few qualified candidates for staff positions and 'time to market' is at a premium, hiring managers are more likely to get impatient and hire contractors. See our answer to the previous question for ways to improve your chances with companies who'd prefer to hire captive employees.

Q18: I've been at my job for three years and am not gaining new skills. What should I do?

A: If your skills and professional responsibilities haven't changed substantially, three years at any company is long enough. No one will accuse you of job-hopping if you consistently stay with your employers for two or three years. More to the point, we have found that candidates who stay too long in a job where they aren't evolving professionally quickly lose their ability to compete for the top jobs in that technology sector.

One informal benchmark we suggest is that if less than 25 percent of your responsibilities and skills change in any 12-month period, you're probably not keeping up with the market. If there's no opportunity for you to learn and put into practice more current skills, we strongly advise you to consider alternative employment. Unless you have a guarantee that you can retire from your current job, don't kid yourself that your loyalty will be reciprocated. To the contrary, it will probably be exploited. And falling behind technologically will almost certainly compromise your future earning potential. In other words, standing still is not an option in an evolving industry like technology.

Q19: What hiring trends do you see in the current tech pubs market in Silicon Valley?

A: Before answering, a disclaimer: we're recruiters, and recruiting services cost companies money. Companies don't ask for our help hiring easy-to-find talent. They pay us to find them people who are too busy to respond to their own in-house recruiters' solicitations or who simply are too rare for them to find on their own. We'd never pretend that the jobs and contracts we're asked to fill are representative of the broader market for tech pubs services — just the segments in which local demand exceeds supply.

That said, as of summer 2006, the technical publications job market is very warm for heavily technical individual contributors. Salaries are heading higher for these people than they did during the dot-com boom of the late 90s. By contrast, the market is still tepid for almost everyone else.

In general, individual contributors serving a technical audience are the most marketable. Technical communicators fare best if they are individual contributors rather than managers (even "working" managers), as well as if they've stayed current with developer documentation trends (especially content management system implementation and embedded (in-source) help systems done with JavaDoc or Doxygen), and structured authoring. Publications managers can stand out if they are also current with translation/localization issues as well as managing distributed teams.

An aside about usability and interface design: we know several pubs managers who have gotten involved with user-experience (UX) work — mostly product interface design and usability issues — and want to further refine that skill set. In our experience, however, most companies haven't acknowledged the importance of this perspective and aren't paying competitively for hybrid tech pubs/UX-savvy managers. They tend to leave UI work to the actual implementers (typically developers with tools skills such as Swing and Flash) rather than those who've actually surveyed and tried to understand the users' requirements. We're praying that some measure of maturity takes hold in the post-Bust corporate mindset and that companies lose their arrogance regarding customers' needs. Too few actually let their pubs people listen to, let alone survey and collaborate with, this vital community. Until companies routinely get tech pubs involved in finding out what customers actually want, and what already works, pubs' role will remain a volatile, oft-resented, and expense- rather than profit-generating one.

Read more specifics about our job market predictions for 2007 here.

Q20: Where do you gather information on which to base your opinions about the market?

A: That's a fair question. We gather information directly from our customers. Specificaly, we speak and correspond by email and instant messenger (MSN, Yahoo, GoogleTalk, Skype, and AIM) with lots of jobseekers and people whose companies are trying to hire, regardless of whether these companies have a budget for independent recruiters such as Synergistech. We also attend meetings of the Society for Technical Communication (STC)'s Silicon Valley, East Bay, Berkeley, San Francisco, and North Bay chapters each month, and sometimes one or more SIG meetings as well. Although we are eternally skeptical and therefore reluctant to characterize what we see and hear as 'the truth' — as opposed to what others want us, or are being led, to believe — we're confident that through these interactions we're gaining an increasingly accurate picture of the local market for the types of candidates we represent.

We also pay close attention to the technical trade press and venture capitalists' investment activity, to keep current on which local market sectors will need the kinds of resources we can introduce.

Q21: What traits do employers look for in "staff" hires these days?

A: Aside from the specific experience with technologies and tools identified in the job description, companies typically evaluate the following "intangible" characteristics of prospective employees:

  1. Are your skills current or were they last used several years ago?
  2. Have you stayed employed for reasonable lengths of time (18-36 months), or jumped around every six-to-12 months? If the latter, are there valid reasons?
  3. Have you been at your current company for too long (over five years)? Companies find that such individuals often prove resistant to actually leaving — even if they claim otherwise.
  4. If you have been contracting recently, the employer may need to be convinced your reasons for entering "captivity" will result in longevity and a good fit.
  5. Are you local? Local is always simpler, cheaper, and faster. Regardless of whether the company pays for relocation, many more things can go wrong with an out-of-state candidate.
  6. Are your interpersonal communication skills compatible with the company's needs? Even geeks need to communicate, and if your peers can't understand or trust you, problems will ensue quickly.
  7. Will this position be a step up for you, or a step down or sideways? If either of the latter two, hiring managers will require extra persuasion that you're not a flight risk.
  8. Have you worked for quality, culturally compatible companies of a similar size in the same or a similar industry? Corporate culture conflicts are hard to resolve.
  9. Assuming you are currently employed, do you have a valid reason for seeking to leave your current job — such as seeking more responsibility, not being able to expand your skills, or working for an unstable company? If your reason is "I'm always looking", "I want more money", or "I want more time for myself", history proves that you'll be easily swayed when it comes time to walk into your current boss's office to say "I quit".
  10. Is your overall length and depth of industry experience compatible with their needs? A smart hiring manager should be wary of title inflation.
  11. Have you pursued ongoing professional development and formal education, and have you attained certifications appropriate to the role you will play?
  12. Are your salary expectations reasonable? Know what you need before the subject comes up, and beware the manager who suggests that you conform to Radford's regional compensation surveys. The latter are paid for by companies themselves and (from the perspective of Bay Area candidates) seem skewed toward the low end of the range.
  13. Can you start within two or three weeks of accepting the company's offer?
  14. Are you willing to make a decision about an offer within 24 hours of receiving it?
  15. Would hiring you simplify or complicate you employer's life in the near term? You'd be surprised at how many candidates make their employers' lives more difficult than necessary.

Q22: Are keywords the way to get my resume noticed, and if so how should I integrate them?

A: Most Human Resources staff and in-house recruiters are too busy to read the resumes they're sent. Given that everyone's resume is electronic these days, companies use database-driven applicant-tracking systems (ATS) to store submitted resumes and run keyword queries to decide whether to spend the time actually reading what you've written. In this context it makes sense to include in your resume as many relevant acronyms, product names, and technical phrases (collectively known as "keywords") as you can. The more keywords you can include, the more likely someone searching for the kind of experience you have is to notice and act on your candidacy.

There's a right and a wrong way to include keywords. We've seen resumes with 50+ lines of technology industry terms, often buried at the end in tiny type and completely devoid of context. This technique might get your resume noticed, but it also sends the signal that you are desperately trying to fool the tool. We don't recommend this strategy because it's unfocused, unhelpful, and unprofessional.

The right way to incorporate keywords in your resume is to include a section in each job or contract entry that allows you to elaborate on the tools, technologies, and subject material with which you gained experience. This is a separate section from your accomplishments or deliverables, and lets you mention the context in which you used or learned the specified skill. We recommend section titles such as "Tools used" or "Skills gained", in addition to "Key accomplishments" or "Major deliverables" (suitable subtitles for the core content of each job or contract entry).

