Business awareness is needed in growing market, contractors told

The UK IT contractor market is picking up again, but contractors can no longer be successful just by offering programming skills,...

The UK IT contractor market is picking up again, but contractors can no longer be successful just by offering programming skills, Simon Juden, chairman of the Professional Contractors Group, told a meeting of the BCS Kingston and Croydon Branch last month.

Contractors now not only need good skills, they need the right skills, said Juden, an IT contractor since 1997. The fixed deadlines of the Y2K and euro conversion projects have gone, and with them the sometimes astronomical contract rates for programmers.

"Standard programming skills are becoming commoditised - and people will not buy commodities from the UK but from the cheapest place they can," he said. "We now have to compete on value. This has two dimensions.

"First, it is very important to understand the business context and value of what you do for the client. Ask simple questions: if the client wants you to write a printer driver, ask what this will enable the business to do that it could n0t do before. Clients need to see you bringing creativity, innovation and expertise to drive through business change and add real value.

"Second, invest time and effort in developing personal relationships. Then if clients need your skill, they will phone you first as someone they trust.

"Wider networking is also important. This is not a cynical exercise, it is simply being alert when you socialise. Who do these people know? Is there anything going on where they work that might be of interest to you - and vice versa?"

About 14% of the UK's working population are freelance, said Juden - some 3.5 million people. He highlighted the reasons why people go freelance, such as redundancy in later years - where later can mean aged 40 and over.

Some people go freelance for the challenge of spreading their wings and going it alone. Some feel financially secure and use that security to get more freedom. Some want more flexibility. Flexibility is also an attraction for clients, said Juden.

"Clients see contractors as a resource they can swap in and out of, highly mobile and highly skilled," he said. "But make sure you are good at what you do - if you are not good enough you can get fired just like that."

Starting as a contractor brings some hard truths.

"You are outside the corporate umbrella - no one pays you when you are ill or on holiday," Juden said. "While you are working make sure you put money aside for holidays or when you are between contracts. You earn a bit more than permanent staff for doing the same job because you need that money for when you are not working.

"You must be a lot more disciplined about managing your finances. Permanent staff can count on a cheque every month; contractors do not have this security."

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