Reviewed 1/26/2006

Gurus, Hired Guns, and Warm Bodies, by Barley & Kunda

Itinerant Experts in a Knowledge Economy
Stephen R. Barley
Gideon Kunda
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2004




ISBN-13 978-0-691-11943-4
ISBN-10 0-691-11943-0 342pp. HC $32.95

Most years of the Twentieth Century (and hence the lives of most of us) were dominated by two types of workplace organization: the Free Professional practice (e.g. doctors and lawyers) and Professional Corporations — the large firms engaged in manufacturing (steel, automobiles, paper, etc.) and engineering (Boeing, Monsanto, General Electric). Most employees, then, took part in a culture which rewarded hard work and dedication with secure jobs and steady advancement over a career. Toward the end of the century, however, the picture began to change. The reasons were many, but the result was that corporations began to shed their burdensome overhead. Benefits like generous pensions and comprehensive paid health insurance shrank or disappeared. With them went the implicit promise of secure lifetime employment as the firms flattened themselves by cutting layers out of middle management and outsourcing tasks wherever they could.

Technology professionals — engineers, technicians, software programmers, database analysts, quality assurance experts, system administrators, technical writers, Web and multimedia designers — were driven by these changes in the direction of self-employment. Many, either on their own or with the help of staffing firms, began to advertise their skills on an open market. Moving from firm to firm on short-term contracts (typically three to nine months), they passed up the health insurance and other benefits in favor of steady income at somewhat higher pay rates. In effect, they traded stability for prosperity.

The life of a contractor was often romantically portrayed as one where work was plentiful and lucrative, so that one could earn as much as needed for a comfortable lifestyle while enjoying full schedule flexibility: you could adjust your work hours to suit, often working from home, and with a little prearrangement could take time off as desired. The truth, as the authors make clear, is much different from this rosy picture. Technical work is not so plentiful, and competition is fierce. Performing it requires advanced skills which must be constantly kept sharp, and often upgraded as new technologies appear. Prospecting for positions, too, takes a substantial portion of otherwise billable time, and both it and skill maintenance are money sinks. Also vital for finding jobs is a fairly extensive network of contacts, and this too requires constant attention. Finally come ancillary but still important activities: preparing and distributing marketing materials, following industry news, maintaining financial records, and of course having a life. It adds up to a substantial burden.

Noticing that there was a lack of serious research on this burgeoning mode of employment, the authors determined to conduct their own. They are well positioned for the task. Stephen Barley is Charles M. Pigott Professor of Management Science and Co-Director of the Center for Work, Technology and Organization at Stanford's School of Engineering. Gideon Kunda is Associate Professor in the Department of Labor studies at Tel Aviv University. In keeping with the terminology of their field, they call what they've done ethnography — which simply means the study of a group of people tied by common characteristics or endeavors. Other examples are Tracy Kidder's Soul of a New Machine (to which they refer) and Gary Dorsey's Silicon Sky.

Their method is straightforward: interviewing a number of contractors, staffing agency workers, and client managers to determine their goals and how they accomplish them.1 Presentation of the results in this book is well organized and very clear. Anyone considering turning contractor, or one new to the territory, can learn a great deal by reading it. At its end comes Chapter 13: Itinerant Professionals in a Knowledge Economy. This goes beyond the exploration of practical details like how client hiring managers mark off contractors as a separate group from permanent employees while welding them into a smoothly function team in order to complete the project on schedule, or how the contractors negotiate a deal with the client. It looks at the evolution of employment modes, delving into the early history of the twentieth century and projecting that the contracting mode will have significant impact (though of a still indeterminate nature.)

James Hambly, manager of a software development group at Advanced Computers, called his predicament "walking a fine line," an idiom that technical managers from a number of companies used to talk about their supervisory "challenges": "You have to have everybody come together to work, act, and think like a team. At the same time you have to tell people, 'Well, you know, you're not all part of the same company.' You have to do things that show clear differentiation between employees and nonemployees. You know, because Microsoft screwed everything up for everybody. So the most difficult thing is trying to create and maintain esprit de corps, at the same time you clearly show differentiations."

As did James, many hiring managers blamed their dilemma on Microsoft, the Darth Vader of high tech routinely vilified in Silicon Valley firms for a variety of sins. Were it not for the legal consequences of Microsoft's blatant exploitation of contractors, these managers argued, it would not be necessary to insist on such strong differentiations between contractors and employees. Other hiring managers justified the need for distinctions in terms of equity: it was important that employees not feel the firm was slighting them, especially when contractors were paid more than employees. But most hiring managers felt that the need to make distinctions was counterproductive, if not overblown and petty.

– Pages 189-190

Most of the research on this work of ethnography was done in California's Silicon Valley between 1997 and 1999. It thus reflects conditions just before the peak of the "Dot-com Boom"2 when venture capital flowed like water, companies were being formed in droves and employees jumped from firm to firm at a whim. Those munificent conditions fostered the flowering of contracting as a mode of employment. During the subsequent bust (which coincided with the end of the longest peacetime economic expansion in U.S. history), unemployment rates in Silicon Valley jumped from 2.9 to 8.6% and it became much harder for technical contractors to find jobs. With writing on the book apparently taking until sometime in 2002 (see page 306, note 28) and publication in 2004, the authors felt the need for an epilogue to bring their study up to date. They acknowledge that the unusual prosperity during their study may render some of their conclusions dubious. But they support the view that contracting is here to stay.

In sum, this book presents a great deal of material in a well organized manner. Its consideration of large issues of social structures as well as day-to-day issues of survival and prosperity makes it doubly valuable. I recommend it for the bookshelf of every contractor, and suggest that anyone interested in the changing nature of the workplace should read it. Extensive footnoting identifies the sources for statistics and other information in the text, and a long list of references is provided. A somewhat spotty job of indexing diminishes its ease of use as a reference work, but its logical organization and a complete table of contents partially compensates for this.

1 To preserve the privacy of their informants, the authors invented fictitious names for them and their companies. However, some real companies are mentioned by name in the text, and others appear in informants' quoted comments. Except in Microsoft's case, the reason for this inconsistency is not clear.
2 According to Wikipedia, the dot-com bubble burst, numerically, on March 10, 2000, when the technology-heavy NASDAQ Composite index peaked at 5048.62 (intra-day peak 5132.52), more than double its value just a year before.
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