Given that recruiters select candidates based on what they know and have accomplished, are too busy for their own good, and usually don't know much about technology, we recommend that you don't make them think or use their imaginations. If you want to draw attention to your experience with customer relationship management software, for example, don't hesitate to include the acronym ("CRM") and, if you worked for a less well-known company, mention that company's competitors (eg, Siebel, SalesForce.com, Oracle). Then add details of the database and operating system underlying the application with which you worked. If you documented this software, mention the types of deliverables you wrote (eg, HTML-based online help, developers' reference, installation manual, getting started guide, white paper) and the audience for whom you created them (eg, end users, integrators, software engineers, database administrators, decision-makers).

Above all, tell the truth. If we ask you to tell us about your experience with any technology, tool, or subject listed in your resume and you can't, your credibility is shot.

Q23: Will Synergistech always remain focused solely on placing technical commnicators? If not, what are your longer-term plans?

A: The suddenness with which the lights went out during the last economic downturn taught us a painful lesson. We realize in retrospect that, no matter how effective and respected we were, we depended too completely on a professional sub-specialty that most CxOs still regard as a necessary evil. The truth is that technical publications is one of the last-hired, first-fired professions because it has consistently failed to prove its value as a profit center to decision-makers and corporate 'money people.' Until that situation changes, and more managers who know us and respect what we do actually control their own hiring budgets, Synergistech must work to evolve from its current niche into a full-service recruiter of higher-value talent, ideally on a worldwide basis.

We are exploring our potential role in recruiting biotech and medical writers, have begun cultivating contacts in the venture capitalist (VC) community, and have already completed successful searches for Director- and VP-level software development professionals with a view to diversifying and becoming a full-spectrum IT recruiting service. Without making promises to clients for whom we undertake such quests, we have so far had the opportunity to recruit Chief Technology Officers (CTOs), Directors, Systems Architects, Software Engineers, Network Administrators, and QA Specialists on three continents. Building on our reputation for diligence, integrity, responsiveness, and candor, we're forging stronger relationships with our existing clients and candidates with the intention, ultimately, of serving a worldwide audience.

Regardless of how Synergistech's market focus evolves, our newly automated processes and intensified networking and industry research efforts should ensure that the next recession finds us better prepared to weather another multi-year drought for technical communications professionals. Consistent with our desire to survive that inevitable event, we've turned the company into a fully distributed and geographically transparent enterprise so that, should the need arise, we can relocate and operate from a cheaper locale.

Q24: Why do some local employers require a drug test before they'll hire me, and what is Synergistech's stance on the issue?

A: Silicon Valley companies know that recreational drug use isn't as big a no-no here as it is elsewhere in the country, but some still demand that prospective employees pee in a cup before they'll generate an offer letter. This isn't their mean-spirited plan to constrain your freedom. Indeed this policy actually makes it substantially more difficult for them to hire the employees they need, which leaves them at a competitive disadvantage.

Why then persist in invading their employees' privacy? In most cases, companies requiring pre-employment drug screens do so because it is a requirement of the companies or government agencies with which they do a substantial amount of business. If they declined to "ensure a drug-free workplace" they would not be eligible to compete for these organizations' contracts and their profit margins would be compromised. Another reason companies adopt such policies is to reduce their own liability insurance premiums, which also affects their profitability. Regardless, the decision is less ideological than it is profit-driven.

Synergistech's stance is that no one should compromise his or her personal beliefs and values to fit in with a company's culture. If you want to preserve your right to use the substances a given company considers off-limits, simply say 'no' when asked to sign the relevant releases and contracts. We'll back you up 100 percent. In our experience, failing to stand up for your rights will lead to resentment and frustration, neither of which is conducive to a productive and enjoyable working environment. Regardless of a company's reasons, just because they're offering to pay for your services doesn't mean you have to be beholden. So get clear on what matters to you regarding your personal freedoms — ideally before you apply to a job that intends to challenge them — and let Synergistech help you remain true to them.

Q25: So many recruiters appear greedy, ill-informed, and unreliable. Why, and is Synergistech different?

A: Your impressions are widely shared. Most recruiters are salespeople and generalists with little patience for or interest in understanding their market or 'product' (that's you, the candidate). Their motivation is to make money quickly and effortlessly, so they solicit business from client companies then scurry to match keywords with resumes on job boards using regurgitated job descriptions. Often, recruiters collaborate with account executives on their team who handle the actual soliciting of client companies' job orders and presentation and marketing of candidates, so the recruiters themselves have no first-hand knowledge of what the client really needs or whether they're willing to compromise constructively. Result: uninformed, unhelpful, opportunistic "service" that hits the bullseye about as often as a blindfolded dart-thrower.

Most recruiting firms compensate for their lack of understanding and industry focus with the "shotgun" approach — a pure numbers game where the goal is to shoot at many targets in hopes of hitting at least one. Add to this scenario the cashflow-driven decision many recruiters make to provide only contract placement ("staff augmentation") services even though they know companies prefer to hire employees, and it's no wonder that recruiters charge predatory rates when they finally make a match. Nor is it any surprise that their attention span rivals that of a gnat on speed; they have no incentive to deal with 'high-maintenance' companies or candidates.

Put another way, most recruiters are parasites. Only the best are symbiotic. Among the latter, only a few are capable of creating synergy — mutual benefit beyond what either could accomplish individually. Synergistech routinely creates synergy.

Synergistech really is different. We're sharpshooters, not shotgun artists. We don't make idle promises, nor do we lose interest when the going gets tough. We even guarantee our work. We're well-informed, honest, and candid. We give our clients what they need, and we don't manipulate. In fact, as former technical communicators and hiring managers ourselves, we possess unique understanding of and empathy for both our clients and the candidates we serve.

By focusing on our relationship with committed technical communications professionals, rather than on generating immediate profits, we can be the kind of "career ally" most technical communicators tell us they seek. The advice and assistance we routinely provide generate gratitude and loyalty, not to mention insights and opportunities to provide for-profit service, that are simply unavailable to the narcissistic, what-can-you-do-for-me recruiters with whom we compete. Hiring managers tell us they look forward to working with us, and candidates know they're respected and will be dealt with fairly.

Sure, our approach takes more effort than most recruiters can conceive of providing (let alone for free), but it also yields results for all parties and keeps us both relevant and prosperous. It's worked well for ten years, and we expect it to keep working for many more.

Q26: My company wants to offshore my job. How can I persuade management to reconsider?

A: Managers typically seek to offshore (that is, outsource to a foreign country such as India or China) work currently performed in the US because they believe doing so will result in the same quality output for a dramatically lower price. When it comes to technical communication, here's how to challenge their assumptions.

  1. Will the product generated offshore meet the needs of the products' users? Many companies have discovered that documentation created in, say, India needs to be substantially rewritten for business users in the US, erasing any labor-cost savings.
  2. Will the company's intellectual property (IP) be secure? Most countries don't have the same IP and copyright protection as the US, and India and China are gaining notoriety for such theft.
  3. If intending to work through an outsourcing company, does their team require a deposit to begin work and if so how does it guarantee that the work will be completed? "Control of the money" is a serious issue because US companies are routinely conned by intermediaries operating under a different legal system, removing familiar protections and remedies.
  4. Who will review the work and provide quality assurance? Are those reviewing documentation created offshore Business English-speaking writers with the appropriate technical expertise to ensure the content actually makes sense? In most cases, if these kinds of resources are even available, their services will erase a company's cost savings.

