As an hourly contractor, what tasks should I charge for?
June 4, 2014 9:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm an independent developer. I work from home, and I charge most of my clients by the hour. Often, a project will require the computer to do something while I twiddle my thumbs; for instance, downloading, uploading, running, or compiling a lot of code. I'm divided as to whether to charge for this.

The main argument AGAINST charging is that it feels incorrect to charge someone while I'm browsing the Web or watching TV or whatever. The main argument in FAVOR OF it is that I'm still at work; I can't go run errands or have people over or whatever, and I still have to keep one eye on the operation.

In some cases I could set client A's job to download/run/compile and then work on client B's tasks, and just charge client B, not client A. But sometimes for whatever reason I can't. Either I don't have the spare resources or client B's project isn't ready to move forward. And anyway it feels strange to base whether client A pays me on whether I'm also working for client B.

Is there an accepted standard in the industry? Or maybe just a don't ask don't tell policy?
posted by user c to Work & Money (14 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
If you would get paid for it at a 'traditional' job, you should bill for it as a contractor.
posted by scolbath at 10:08 AM on June 4, 2014 [7 favorites]

I think as long as your tools are working on the job doing specific tasks that should count as you working on the job. In fact I don't see a huge problem of you charging client A and client B for the same time as long as work is actually being done for both at thge same time.
posted by edgeways at 10:09 AM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

You absolutely should be charging A for that time. It's not just your 'active time' that they're paying for but your expertise and those resources. Your machine is running a task for them, simple as that. You're ok to charge.
posted by Carillon at 10:16 AM on June 4, 2014 [6 favorites]

Unless your clients have particularly restrictive agreements that drive what you can/can't charge for, this is going to end up as a judgement call on your part. Ultimately, what the client cares about is that a certain work product is completed for a certain cost, not how many hours that you bill. The client's interest is in maximizing the amount of work product produced and minimizing the cost for that work product. If you bill for too much "down time", regardless of the ethical correctness or legality of your billing, you make your rates less competitive. However, if you are producing exceptional work for that time, you can still bring value to your client.

In other words, I wouldn't focus on whether or not it's "accepted" to charge for a given task. I'd instead focus on whether you're abiding by the contract (which likely doesn't have many provisions on what you can/can't bill for) and whether you're providing useful value for your client at a reasonable cost.
posted by saeculorum at 10:31 AM on June 4, 2014

I once worked for two lawyers who were truly clients from hell. My last interaction with them was when they called me into their office to insist that I do not charge for the half day that their systems were down (owing to the fact that their graphic designer served as their server admin). I quit on the spot.
posted by rada at 10:44 AM on June 4, 2014

If you are exclusively occupied as a result of a client task, you should be billing those hours. It doesn't matter if you're twiddling your thumbs for a half hour watching TV while waiting for code to compile or twiddling your thumbs for a half hour on a conference call while people argue about fonts.
posted by Jairus at 11:28 AM on June 4, 2014

You get paid for downloads and installations. You get paid to read documentation. You get paid to learn how to do what you're doing if you've never done it before.
posted by jeffamaphone at 11:52 AM on June 4, 2014

You also get paid for processing time on your own hardware, it's costing you electricity, and it's occupying your computing resources on a task for A, whereas otherwise you could be seeking out new work for a hypothetical Client C. You're billing for your time and use of your resources as much as your expertise. Charge A in that scenario.
posted by T.D. Strange at 12:01 PM on June 4, 2014

You get paid to learn how to do what you're doing if you've never done it before.
posted by jeffamaphone at 2:52 PM on June 4 [+] [!]

Really! Sign me up.

Contractors who are hired In house to do X and then later asked to do Y may need some training, but an independent would have to have a huge pair to bill for that.
posted by Gungho at 12:31 PM on June 4, 2014

If it's something you can start and then go to sleep or leave the house for, no, don't charge. If you need to be babysitting your computer, charge. Obviously there are intermediate possibilities, where you need to check in every hour or something -- but you will probably get a sense of when the time is your own and when it is not.
posted by jeather at 1:48 PM on June 4, 2014 independent would have to have a huge pair to bill for that.

Well, I've been writing code for many years, and I'm constantly being asked to do things I've never done before. I have to read documentation, do research, spend hours debugging. And then I know how to do it. And if I have to do it again it'll take an hour. But I'm still billing for all the reading, research and debugging.
posted by jeffamaphone at 3:20 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

I'm constantly being asked to do things I've never done before.

I think this presents an important caveat to your original statement. If explicitly asked to do something which the employer knows I'm not versed or skilled then you can bill for the learning and research. Its hardly an absolute as originally stated.

I expect software contractors to be forthcoming if I'm asking them to do something outside their skill set so I can make the decision to eat the cost of their learning in order to not have to hire someone else.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:43 PM on June 4, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh to answer the original question I think scolbath's heuristic is a pretty good one. Idle time can sometimes be part of the job.

Double billing for the same time can be sticky. In the case of a long compile if you didn't have Job B to keep you occupied I'd still have you charging Client A. In this case I'd honestly say do what you feel comfortable.
posted by bitdamaged at 7:59 PM on June 4, 2014

Adam Carolla actually addressed this a couple times on his podcast. He said that when he was a contractor (construction), he was afraid to bill for things he "didn't feel like customers would want to pay" like time driving to Home Depot. He said that this is most definitely the wrong attitude.

Ask yourself this when you are billing: Are you free to leave for the day? Would you be doing what you are doing right now if you weren't being paid for it? If the answer is no, you bill.

Your time is worth something. As an experiment, call up a lawyer and ask him an opinion on an obscure law. Ask if he charges for the time he has to look up the existing case law.
posted by Willie0248 at 8:05 PM on June 4, 2014

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