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What I wish I knew before I became a government contractor

By Diana Rodriguez

This month marks my 15th anniversary of being a government contractor, mostly for the Department of Defense.  I’ve learned and grown a lot as a government contractor and I have enough experiences to fill a book, or two.  There are some things I wish I would have known, so I will share them with you.

I had a decade of private sector experience before starting as a government contractor for DoD.  I found a challenging, often frustrating, but never boring introduction when I arrived at the Pentagon for my first assignment.

Although I had been married for more than a decade to an Army Reserve officer, I was completely unfamiliar with military culture in the workplace.  Here is a list of some of the most glaring differences:

TIME KEEPING RULES

Direct hire employees in the private sector have more flexibility when it comes to time keeping, schedules, and leave.  Federal contractors have very strict rules when it comes to reporting hours worked to the government.  Most private sector companies allow their direct hires to telework, something government contractors are often not allowed to do.  This reminds me of my experience with a former federal employee turned contractor who was astonished to realize that contractors are often held to different rules than their federal counterparts.  In her previous role she enjoyed the 59-minute rule, but as a contractor she was not entitled to leave before her scheduled time.  This was a difficult pill for her to swallow.  She quickly realized government contracting is not the same as being a federal employee.

SUPERVISORY STRUCTURES

Typically, private companies have a simple chain of command. There is usually a vice president who has multiple section leads that handle employees in their section. It’s generally straightforward, and you have one boss. Not so in the contracting world. Depending on the organization, you may have multiple people to report to, including the program lead or manager from the contracting company. It’s an adjustment getting used to having a contractor boss and multiple government employees to report to onsite. Learning to manage all the bosses can be one of the most challenging aspects of being a federal contractor.

MILITARY/DoD CULTURE

This is the real test that will make or break a DoD contractor — learning the military culture and all the complexities of rank, protocols, and unwritten rules. For insight, I’ll share a story that completely illustrates how the shift from the private sector to DoD contracting can go very wrong unless a person is a quick study and has the right attitude to make it in a DoD environment. A recent graduate of a master’s degree program was hired to work as a contractor for a DoD organization. This graduate had excellent grades, was a real go-getter, and a pleasant personality. Everything seemed great until the day graduate wrote his first email to the colonel. “Dear Jack, Attached is the report you asked for. Let me know if you have any questions and I’ll be happy to go over them. Thanks, G”.  I’ll let you guess how well that went over. The bottom line is unless a person has some basic understanding of military culture, they won’t lastlong in the DoD workplace.

INSTABILITY and UNCERTAINTY

Instability and uncertainty are two of the most challenging parts of being a government contractor. Even when private companies lay off employees, there is generally sufficient time to find another job, severance packages, and job placement assistance involved. The nature of government contracting means that a position may disappear with relatively little notice. Before considering a contracting position, it’s advisable to get all the facts up front, and know the company’s internal mobility options.

The variety of contracting opportunities

The upside is there is far more flexibility and ability to change roles, organizations, locations, and type of work as a government contractor versus working as a government employee. I have been fortunate in the past 15 years to have supported organizations and done work as varied as the Office of the Inspector General and Army Public Affairs. Learning about different organizations and missions gives a person the chance to grown professionally at a very fast rate and acquire skills from each organization. There are always new faces and personalities (for better and worse) but it is never boring or mundane when you have the chance and flexibility to move around with ease. Also consider how government contractors can “try before they buy” to see if agovernment organizationor contracting company is the right one for them. There are many upsides to a government contracting career if you are willing to know the rules and accept the differences from the private sector.

THE DREADED GOVERNMENT SHUTDOWN

In closing, I saved the most frustrating for last. As a DoD contractor, I never experienced the pain of a government shutdown because although my direct supervisors were furloughed, there were military people in the office who were given authority to supervise contractors. This was a great relief and was also good for the organization, because the work kept on despite the furlough. Some organizations are not as lucky, and without military staff to supervise,or if the mission is not deemed essential to national security, contractors can be sent home without pay. Unlike their federal government counterparts, they will not receive back pay once the shutdown is over. This is something to consider when choosing an organization to support.

 The decision to become a government contractor was the best decision I’ve ever made, and I don’t have a single regret. That doesn’t mean I haven’t had challenges and missteps, but by and large there is great opportunity and success to be had as a government contractor, both professionally and personally. It isn’t for everyone, but for those of us who have adapted and thrived, it is an incredible privilege and opportunity to work alongside government and military people who can serve as mentors, teachers, and even friends.

STAY INFORMED AND PLAN AHEAD

Government contracting is the only way non-federal workers can work for government agencies, so there are excellent rewards in being able to do this kind of work. Government contractors are able to work with military (in the case of Department of Defense) and other federal workers and learn from the inside how to support those organizations. For some it can even lead to a government job, but contractors must always be prepared, especially during the option year and recompete of the contract, to find another position in the event their job is eliminated. Having a good relationship with your program manageris one way to keep the discussion open, and also asking questions and making sure you fully understand what is happening. A reputable company may be able to place contractors on another contract, but unfortunately, this is not always the case for smaller firms who don’t have as many contracts to fall back on.

THE CONTRACTOR WORLD IS SMALL

Some contractors will be fortunate and stay on a contract for years, but others won’t have that opportunity, which is why it is important to stay connected to government and contractor colleagues and co-workers. Staying connected is beneficial for numerous reasons, most of all to have referrals and references. The contractor community is relatively small, and you may work with former co-workers again and again on different projects. Make sure you don’t burn any bridges or make bad impressions that can follow you to another contract position. Relationships and networking go a long way and can make a huge difference in your career.

IMPRESSIONS CAN LAST A LONG TIME

There are reasons why everyone is not cut out for government contracting, and a huge reason is impressions. Although everyone has their bad days, government contractors have to be especially careful when dealing with their government customers. One wrong comment, mood, or gesture can potentially ruin their relationship with their supervisor or co-workers. Hiring managers should take care to find the right person, and program managers absolutely must have an open and ongoing dialogue with their teams to be sure the rules are understood. I have worked on contracts where some of the contractors didn’t have what it takes as far as their attitude or ability to interact well enough with the government customerand they put the entire contract in jeopardy. Government contracting requires more than skills and ability to perform tasks. It requires maturity and understanding of the culture and atmosphere of the organization they are supporting. If a contractor continually disregards or ignores cultural and organizational norms, the company that employs the contractor can be negatively impacted and potentially lose the contract. It’s that serious.

CONTRACT CHANGE ORDERS OR AMENDMENTS

One of the most frustrating and frightening aspects of being a contractor is the potential for a contract change order of amendment to the contract. Unfortunately, there isn’t much a contractor can do in this situation, which can result in a role or position being removed or replaced with another. A contract change order is something a program manager should discuss with the contractor as soon as possible so the contractor can find another contract.

FLEXIBILITY AND RESILIENCE

Two of the most important aspects of government contracting are flexibility and resilience. If a person doesn’t have those traits, they won’t succeed as a contractor. Flexibility is essential because the number one rule of government contracting is making the customer feel their needs are being met, and that requires flexibility. Resilience is needed when problems come up, and they will, and contractors have to be able to keep up the pace and get ahead of those problems. Being successful, creative, adaptive, and productive in support of the organization require flexibility and resilience. Flexibility and resilience also come into play when searching for jobs and staying employed.