In short, caveat emptor. There are many ways in which US companies seeking cost savings abroad can be exploited. At the very least, the US-based project-management effort alone will likely monopolize at least twice as many people as it does currently.

Q27: Does Synergistech alter my resume before sending it out to hiring managers?

A: Synergistech replaces your contact information with its own before sending your resume to hiring managers. That's one of the reasons we prefer to receive it in Microsoft Word format. In addition, if you ask us and we agree, or if we feel it will substantially benefit your candidacy with one or more of our clients, we will suggest wording or formatting changes to your resume. You always get the chance to review any changes we suggest; we'll distribute only the version that you have approved.

If we feel that your resume needs more substantial attention, we will recommend to you the services of a resume-writing service whose principal Andrew trained and whose expertise he strongly endorses.

Q28: Are the pricetags on your job listings the actual amount I will earn after Synergistech's commission?

A: The salaries and hourly rates we include in our job listings are the amounts you keep. In other words, they are the amounts you will earn regardless (that is, net) of our commission.

Synergistech cannot promise that its clients will pay the full amount we advertise to whomever they hire; that always depends on how completely a candidate's skills, experience, availability, and aptitude match the company's requirements. The numbers we post are the maximum the hiring manager has informed us they are prepared to pay for the right person, and we share that information with you because:

  1. we want you to know how much you can earn (net of our commission) in that position
  2. we don't want to tease hiring managers with candidates who require more money than the company can pay
  3. we want to show hiring managers how much of their money you'll actually keep

Synergistech's placement fee for helping a company fill a staff/salaried/FTE job is paid separately by the company, usually after your probationary period has ended. For W2-based contracts, Synergistech's commission is paid directly by the employer-of-record service we agree (with you and the hiring company) to use, and is not contingent on anything other than your timecard being approved. (W2-based contract and staff employee compensation is, of course, subject to payroll taxes so the net amount of your paycheck will be lower than for comparable 1099-based work.) For 1099-based contracts, Synergistech's commission comes out of the gross pay rate you receive from the company after you have invoiced it for your services. For the rest of the story about how Synergistech works with 1099-based independent contractors, see our answer to Question 15 in this FAQ, as well as this article.

Q29: What is Synergistech's markup?

A: Synergistech limits its profit to no more than 20 percent of the rate companies pay to the candidates we introduce. Here's how our markup translates into dollars and cents:

  1. For 1099-based contracts, if you keep $50/hr, Synergistech earns $10/hr.
  2. For W2-based contracts, if you keep $50/hr, Synergistech earns $10/hr and your client pays $69.50/hr for your services. Relative to a 1099 arrangement, the additional $9.50/hr — or 19 percent — covers all the employer's legal obligations, including state and federal payroll taxes, unemployment insurance, worker's compensation insurance, general liability insurance, and often other specialized coverages your client may demand, as well as the cost of processing and mailing your paycheck and paying you at least a month (and sometimes as many as three months) before the client pays us.
  3. For staff/salaried/FTE placements, if you earn a base salary of $50,000/year, Synergistech earns $10,000 regardless of any bonuses or other incentives (such as stock options, extra vacation time, or relocation assistance) you may be granted.

If you are contracting (see 'a' or 'b,' above) and your client seeks to convert you to staff employment status, and you agree, Synergistech earns a conversion fee equal to its negotiated staff placement commission (see 'c,' above) minus the amount we have earned in profit since the contract began.

If you're curious about who pays whom, when, and why, please refer to our answer to Question 28.

Q30: How can Synergistech help me find work?

A: Synergistech helps candidates in the following ways:

Q31: Will you call me with suitable opportunities?

A: Typically, Synergistech does not call candidates about a specific opportunity unless we know you are uniquely qualified and have worked with you successfully in the past. The more you tell us about your skills, accomplishments, interests, and compensation requirements, the more likely we are to pick up the phone even before we write up a job description. We fill approximately half our contract listings before we publish the posting to our site or email distribution lists because we recognize that the hiring manager's needs are a 90+ percent match for one or more of the candidates with whom we've already worked.

Q32: How long will my resume remain active with Synergistech?

A: Unlike most companies, Synergistech retains your resume forever. We ask that you periodically update the resume we have on file for you and brief us about your availability, the kinds of opportunities you seek and skills you prefer to use, as well as your compensation requirements, so that we can fine-tune our efforts on your behalf. We can leave you subscribed to our email distribution lists, or simply update your 'available date' in our database, so that you are neither forgotten nor solicited for opportunities that may not be appropriate.

Q33: What does Synergistech expect from me?

A: Synergistech expects you to provide us with an accurate resume, at least two verifiable professional references, and access to portfolio samples to which you contributed exactly as you claim. We also expect you to be clear, honest, and prompt in your communication with us about your qualifications for and interest in opportunities to which you respond. We strongly prefer that you not 'talk money' with companies to which we introduce you, that you let us negotiate compensation on your behalf, and that you not introduce anyone else to such companies except through us. And we require that you keep all details of your interactions with our client companies confidential between you, the hiring organization, and Synergistech.

Synergistech's only other expectations are that you to do your best to meet or exceed its clients' needs, that you conduct yourself professionally at all times, and that you consult with Synergistech first whenever you require assistance in areas coinciding with our expertise and interests.

Q34: Does Synergistech require contractors to sign non-compete or exclusivity clauses?

A: Synergistech does not constrain its candidates' ability to practice their craft in any way. Our agreement with our contractors does not restrict your right to work for our clients' competition for any period following the project's conclusion, although it is possible that our client may ask both its contractors and staff employees to sign a non-compete agreement. We cannot comment on their right to make that request, and leave the decision regarding whether to accept these terms entirely up to you.

Regarding exclusivity — the practice of allowing you to accept work for a given company only through us — Synergistech's agreement with its candidates specifies that they not independently solicit or seek employment with companies to which we've introduced them for six months after that introduction. This period coincides with the 'agency ownership' term specified in most companies' recruiting agreements. You may exclude any specific prior contacts and alternate sources from this provision by first informing Synergistech in writing. If you do so, and wish to approach those contacts independently during the six-month 'blackout' period, Synergistech will readily explain to its client that you are doing so with its express permission and that the company should consider you 'unaffiliated' for that specific contact.

Q35: Will Synergistech pay a W2-based contractor even though the client may not yet have paid you?

A: Yes. Synergistech's employer-of-record service pays contractors within five days of receiving their approved timecard. It typically takes between 30 and 90 days to collect payment from our clients. If you're a contractor but can't afford to wait more than a couple days for payment, we recommend that you work for our clients as a W2-based contractor.

Q36: As a Synergistech contractor or candidate, if I introduce someone to our client, must they work through you?

A: Yes, Synergistech expects you to introduce us to any candidates you believe are a good match for our mutual client, and to let us represent that candidate directly. We will happily pay you a referral fee should a candidate you've referred get hired.

We have explicit written agreements with our clients specifying that they not solicit our candidates or contractors for referrals. As Synergistech's candidate or contractor, you too agree that if you are asked for suggestions about who might be qualified to fill a specific role at a client company, you will refer the requestor directly to us, notify us immediately of the company's inquiry, and not assist the company further in this matter until and unless we give you written approval.

