How I Use Written Agreements to Protect Myself at Work

Protecting the terms of my compensation and duties — when working for others — by using written agreements

David Curtis Mintah
Aug 31 · 11 min read
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Photo by Cytonn Photography on Unsplash.

Ever heard someone say “an agreement is an agreement”? I didn’t see the usefulness of that statement until I started developing apps for people. While I knew that contracts were important, I didn’t take them seriously — at least not until I worked with startups that didn't compensate me as promised.

At around age 21, I taught myself how to develop apps for the Android platform. Because I was eager to have a lot on my resume, I applied for every software development gig and said yes to every project I happened to be called on, both locally and remotely. Basically, for the early part of my career, I worked with anyone who was willing to employ me.

This was what happened when the founders of a startup reached out to me. We had worked together on a different project sometime before, so I said yes without hesitating. The requirements and compensation were straightforward. I would develop an app in the space of a month, receive half of the payment in two weeks after commencement, and the second half in another two weeks. Next, I was emailed the designs and I started working.

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Screenshot by the author.

Fast-forward two weeks into the timeline, and I had paused all other projects just to work on this app. I had a day job, so the only time I could code was late at night. But each morning, I still sent over an updated version of the app beta.

Now just when the two weeks got close for the first payment, they told me that the sponsors had delayed their funding. By the time the full app was ready after a month, I still hadn’t received any payment. This time, they told me that the whole project had been put on hold because the organisers wished to make some changes to it. To this day, I haven’t heard from them concerning the app or the payment. I still have the codes, but all those sleepless nights were for nothing.

Although I’ve had other similar experiences in the past, this is what topped it all off for me. I learned my lesson, and since then, I promised myself to never work for anyone without a written agreement again.

A couple of weeks ago, I applied for an Android developer gig and was accepted to work on the project. Two days ago, when I got the final email of the agreement I’d just signed with them, I remembered those times when I used to fight over agreements. So I’m sitting at my desk writing this guide to show you how I do it now. This is the process I use, but you can use it too to save yourself all that trouble. I’ve broken down the process into these steps:

  • Being confident in myself.
  • Asking for a written agreement.
  • Reviewing the document.
  • Making changes.
  • Signing the document.
  • Saving copies.

Being Confident in Myself

After my experience with the startup, I did a lot of thinking to find out why that was happening to me. I found out that I was only seeing the software development jobs I was getting as opportunities to put one more thing on my resume. As a result, I was always afraid that I would be dropped for someone else if I brought up things like written agreements.

Whenever I got a call or email to work for anyone, I felt that they had just done me a great favour and I wasn’t going to ruin it by insisting that our agreements be put on paper to scare them away. After all, there are other software developers they could’ve reached out to, but they called me. I felt that if I didn’t work with them, I would miss the opportunity and regret it later.

The solution was to clear that fear. But after trying for some time, I realised that I couldn’t do it. I wasn’t confident in my skills as a programmer yet. Yes, I could create apps, but there were lots of things I still needed to learn. So there I was, wondering what I could do to boost my confidence in my Android programming skills.

These were the questions I asked myself:

  • Have I really mastered the skill?
  • What do I need in order to do that?

I hadn’t mastered Android programming at all. I identified things like Kotlin, AI, and blockchain, among other technologies that I needed to master. These are things that most Android developers don’t bother to learn.

From then on, I started reading and watching more courses on those topics and having even more sleepless nights spent just coding. Gradually, by building myself this way, I observed my confidence level going up. Now, whenever I get an opportunity to work on any project, I tell myself that I’m the best person for the job. I tell myself that I’m the one doing the others a favour and not the other way round.

The challenge here was that I didn’t have a lot of projects to my credit and it was already hard enough getting a software development gig without bringing up agreements and contracts. But as time went on, the number of projects I’d worked on increased and that began to speak for me. If you find it difficult to show your worth to others, the key is to improve your skills to the point where your work begins to speak for itself.

Asking for a Written Agreement

With my confidence level high, I made it a norm not to work for anyone without a written agreement. I’ll take you through the one I just signed now. When I got accepted to work on the project, I knew it was no exception.

You see, most of the software projects I work on are remote with team members in different parts of the world. This makes it even more serious for me because I don’t necessarily meet the people I work with in person. So before writing a single line of software code for anyone, I need to have whatever is agreed on written down for future reference.

First, we talked about what the app was going to do and how much I was going to get paid as usual. After those emails and Skype calls, I started writing down all my expectations for the project. When I was sure I understood everything, I sent an email asking that the agreement be put in writing. I got back an email saying that they were working on it.

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Screenshot by the author

It isn’t always this smooth with other projects. The problem is, sometimes I come across people who don’t want anything to do with written agreements at all. This was challenging in the beginning, but now I try not to work with people like that anymore.

If I bring up the issue of putting our agreements in a legally binding document and the other party starts making excuses, I ask myself if they are for real. In almost all cases, the answer to that question is no. If they can’t put the same thing they say in ink, how can I trust what they say? So as a rule of thumb, I avoid working with people like that. Try to avoid them too. Better safe than sorry.

