What qualifications do you need to become an IT contractor?

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To succeed in business and with many occupations, qualifications range from being a ‘nice-to-have’ to a pre-requisite.

But while the question, ‘What qualifications do you need to become an IT contractor?’ is absolutely worth asking, it’s probably best answered by asking another question; ‘Do IT contractors need ANY qualifications at all?!’

In my experience, the answer to this question is a rather unsatisfactory ‘It depends,’ writes Alan Watts, a service management consultant (retired), with more than 40 years’ experience as an IT contractor.

Horses for courses…

With qualifications in the UK technology space, there are different meanings we need to consider. With IT contractors in particular, the qualifications which they tend to look at getting under their belt are four-fold -- professional, academic, technical, and fourth, personal.

First up then, ‘professional qualifications’ are fairly straightforward to get your head around. 

What is a professional qualification?

The actual meaning of a “professional,” is someone who has passed an independent examination, and has been approved by a recognised body to be of a suitable standard to practice that profession.

Everyday examples are doctors, architects, engineers, and so on. But not, oddly enough, accountants! You may not realise it, but anyone can describe themselves as ‘an accountant’ as long as they don’t falsely claim to be chartered, or hold other qualifications.

If you want to obtain contracts to practice as a medical locum, or a pharmacist, then having the appropriate qualification is a given, as is keeping up with the changes as they come along, such as through industry-provided training.  

What do professional qualifications in the tech industry look like?

In the technology space in the UK, the British Computer Society offers “certifications for IT professionals” in ten areas, ranging from DevOps and Agile, to Business Analysis and Artificial Intelligence (A1). The society says obtaining a BCS qualification lets you “improve and validate your competence,” and formalise the “value you bring” to an organisation.

Academic qualifications are useful for entry-level tech jobs

Academic qualifications can feel especially exciting if what you’re passionate about is going to be part of the course, programme or curriculum. And academic qualifications are useful. But perhaps in 2023, academic credentials are not as useful as you might think!

With IT and other fields, academic qualifications now often serve as an ‘entry-level’ requirement to a great many jobs. And outside tech too -- to be a qualified nurse for example, you first need a degree in nursing.

What a degree says about you, is arguably more important than what you read

Yet in many cases, having a degree merely means you understand a given subject, and are capable of studying, learning, and applying yourself for a certain, not overly short period. It does not mean you are necessarily qualified to do the job ‘in the real world.’ Indeed, less traditional employers have been known to point this out to candidates who comes across as overly confident on the basis that they excelled in higher education.  

To some extent today, the actual degree you acquire is not even that relevant to what you end up doing. There are many people out there with degrees doing work that is nothing to do with their degree subject. And more than a few respected practitioners, sometimes doing those same jobs as degree-holders (graduates), with no degree at all.

Technical qualifications for IT contractors…

Technical qualifications are where it starts to get interesting (or ‘complicated’ depending on your view) for IT contractors.

Clearly if you want to land a technology job as a programmer in a given program language, it is going to be massively useful to have learned that language and be proficient in it. To prove your proficiency, a certificate from a recognised training organisation is invariably a handy thing to have.

And be aware, many IT contract job descriptions will contain a requirement for certification.

Proficiency, limitations, and getting caught out

Note, above, I say “proficient” in it. That’s because you may well be fully up to speed on the syntax and logical structure of a language, but it doesn’t necessarily mean you will be able to instantly apply that language to your new client’s, new problem. Such ability only comes with applying the language -- or indeed any complex tool -- in real-world settings, and delivering a result that the end-user can ‘use.’

Here’s a non-IT example. About the only area where an individual can leave a training course after absorbing everything which was taught with a qualification to prove it, and immediately use what they took on -- by doing the same like-for-like reproduction, is spoken languages.

Even then, though, you will get caught out by colloquialisms and other language evolutions, affecting words, terms or meanings, which a written course from yesteryear simply can’t equip you for.

Nested training courses and the embed problem

Further be aware if you’re an IT contractor looking to acquire some credentials -- there is a risk of getting embedded in accumulating technical qualifications in a given area. This risk is especially marked in technology’s more non-technical roles, such as project management, where there are ‘nested’ levels of training courses and certificates on offer.

The issue (as the more technically-minded ‘techies’ will tell you), is that such course-tied qualifications do not adequately prepare you for the harsh realities of that kind of work in the real-world. I’m talking here about face-to-face people management; resourcing when an individual’s actual job can be at stake, and hitting deadlines with severe financial ramifications if you don’t.

Do technical qualifications help IT contractors when going forward for opportunities?

On their own however, technical qualifications are important, not least because they will give you an advantage over other job applicants who have similar experience to you but no formal qualifications.

So having a technical qualification or two is an asset in the age-old challenge of getting your application noticed, and standing out to decision-makers. Just be careful -- keep a sensible balance between ‘paperwork-learning’ and ‘real-world experience.’

Personal qualifications? As an IT freelancer, get schooled in business and compliance

Finally, personal qualifications. What personal qualification do you absolutely need to become a contractor? Clearly you can’t take a training course in ‘being an IT contractor’ – at least not one I’ve heard of!

But there is a lot of helpful information online, once you separate the wheat from the chaff, or just dispense with the unreliable and vested interested sources!

In terms of what areas you should look to get clued up on, so you can at least feel like you’re pretty qualified to talk about or advise on, it’s the key business areas of IT contracting.

So, I’d recommend an understanding of tax law and practices, not least because there are still a surprising number of ways you can land yourself with an unforeseen bill from HMRC, even many years after the event.

Similarly, if you are going to be setting up a limited company, a good grounding in the Companies Act is fairly important. At the very least, you must understand the role of a director and know the difference between that and a shareholder.

Further considerations (includes accountancy, HMRC responsibility, and IR35)

Equally important as a ‘Ltd’ director, is getting to grips with basics of accountancy. My take here is that while you’d be wise to engage an accountant to do the heavy lifting, remember it is essentially your signature on the bottom of your HMRC documents, and it is your liability if the accountant is wrong.

Related, any limited company contractor wanting to succeed as 2024 comes into sight must make sure they grasp IR35, both the ‘Chapter 8’ and ‘Chapter 10’ off-payroll rules. So, to reiterate when it comes to personal credentials, you don’t need to be qualified in business, tax and compliance matters, but you absolutely need to be educated in all three!

Finally, what about me and qualifications?

My 40-year successful IT career was conducted without a degree. That said, I did get an HNC in Applied Microbiology before my move into technology and once in the IT sector, I completed lots of courses centred on (or relating to) operating systems and programming languages.

At that time, very little additional training or qualifications were required to move into managerial and consultancy roles. However, my own ‘major’ was Service Management. And just as I’ve tried to convey with the above four main categories of qualifications which IT contractors tend to acquire, 90% of success (in my case) derived from actual, on-the-job experience. I did have a sound working knowledge of ITIL, in addition, however.

Looking back today, I realise that I was blocked from applying for a couple of roles because I didn’t have a manager’s certificate, but then again, I also went on to land gigs ahead of fully-qualified people with a tenth of my background. So, personally speaking and professionally, I don't feel like I missed anything important, although a couple of potential clients probably did by not seeing my CV!

Written by

Alan Watts

Independent Service Management Consultant

Alan Watts has been in IT for most of the last 45 years, apart from a short spell in accountancy, eventually turning to Operations Management before going freelance in 1996. Since then he has worked with clients ranging from FTSE100s to major Government departments, with roles varying between Project Management, Interim Management and pure Consultancy.

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