In our view, Synergistech's connections are unfairly exploited when our candidates comply with client companies' opportunistic and ethically questionable attempts to mine their professional networks. We've seen this innocent-sounding but fundamentally dishonest and exploitative practice occur far too often not to draw it to your attention and clarify our expectations of both parties. We respectfully seek your cooperation in this matter.

Q37: Do you provide W2-based contractors with benefits?

A: Synergistech used to payroll its W2-based contractors itself, but we got tired of lending money for free to companies that were already orders of magnitude richer than we could ever hope to become. We now use an excellent employer-of-record (EOR) company that provides not only superlative service but also great benefits to W2'd workers. Those benefits include instant eligibility for the following:

Synergistech's preferred EOR service is lean and inexpensive. As such, it does not provide W2 contractors the following benefits:

If you have specific questions about the benefits Synergistech makes available to W2-based contractors, please ask.

Q38: Does Synergistech collaborate with other recruiters?

A: Yes, but very selectively. Most recruiters' tactics and sheer ignorance make our skin crawl. Some, however, have sufficient humility, respect for the candidate, and understanding of their clients' needs that they make appropriate business partners.

Typically, another recruiter approaches us hoping to be introduced to qualified 'staff' candidates. They usually offer us a 50:50 split of the commission, and handle all interactions with their client themselves. All they ask is the right resume. If Synergistech opts to participate, we demand that they not add the resumes of our candidates to their database, and we also do a lot more than they expect — including closely monitoring their interactions with our candidates all the way through the interviews to the offer. One ethical lapse or other professional mis-step, including any attempt to poach, solicit, or otherwise exploit our candidate's network, and we call the deal off. We've had to do this a number of times already, much to our candidates' frustration.

Synergistech has been approached by numerous independent recruiters seeking contract candidates, but the insulting hourly rates offered to the workers we could have introduced have always discouraged us from sharing our network. As we explain when they ask why we're not sending them any resumes, the damage done to our reputation by posting even a single opportunity paying less-than-fair wages simply isn't worth the possible profit. Even if we were not to profit at all, the usurious markups charged by other agencies — combined with their cluelessness about what pay rate is fair and realistic — make most contract placement 'services' inappropriate business partners. It's no wonder to us that candidates are so disgusted by most of our competitors in the marketplace.

Given the levels of integrity and professionalism common among recruiters, Synergistech has more to gain by letting its competitors starve. We extend our apologies to those candidates and companies who may be impacted by our stance.

Q39: Does Synergistech place technical communicators outside the San Francisco Bay Area?

A: Synergistech focuses on matching candidates in the San Francisco Bay Area with local companies for several reasons:

That said, our ability to evaluate technical communicators' skills, abilities, and overall effectiveness as well as to interview hiring managers about their requirements and priorities is the same throughout the English-speaking world, so should the opportunity arise to make matches outside the SF Bay Area, we will pursue it. Our acceptance of non-Bay Area assignments will, however, likely come with caveats because we seek, above all, to cultivate trust and loyalty, and are the first to acknowledge that we are comparatively under-informed about the subtleties of other technology markets.

Q40: Does Synergistech place people who aren't technical communicators?

A: Seldom, although we're slowly diversifying.

Synergistech will focus on what we know best until we gain a comparable level of subject matter knowledge in a professional domain other than technical communications. We're keenly aware that other professional arenas can benefit from the way we recruit — we've been asked to fill CTO, Director, Systems Architect, Software Engineer, Network Administrator, and QA Specialist positions — but are just as sure we don't know enough (yet) about those domains, nor are we sufficiently well-connected within them, to be able to play the role of advisor to candidate and hiring manager alike. Until we can do that, we won't solicit non-technical communications assignments and will only accept them from our clients with the caveat that we are 'in training'. Although non-technical communications positions may appear with the rest of our listings, they will remain our secondary priority until further notice.

Candidly, the other reasons we're taking our time to transition into a firm that does more than purely technical communications placement are:

For information on the kind of recruiting firm into which we hope to evolve, see our answer to Question 23.

Q41: How do I comply with requests for my portfolio when that work is covered by an NDA (Non-Disclosure Agreement)?

A: Consider this scenario: You have applied for a job or contract that exactly matches your skills and recent experience. The hiring manager responds, acknowledging the relevance of your background and expressing interest in seeing appropriate examples of your work. You'd love to provide evidence that your resume's claims are justified, but the work that would impress the hiring manager most is restricted by a non-disclosure agreement (NDA).

You're stuck, right?

Wrong. Here are some ways to convince the hiring manager you've done what you claim without compromising the confidentiality to which you've agreed with a former client or employer or exposing you to liability:

  1. Have your would-be client or employer sign the same NDA that you signed. It's a good idea to keep a copy of what you signed originally, or an unsigned NDA from your former client or employer, for exactly this purpose.
  2. Retain an electronic copy of the deliverables you create for all your clients and employers, then 'neuter' a copy of what you kept by changing all the proprietary details (perhaps by substituting the names of Disney characters) so that the reader cannot gain access to intellectual property, but will still be able to understand what you wrote and appreciate how you presented it.
  3. Scan redacted (that is, blacked out) hardcopy of your work, save it in Acrobat format and lock the document so it can't be printed, copied, exported, or altered, then put the file on a password-protected web site that you control. Supply the URL and password information to your potential client or employer.
  4. Ask your former employer or client for permission to share certain parts of deliverables you created on their behalf. Show them the actual documents (pages, chapters, books) you plan to share with others. If the material is sufficiently dated, vague, or irrelevant to their current activities, they may agree to share it. If they do, get the permission in writing and share it with your prospect.

Here are more detailed suggestions about how to proceed when your portfolio's content is proprietary.

Q42: Why are there so few tech comms jobs available in downtown San Francisco?

A: San Francisco offers a lifestyle that many technical communicators prefer. It's culturally and socially vibrant, you don't need to own a car to get around, and it's beautiful. Those advantages cause some San Francisco residents to decline all technical communications opportunities that aren't either in the City, reachable by BART or CalTrain, or telecommuting-friendly. They comb Craig's List for work in downtown San Francisco and quickly realize that listings are sparse and often don't pay as well as those on the peninsula or further south.

Part of the reason is supply and demand. Employers know they don't have to offer as many incentives to find great talent when the work is in San Francisco. Candidates have told us that not having to register and insure a car, let alone deal with traffic and parking, is worth ten percent of their annual gross income. For many candidates, 'quality of life' issues outweigh earning power — and companies take advantage of this fact.

The other part of the reason is that San Francisco has notoriously company-hostile employment laws. Not only do employers have to pay an additional one percent local employment tax, but rents are high and space is very limited. Employers say they are treated as deep-pocketed benefactors from which the City feels it is entitled to make endless demands. From most technology industry employers' point of view, locating in San Francisco is a luxury that becomes unaffordable as soon as the company grows beyond the startup stage.

Q43: Does Synergistech present more than one candidate for a given job or contract?

A: Yes, we do. We realize that most listings we post are so demanding that no one candidate is a perfect match. We seek to give hiring managers a choice between imperfect alternatives. This doesn't mean we drown them in resumes, or play bait-and-switch games (or any games at all), but it reflects our intention to show the hiring manager the alternatives available so he or she can be confident of making an informed choice. Without viable alternatives, and thus an accurate sense of any given candidate's comparative pros and cons, it is often too easy for hiring managers to make no choice at all.