Reviewing the Document

After receiving the message that they were working on the agreement, I got an email with the link to the document the next day.

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Screenshot by the author.

I opened the link and started going over what had been written. When doing this, I pay attention to every detail in the document. I don’t rush this step at all. I don’t want to encounter a situation where I miss something and find out too late.

Basically, I take my time to go through every section of the agreement. In the case of the one I just signed, I spent just a few hours doing that. With others, I spend a day or two just going over the information in the agreement. If I like everything I see, I move on. If not, I pause and mark it down somewhere. I do this until I get to the end of the document.

The challenge with reviewing contracts is the wording can be too technical at times, and I don’t have a lawyer or a friend who is a lawyer to check them for me. But for now, I’m at least able to go through the documents and understand what is happening. However, I’ve always said to myself that if I ever need to hire a lawyer to work on such things, I’d gladly do so. If you ever find the need to do that too, don’t hesitate to get someone qualified to help.

Making Changes

By the time I finished going through the document, lo and behold, there were mistakes in it. Things that needed to be changed.

I use David Curtis Mintah on my online accounts and emails. However, for legal documents, I prefer using David C Mintah. Now in the document, my full name had been used instead of my legal name. And even with that, “Curtis” had been misspelled as “Cutris.” Really? That’s not funny.

There’s something I’ve noticed about asking for changes in a written agreement. It shows the other party that you’ve really gone through the document.

The legal name wasn’t the only thing I needed to change. I also found lines in the document that were too ambiguous or vague. A case in point was a line in the document that read: “Developer will perform for Company, the service of developing a mobile software application.” It wasn’t specific at all and needed to be: “Developer will perform for Company, the service of developing a mobile software application for Android OS devices.” Emphasis on Android OS devices.

I then sent an email asking for those changes to be made.

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Screenshot by the author.

A few hours later, I received the updated document.

In some cases with other documents, there were no changes to be made. That’s OK and actually signals to me that they are as particular about details as I am.

As I mentioned, asking for changes in a written agreement shows that you have really taken the time to go through the document. But more importantly, anyone not willing to make changes to the writing raises a red flag as someone who might be difficult for me to work with. If you meet people like that too, tread cautiously with them because that’s what I do.

Signing the Document

Now that I’d made all the necessary edits and was happy with the agreement, it was time to put on my signature. That’s what would make it valid.

Before signing a document, there are a few things I look out for. First, I make sure there is actually a space for me to sign. Next, I make sure the other party’s name and signature are already there. Finally, I make sure the date is there and is accurate. If these things aren’t present, I reject the document and ask that it be corrected before I sign it. Without these, there’s no point in putting the agreement in writing for me in the first place.

For the document I was sent, all those things were present, so I signed it. At the bottom was the company name and signature, followed by my name and a space for me to put my signature.

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Because it was a digital document, there were many options for signing, including drawing a signature, typing a signature, and uploading a picture of a signature. But as I usually do, I chose the option to upload a picture of my signature. I prefer that because I already have a copy of my signature on my laptop for times like this, and all I have to do is upload it to the space for signing on any document when necessary. I got it by signing my signature on a white sheet of paper, scanning it, and cropping to a small size.

You don’t have to worry about having your signature look the same each time. In the beginning, I worried so much about this. But later, I found that what’s important is that it is unique — not that it is exact each time I sign it. So until we get a system of signing documents that uses our DNA or something fancy, I recommend using a scanned signature for your digital documents too.

Saving Copies

After signing it, a PDF copy of the agreement was immediately sent to my email. Because the other party’s signature was already present in the document, the process was over. The only thing left for me to do was to keep the document somewhere safe.

In the beginning, I created a folder on my laptop where I keep such important documents. But after changing my laptop twice, I realised it wasn’t a good method. I resolved to keep them online instead. And so this is one of the uses of my Google Drive.

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I have created a folder in my Google Drive where I keep every agreement I have signed. This is important because once it’s saved online, I will always have access to it for future reference. Google Drive is also free to use, so why not?

I don’t only do this with digital documents. I save paper documents the same way too. I scan them into PDF documents and then upload them to the same Google Drive folder.

If you are going to save important documents online, make sure you are the only one who has access to them. If anyone gets your login details, they can do whatever they want with your documents.

In Summary

It is one thing to say you’ve come to an agreement with someone and it’s another to actually have it written and locked down with a signature. I didn’t know this in the early stages of my career, so I ended up doing a lot of work for nothing. These days, I don’t allow that to happen to me anymore.

I do this simply by making sure that whatever is agreed on is put in a written form and then keeping a copy for myself in a safe place.

Sometimes, it is challenging to practise all the advice I’ve mentioned here — even for me. It gets to a point where I start asking myself why I go through the trouble. But then I remember the promise I made to myself not to allow anyone to take my work for granted, and I follow the process.

Better Programming

Advice for programmers.

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