Synergistech will only present a single candidate for an opportunity when we are unable to find anyone else with comparable skills willing to work on the hiring manager's terms. In these cases, we'll often discuss with hiring managers the challenges we've encounter in our search and offer them the option of altering their requirements. For more information, refer to our answer to Question 44.

Q44: Should I apply for a posted job or contract even if I'm not a perfect match, or the pricetag isn't sufficient?

A: Yes, you should apply if you're interested and mostly qualified. Just be candid about the ways in which the posted listing isn't a perfect match for your skills or, if your issue is with the pricetag or working arrangement, tell us whether and how you'd be willing to compromise. Don't make us guess, and definitely don't surprise us with that information later in the process.

Given that Synergistech's listings are so demanding, we strongly encourage you to respond to a listing that isn't a perfect match for your skills, abilities, or financial requirements if you possess the majority of the opportunities' requirements and are committed to doing the kind of work described. If you respond informing us about your 'shortcomings' and/or what you want that isn't in line with the posted description, and we consider you a competitive candidate, we'll likely agree to introduce you (with your caveats).

For example, if a job demands 100 percent onsite work and requires that you have experience with, say, Perforce and Structured FrameMaker, and you're interested and otherwise qualified, simply apply with a note that specifies the areas in which you fall short of perfection and how you're willing to compromise (if at all). In this example, if you'd be willing to work onsite for three months initially in exchange for the right to telecommute one or two days a week thereafter, or to bring yourself up to speed with Perforce 'off the clock,' tell us that. Alternatively, if the posted pricetag is low relative to your needs but you're otherwise well-qualified, tell us what you'd prefer to earn to make the opportunity attractive.

In high-tech hiring, constructive compromise is often possible as long as the hiring manager's needs are met.

Q45: Why do some of Synergistech's contract positions pay less than I could get on my own?

A: That's a fair question. We acknowledge that some of our contracts' pricetags are low by comparison with projects secured without the help of an intermediary. In other words, we know our clients would pay higher prices than those we post to candidates they find without our help.

The simple answer is that our services aren't free — except to you, our candidates — and hiring managers' budgets aren't as elastic as everyone might wish. So some of the money you would earn if you had learned about the opportunity through a friend actually ends up in our pocket. To offset the impact of our commission, we educate hiring managers about what the candidates expect to earn, and also disclose plainly the amount the successful candidate will keep relative to what the company pays for your services. We explain our commission structure and, if appropriate, W2-related employment costs, so managers know where their money will go.

In spite of our efforts to secure more competitive rates for you while not sacrificing our livelihood, many hiring managers ask us to post their listings at what they understand might be sub-par prices and simply 'hope for the best.' As you might imagine, they're not always happy that we disclose in our postings the pay rate they consider appropriate, but as we discuss here, we remain committed to full disclosure — which, among other things, means not misleading, under-informing, or coercing candidates to work for less than they might prefer.

Q46: I'm a contractor. Should I consider incorporating, and why or why not?

A: Incorporating your business proves to your clients that you are more committed to your trade than the average services vendor. Pragmatically, engaging an incorporated entity relieves your client of most of the risks associated with independent contractor compliance because you become your own employee and thus liable for all related payroll and tax filings.

As an incorporated business, you qualify for 'corp-to-corp' or vendor status on projects with companies that would otherwise have insisted that you be payrolled (either by them or their onsite contractor-compliance vendor). This translates into higher hourly rates, and frequently more work, for you as well as the not-insignificant right to bill more than eight hours per day, or 40 hours per week, without falling afoul of the overtime rules. (Companies seldom approve invoices that include 'time-and-a-half' charges without putting up a fight.)

In Synergistech's view, incorporating — as an LLC, Subchapter 'S', or 'C' corporation — is a good idea in the following circumstances:

Apart from the insurance and paperwork considerations, the process of incorporating (where?, how?) as well as learning the bookkeeping chores isn't a trivial challenge. We strongly recommend finding a good accountant, if you don't have one already, as well as a reliable and experienced bookkeeper. Set yourself up in QuickBooks and don't fall behind.

Another gotcha that contractors who are used to being payrolled on W2 encounter when they incorporate is collections. As a vendor, you agree that your invoices will be payable a certain number of days after they're presented, and you won't see a weekly paycheck for four or six weeks after you start a new project. You won't enjoy the wait, and will have to budget for it. You will also need to learn how politely to escalate matters with your clients' Accounts Payable departments if they're not doing their part to keep you solvent.

Sound like too much of a hassle? Then maybe you're not ready yet. On the other hand, if you just need help with the payrolling process and/or want 'big-company'-style benefits such as a 401(k) and FSA plans without having to create your own, ask Synergistech for more information about the service we use.

Q47: Will Synergistech continue to charge a commission for all contract work I do for a client you introduce?

A: Synergistech takes its commission only for the first contract you accept with a client to which we introduce you. Thereafter you're free to work directly with that client. As stated in our Candidate Representation Agreement, we impose no non-compete or exclusivity clauses on our candidates or clients, so no commission is payable from contracts with clients to whom we introduce you once the initial project (and any associated extension) ends.

Synergistech's lack of non-compete and exclusivity policies is unique in the recruiting world. We believe fairness dictates that we earn our keep, and we do not want to disadvantage you by applying our markup in perpetuity to work you do for the same client. The result is that 'call-backs,' or repeat engagements with the same company, often allow you to earn more than the original assignment but cost your client less — a better deal for all.

Q48: It's the summer of 2008; what are the going rates for contract technical communicators in Silicon Valley?

A: This question is tough to answer without context, so here's what you need to know:

  1. It depends on the content you're asked to generate. Writing user and system-admin doc pays substantially less than creating software developer doc, where you can read code, mind-meld efficiently with engineers, and deliver ship-able doc autonomously. Dev-doc Contract Tech Writers can charge 20-40 percent more than their less-technical counterparts in this market.
  2. It depends on the intensity of the project. If you have to work long hours onsite, you are well within your rights to charge more. If you're able to work remotely, and/or there's lots of existing doc on which you can build, you will be expected to charge less. The intensity of a project is also a function of whether the company already has a tech pubs infrastructure (say a Senior or Lead Technical Writer on board, perhaps even a pubs manager with a spine), or whether they're a startup ready to ship whose VC has just reminded them that they need some doc.
  3. It depends on the length of the project. If the prospective client commits to a longer engagement (more than, say, three months), they will likely expect a discounted rate — on the order of perhaps 10 percent. Short projects are usually rescue missions, and we all know that you'll earn whatever you can get away with charging.
  4. Quality matters less than cost. It seems sacriligious when technical communicators are helping make the hiring decision, but today's job market seems rarely to respond to promises of superior quality product. All that matters at most places is cost. Thus, the way to convince a prospective client that you sense should care about quality work from an experienced person is not to promise better quality but instead to talk about the fact that you're fast and that your deliverable will be ready to ship (other factors being equal, which they never are).
  5. Pricing precedent is irrelevant. What you are used to charging (as a contractor) or earning (as a staffer) doesn't matter. If you haven't been on the market recently, understand that demand has softened to the point where most experienced contractors are in a world of hurt and are seeking the (perceived) safety of staff jobs. Globalization has substantially eroded almost all technical communicators' earning power, and most startups have orders from their investors not to hire domestically unless absolutely unavoidable. Add to this the fact that customers aren't boycotting products with sub-par doc and there's no indication they ever will. All this justifies the CxO's perspective that "doc is a checklist item" rather than "doc is an area in which my company is proud to stand apart." Cost control is the order of the day.

Synergistech's advice: find a technology niche in which you stand apart (DITA, virtualization, data security, mobile apps platforms, financial analysis, Common Criteria doc, and so on) and sell yourself as a technical communicator with strong domain expertise. Selling one's services as a general-purpose Technical Writer, Instructional Designer, or Trainer will, within the next year or two, be akin to calling oneself a Sanitation Engineer. Mark these words.

Let's put numbers to all this. For new clients (repeat engagements often prompt rate increases) and with no recruiter involvement:

  1. A top-of-the-line developer-doc Contract Technical Writer working direct might be able to get $85/hr 1099 or $80/hr W2. (I'll assume here that you already understand how 1099 and W2 status affects your tax situation, autonomy, and overall lifestyle; if you don't, read this then this.)
  2. Experienced, autonomous system-admin and end-user Technical Writers should consider themselves lucky to get $65/hr 1099 or $60/hr W2. And even if they do get that price, they should never consider themselves truly 'off the market.'
  3. A technically sophisticated, seasoned Technical Marketing Writer might get $80/hr 1099 for short (2-3 week) projects, and $60/hr 1099 for longer ones. Marcom folk know they're never off the market, and also that their only viable marketing channel is word-of-mouth.
  4. Contract Technical Trainers with recent, relevant subject-matter expertise might be able to earn $120/hr 1099 or $110/hr W2. Demand for revenue-generating services such as technical training stays high even when product development budgets get cut.
  5. Seasoned Contract Instructional Designers with current technology and tools skills, developing either online training materials or coursenotes for stand-up training classes can earn $80/hr 1099 or $75/hr W2.
  6. Contract 'Developer Community Builders' are virtually unknown thus far, but we know one who's earning $105/hr 1099.
  7. Contract Publications Managers are a rare breed, but we know one who's earning $90/hr 1099 and another who recently earned $100/hr 1099.
  8. Contract User Experience (UX) professionals, including usability analysts, interface designers, and related human factors experts, bring a range of skills to bear and frequently earn $100/hr 1099.
  9. A proven Contract DITA Migration Expert with solid XSL skills can earn $125/hr 1099 or ~$115/hr W2. By contrast, document production specialists cleaning up residual unstructured content after the XSLT has been applied earn much less, typically no more than $60/hr 1099.
  10. The best Contract Developmental Editors in Silicon Valley might get $90/hr 1099 when there's exceptional demand, but these days they're being offered no more than $50/hr 1099.

Finally, in Synergistech's view, any company paying more than these rates for a long-term project is ill-informed and very likely to get a wakeup call soon, resulting in them severing their relationship with the well-paid contractor at an inopportune moment. Also in our view, any company offering much less is going to find willing labor but will likely overpay in the long run relative to what it gets.

Q49: It's September, 2008; are there fewer technical communications opportunities out there, or is it just my imagination?

A: SimplyHired, one of several excellent (and free) job-board aggregator services, would have us believe that Technical Writer opportunities have decreased between 18 percent and 59 percent since January 2007, depending on the term you plug into its employment trends search engine.

All kinds of technology professionals, including trainers, project managers, and web developers, appear to have suffered a similar fate according to this tool. On the face of it, there's lots to worry about for candidates seeking new opportunities.

But there's more to the story. Job boards are expensive. Even with a volume discount, it costs almost $400 to post a single listing on Monster. In recent years job boards have seen increased competition from social-networking tools (LinkedIn, Facebook, and others), alternative hiring services such as BountyJobs (a recruiters' fee-splitting service), and corporate employee-referral programs, so the number of listings appearing there has dwindled. Monster, HotJobs, CareerBuilder, and DICE remain the largest sources of technology industry job listings, but low-fee or free services such as Craigslist and KITlist are now the place to find listings from more cost-conscious organizations.

This Spring, Synergistech created a reposting service for San Francisco Bay Area technical communications opportunities to help candidates find and apply for suitable opportunities all from one site. It's called Not Synergistech's Jobs. The positions listed there are all direct, so there's no commission-taking third party involved. Listings also name the hiring company, and when we know it the hiring manager's contact information appears as well. We've tagged all listings by role (Technical Writer, Trainer, Marcom person, Editor, Manager, and so on), region (San Francisco, peninsula, East Bay, and South Bay, for example), and Contract or Staff status. You can also simply search on any term and all listings with that string will appear, in reverse chronological order of posting.

As of September 15, 2008, Not Synergistech's Jobs (a blog, hosted by WordPress) had 360 staff and contract technical communications postings from SF Bay Area technology companies. Some of these came from the major job boards, but most we discovered on either niche boards or on the actual employers' job listings pages. We don't have the cycles to troll social networks (other than LinkedIn) for additional listings, but anyone despairing of finding work will likely feel much more hopeful after a visit to this site. That was one of our intentions in creating it; read this page for the others.

Q50: It's June, 2009; where's my stimulus?

A: The job market for technical communicators is truly dismal. Fake listings, unrealistic reqs, gutted budgets, and pathetic pay make this a less-than-satisfying time to be looking for work. It's truly a hiring manager's market.

First off, if you still have a job, you're most likely grateful for the illusion of security it provides. You're also not thinking about trading up, or doing anything else that might introduce more risk into your professional life things like making excuses about not being superhuman, or even just voicing your frustrations. This isn't the time to be thinking about more than surviving.

Or is it? Looking for a job takes time, and there's no better time to do it than while you have one. Just as contractors should never stop marketing their services, employees should always have a current resume and compelling portfolio samples ready to share. When the rising tide of economic recovery reaches local technical communicators — and no, it hasn't yet, and may not until 2010 — many of your peers will be ready to jump ship. They've put up with seriously sub-optimal situations (just like you) and their earning power has disintegrated (just like yours), and they know (as you should, too) that the most efficient way to evolve professionally and economically is to join another company. They're your competition, so take your cue and compete. Putting up with mediocre prospects and negligible opportunity in favor of security (or, even more quaint, loyalty) is the surest way to the unemployment line. Your 'loyalty' won't be reciprocated; it will be exploited.

But what if you're currently looking for work?

Synergistech would love to help in a synergistic way, but the last time we heard from a hiring manager with a budget to pay us was September (of 2008). It's so rare these days for anyone with authority for hiring technical communicators to have a budget for our fees — our only source of compensation — that we've stopped asking. We'll respond to all requests, and would love once again to get paid, but until then we'll speak only when spoken to.

Which leaves altruism; we've posted listings on request from direct hiring managers whom we respect, but who don't have recruiting-fee budgets, at Not Synergistech's Jobs. We've also answered countless emails from struggling candidates seeking candid advice about connecting with legitimate opportunities, staying employable, and transitioning to other niches and professions. We consistently recommend joining Andrew's network on LinkedIn as a way to benefit from his connections to hiring managers, otherwise unpublicized jobs, and accomplished, interesting people still generating great results.

We watch our emailed 'agents' on Oodle, Trovix, and various niche aggregator sites daily, and most of the opportunities we see are verbatim reposts of positions that have existed for many months. We have opted no longer to add these to Not Synergistech's Jobs because we've lost confidence that the hiring organizations are actually intent on hiring. If not actually fake, these listings' long tenures point to serious internal dysfunctionality. For other signs of hiring organizations' internal 'challenges' we refer you to GlassDoor.com.

We have no secret stimulus plan to share — yet. But that's exactly what we're working on, every day. It's not a recruiting service. It's not even a career advisory service. It's a searchable database of thousands of current, local tech industry jobs that simply aren't publicized. We've come up with a way to search the 'deep web' (in other words, the content that hides behind web forms) for employment opportunities. Meshing this data with Synergistech's existing database of companies (locations, industries, contacts, and more) and providing web as well as smartphone access will, we believe, offer job-seekers a powerful option for finding local, low-competition professional opportunities. Unlike job boards and recruiters — which are employer-funded and seldom worth more than they cost — this product will be paid for by its users. (Don't worry; we'll give you ample evidence that it can pay off for you before we ask for reciprocation.) So while it's not a handout, we're confident it will give your career the stimulus it needs. If you'd like more details, please ask.

Q51: Should I accept a project where I get paid under-the-table?

A: In this era of intense professional desperation, flexible principles, and unequal opportunity employment, it can be tempting to accept an offer to work for un-documented income. After all, we all need to eat.

Out of respect for that desperation, let's dissect the pros and cons of such an opportunity.

An off-books contract typically involves a company that needs a deliverable but has no money or time to get it done right, and a contractor who needs a gig and is willing to overlook the niceties of having a written contract or clear, achieveable description of the deliverable. Seasoned (or is that 'singed'?) contractors will immediately note the dangers in such a scenario, but in case you don't, here's our explanation:

  1. The client has complete control over whether you get paid. Without a contract or mutually agreed written description of the deliverable, they don't have to pay you anything no matter how long (or much) you spend creating what you think they want.
  2. In the unlikely event that you successfully read the client's mind and deliver what they want, they can take as long as they like to pay you. The only thing they sacrifice until they do so is ownership of the deliverable's electronic source and its copyright.
  3. You can't cite them as a client, because no official relationship exists.

If you desperately need the money and/or don't want to pay taxes on it, and don't mind the vulnerability of the above situation, go ahead and accept such a project. (Yes, you still owe taxes on that income, regardless of whether your client documents the payment at year's end.) Unless you receive full, or at least very substantial, payment up front we can't see any legitimate advantages to this strategy and can't advise you to go there.

If you're still undecided, ask yourself 'what are the advantages to a legitimate company of paying me under the table?' If a company doesn't mind having no business expense to write off, or any formal control of the deliverable (including how it gets delivered or what you, the creator, do with it afterward), can you really expect to have a positive experience?

Q52: What should you do when your interviewer wants to sell you something?

A: We've heard from a number of candidates who've interviewed with companies that turned out not to have jobs to fill but services to sell. What typically happens is that the company searches the resume databases on Craigslist, HotJobs, Monster, and/or DICE and, posing as a recruiter, invites the candidate to an in-person interview for a vaguely defined but potentially rewarding job.

Old-school recruiters pride themselves on physically meeting the candidates they plan to present to their clients, if only to develop rapport and mine that candidate's rolodex and dance card of other potential employers. In Synergistech's experience, it's usually a one-sided transaction because the recruiter seldom cares about the candidate or his/her credentials as much as about the prospects she or he can cold-call as soon as the candidate leaves.

These days, though, salescritters are stooping to new depths of deceit. Career advisory services and tech-skills training schools have begun to con candidates into interviews that quickly become sales pitches in which the interviewer seeks up to $10K to teach how to "get jobs like the one for which you thought you were interviewing today." You can call this recession-era, candidate-paid outplacement; we call it a contemptible scam.

Imagine cramming hard for an interview (possibly the professional highlight of your week), dressing up, traveling to the company's site, waiting nervously at the front desk, shaking hands earnestly, doing your best to appear poised and confident, then finding out that there is no job and that they're eager to have you pay them to remedy your apparent deficiencies. Would you have the courage to get up and walk out?

If not, here's an equally satisfying solution:

Hand them a generic 'Risk Assessment Report' and an invoice invoice drawn up denoting the two-hour minimum for your consulting fees.

When the interviewer tells you it isn't really an interview, hand them your invoice. When you're asked what it's for, say: "this risk assessment I just conducted for you." Make sure they take possession of the report.

The assessment should say something along the lines that posting fake jobs opens the door for possible litigation which could lead to a class-action lawsuit. Make a recommendation or two, and say you're giving the interviewer net-15 terms.

Q53: How have experienced SF Bay Area technical communicators succeeded in the current (Summer, 2009) job market?

A: If you rely on job boards and recruiters to learn about technical communications opportunities in the San Francisco Bay Area, you're probably getting frustrated by the difficulty of getting noticed. Searching for work is lonely at the best of times, but when it's a hiring manager's market and most job board postings generate hundreds if not thousands of responses, it's worse than that it's depressing.

We just heard from a Contract Technical Writer with whom we've worked in the past who's currently getting more offers than he can handle, and wanted to share his secrets.

No, he's not uniquely technical or hyper-experienced with a particularly lucrative market niche, and no, he's not discounting his rate or lowered his living standards.

The only thing he's doing differently is looking for work outside the Bay Area and traveling to where the work takes him. He's currently documenting games software being ported to the iPhone, and in the last year-and-a-half has worked in Seattle, Santa Barbara, Chapel Hill, Ukiah, and Los Angeles "with time off in between in Santa Fe and Tucson." He home-schools his daughter and they travel together, along with their two cats and a dog.

He's found that his Silicon Valley credentials "beat out the local talent in most places" and, in terms of compensation, that "North Carolina pays as well as the Silicon Valley; L.A. and Seattle somewhat less." In terms of culture, "places like Colorado and North Carolina can offer as sophisticated a lifestyle as the Bay Area and Seattle." His one caveat is that there be interesting ethnic food available wherever he lives. "That's easy, because where there are tech-writing jobs, there is usually an island of sophistication."

How does this individual look for work? "I have DICE and Monster send me daily updates on every Tech-Writing job that opens up in the states where I am willing to work (I exclude much of the South and Midwest). I also check other sources that are local to specific locations." Then "I look for contracts that will make a hiring decision based on phone interviews, because that generally means that I will not be micromanaged."

He concedes that he's not yet been able "to crack the Washington DC market, because they usually want a security clearance," but comments that he also finds their pay "ridiculously low." In terms of tradeoffs, he feels he hasn't made any "unless you need a permanent place to live" — then adds "the one thing I miss is my garden."

Such a strategy isn't for everyone, clearly, but it is comforting proof that those technical communicators with SF Bay Area work experience are getting competitively priced job offers before those who don't, all else being equal. Are you willing to uproot yourself and 'go mobile' for a year or two to survive?

Q54: Which one factor outweighs the rest in determining a technical communicator's professional prospects?

A: The one factor affecting every technical communicator's prospects in the workplace — whether she or he will remain employed and/or advance professionally is 'does that person's work create profit for the employer/client?' Unless a technical communicator directly augments the company's bottom line and, further, does so without burdening scarce resources such as Engineering, Technical Support, and Marketing, that person becomes disposable in the eyes of those who control budgets.

When assessing one's financial contribution, remember that saving the company money or improving the quality of its deliverables are not the same as generating a profit, at least in the eyes of those deciding where to cut costs. Cutting costs, making customers happier (even if it results in fewer calls to Tech Support), or even improving product usability, are not only difficult to measure objectively but are usually discounted in terms of their future value to the company — "we've already made those changes, so why do we need to keep the person responsible around?"

What this means is that only those technical communicators inextricably associated with demonstrably profitable initiatives and products can expect to be in demand. Even if you're an award-winning expert, you're surplus to the needs of your employer or client when that company needs to cut costs unless your contribution is crucial to their future financial success.

For our ideas about how today's technical communicators can make their companies profitable (and thus become relatively indispensable), read our response to Question 56.

Q55: Apart from competence and finding work, what is a consultant's biggest challenge?

A: In the words of Tech Republic columnist Chip Camden, "getting past the overwhelming motivations to do the wrong thing for your customers" is the consultant's biggest challenge. I agree completely.

Let's dissect this statement to understand how it applies not just to contract technical communicators but to anyone selling services.

Ethics and trust are pivotal to any consulting relationship. Clients rely on you to represent their interests but often can't ensure that that's what you're really doing — especially if you're working remotely. Writes Camden:

"It's very easy for your client to start wondering whether their trust is well-founded, so you must do everything in your power to confirm that trust. Every one of the items in [the following] list represents a betrayal of trust — you're putting your own interests ahead of those of your client. It's often tempting to think that you can get away with something "just this time," but every little cheat erodes your relationship with your client, even if it goes undiscovered."

As you read through these "wrong things for your clients," ask yourself how you've resisted the temptation to do them or, if you didn't or don't, why. Are you the kind of consultant you'd hire yourself? Do your clients agree? Is that why you get (or don't get) repeat business?

Again, in Camden's words (mostly):

As a recruiter often called on to vouch for the effectiveness and integrity of contractor candidates, it's exceptionally difficult to champion people who plainly make selfish, irresponsible, unethical, and untrustworthy choices. Often I know and understand more about these contractors' projects than their clients do, and on more than a few occasions I've known when clients were being exploited. In these situations, I've worked hard not only to correct the current ethical lapses but to avoid giving that contractor the chance to take advantage of my clients again.

Hold yourself to the highest professional and ethical standards, and you'll benefit financially and karmically both now and throughout your career.

Q56: How can a technical communicator reliably generate profits for a company rather than being a 'necessary expense'?

A: As the computer industry matures, technology companies seek ways to reduce costs. Many technical communicators are seeing their work offshored, and are asking themselves if and how it's possible to remain gainfully employed in the San Francisco Bay Area. As we explained in our answer to Question 54, the key is to be visibly responsible for creating profit at your company (and for doing so efficiently).

How can this translate into practical reality for technical communicators in today's workplace? Here are some ideas.

  1. Near-term, there will be opportunities for people (typically managers, information architects, and senior individual contributors familiar with the skills of the project's offshore workers) who can make offshoring work for a given company. The pubs-outsourcing process is a minefield, with well-known and -publicized risks. It requires experience, stamina, patience, and political prowess to implement cost-effectively.

    Our hunch is that, within a couple years of a company deciding to offshore, opportunities for these kinds of professionals (together with those for developmental editors and similar publications production roles) will dry up as those companies force their customers to put up with shoddier products. In other words, we expect companies to respond to cost-control pressure by turning whatever demand remains for improved quality (in products, documentation, support, etc) into a revenue opportunity (for example, for-profit tech support).

  2. Near- and medium-term, Technical Trainer opportunities will abound. Companies will compensate for inadequate documentation and support by offering customers in-person and web-based training. It takes an unusual combination of technical expertise and interpersonal skills, as well as the willingness to travel, but it's also easy to get comparatively rich doing this work, as courses retailing for $1000+ per person per day are already the norm for complex products.

    Long-term, expect web-based and/or scripted (canned) training to replace live and in-person services, resulting in fewer lucrative opportunities.

  3. Near- and medium-term, Developer-doc Technical Writers will remain in demand because the US' intellectual property and copyright laws are stricter than those in East Asia, making it preferable to keep companies' crown jewels (their source code and senior technical wizards) local. As APIs are often young companies' first and most important deliverables, and without decent documentation they become a burden on Engineering and Support, those Technical Writers who can think like developers, work independently, and create accurate, reliable, relatively complete documentation are invaluable.

    Long-term, expect copyright and IP laws to change and for developing-world documentation expertise to improve, clearing the way for even this specialized role to get offshored as well.

  4. Developer-Community Liaisons, a new breed of Developer-doc Technical Writers, can expect strong demand for the foreseeable future. These individuals have deep engineering backgrounds and solid interpersonal skills, cultivate a strong rapport with the developer community, and are responsible for putting the company's best foot forward to this crucial group of collaborators as well as representing their product suggestions (bug fixes, enhancement requests, etc) to the company's senior technical management. For those with a talent for diplomacy — managing projects, clearly communicating verbally and in writing about nuanced topics, and holding all parties' feet to the fire — this is a very promising career niche.

  5. Vertical-market Marketing Communicators, who combine deep subject-matter expertise, the ability to create compelling and authoritative product messages, and strong interpersonal and presentation skills (for networking with C-level clients), are likely to stay in-demand — albeit on a contract basis — once the economy rebounds.

    Marcom work vanishes faster than documentation opportunities do in a recession, but sales skills (and after all, that's what you're using) are prized early in the recovery. If you understand what decision-makers think and care about in a given industry, have a strong professional network (for finding clients), and want to craft a given company's pitch to its customers, you'll enjoy this work. You'll also be able to charge at least double what Tech Writers earn, and there's little chance that your role will get offshored.

  6. Technology Sales. Yes, we know, you don't want to sell anything. You want to be left alone to write. Well, wouldn't you prefer to eat, too? If so, and you can learn enough about the products you're selling and those of your competitors to be credible in front of a customer, you have an advantage over smarmy technophobes. Your ability to listen, inform yourself responsibly, respond intelligently, and put complex information in perspective with minimal bias can make you a customer's trusted ally, and a highly successful salesperson.

    Potential compensation is off-the-charts compared to Technical Writing — honestly, you'll never look back — and job-stability is guaranteed as long as you make your quota. This work will never get offshored. Oh, and you'd even get to meet real customers and find out what matters to them, after being kept invisible for so long (as a technical communicator).

  7. In a related vein (namely, "what can I do with my skills"), Medical, Financial, Energy, and Government-related Writers can expect a better fate, near- and medium-term, than local computer-industry Technical Writers. They can also expect lots of competition. These roles are, for the most part, legally required to be performed domestically (due to the same lax foreign privacy and intellectual property laws we referred to in item 3), but there's no reason they won't be affected by the same cost-control pressures that are now so visibly eroding the livelihoods of the Bay Area's technical communicators. Look for more opportunities in low-cost locations, fewer in the rest, and ultimately the same demand to 'generate profit or perish.'

    If you opt to transition to one of these niches, the same ground-rules apply: gain subject-matter expertise quickly and persistently, gravitate toward those who generate profits (if you can't generate them independently), and don't let yourself become 'surplus' by straying too far from the path of the individual contributor.

Synergistech strongly cautions technical communicators against chasing the next shiny new trend (including structured authoring, DITA, usability/user experience work, content management, agile development, wikis, and social networking) without carefully considering how doing so can help you generate sustained financial advantages for your employer or clients. Beyond the excuse, "but they required it in the job description," honestly ask yourself how mastering a given skill will let you earn a company more than it costs to employ or hire you. If it won't, steer clear. The shiny will eventually become rusty, and when the hoopla dies down the bean-counters will still be asking "where's your ROI?" If you can't provide proof of profitability, you're toast...