What makes a bad, unsuccessful IT contractor?

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Even those readers of Free-Work who spend more time coding than posting on the forum or reading the news and guides page will no doubt be aware that there is a lot of information out there on how to be a  successful IT contractor.

It ranges from how to obtain work and getting paid to dealing with agencies and IR35 compliance. However, writes Alan Watts, a service management consultant (retired) with more than 40 years’ experience as an IT contractor, have you ever thought about things you should NOT be doing?

Get some things wrong and your chances of ‘renewal’ – which can be a great ballast in choppy market conditions -- will be greatly reduced.

1. Don’t think you’re alike

First, keep your distance.

You may be a worker, inside or outside IR35, but you are not an employee. That means you really should not get involved in any office politics, staff appraisals and other non-productive activities.

Unlike employees, you are there to deliver 100% of your time to the job you were hired to do. It’s your one key objective. Work with the people around you -- of course, but always remember you are not one of them.

2. Do remember there’s strength in (avoiding) numbers

Next, never talk money.

Apart from being bad manners, most employees have little or no idea how different your payment is to theirs, and are probably unaware that your apparently fabulous income actually costs the client something very close to their own salary (once you add in all the invisible overheads). There is no point in confirming their prejudices.

3. Keep your Karl Lagerfelds for the weekend

Likewise, think about not rolling up in a Porsche or wearing your best watch. Keep them for the weekends.

If for example, the on-site dress code is ‘smart casual’ – as it often is these days – don’t turn up in something from Saville Row or the like. You really don’t want to stick out from the herd.

4. Never bite the hand…

In a semi-management role, I once spent a difficult two weeks negotiating a rate rise on behalf of one of my team, who was doing a harder job then he was originally hired for -- only for him to tell me near the culmination of my negotiations that he wanted to work out his notice, because he’d found a better gig.

He actually ended up leaving the office rather abruptly. Apart from causing me a headache to replace him, the lack of respect for my efforts (and my higher-up’s patience) meant I was then not to offer him any more work to do. ‘He may as well go home now,’ was even uttered. Yes, it was a bit harsh, but don’t bite the hand that feeds you.

5. Do be aware that you probably don’t deserve more money

This leads me onto another point which is hard for many IT contractors to take following a cost-of-living crisis -- you don’t deserve a pay rise.

You are already being paid to do the best job you can, and at a rate you agreed before you started.

A change in circumstances is one thing, but that is not the client’s problem. If you are delivering above the level you were hired to do (like my ex-colleague, above) then more money may be justified. But it is not your right.

Negotiate if you think you can justify it, but carefully. Get it wrong, like threatening to walk if they don’t agree, and you may not have a job. It does happen.

6. Don’t cross the table

Always be modest. You may well be working with people who are less experienced that you are -- in your field at least, who probably have not been exposed to different industries and who are usually less skilful than you. I mean let’s face it, you aren’t a successful IT contractor because you are average!

An unlamented former co-worker of mine simply didn’t understand that you can’t walk into a client-meeting and tell them they are ‘doing it all wrong.’ And he didn’t get why you couldn’t tell that same client that you will have to do it his way from now on.

Keep in mind, you are there to deliver expertise, but it’s not your expertise; so aim to educate and enhance your client’s employees. It won’t always work, but it is the only approach that will gain you respect. Equally, telling them your last gig was to deliver a £20 million programme won’t impress them, so don’t even bother.

7. Don’t think half-truths (or worse) won’t come back to bite you

And finally, be honest. I looked up a freelance programmer who I terminated a year or so later out of curiosity. The job I fired him from (for reasons I won’t go into here but which weren’t pretty) was nowhere to be seen on is LinkedIn profile.

While the assignment’s ending wasn’t glorious for him, the entire omission of the role is silly because it was for a big player in the sector he still works in. And his day-to-day work was very good!

So don’t inflate your CV, omit gigs or tell half-truths; you will be found out. As a minimum, ensure your various online profiles all tell the same story. It’s surprising how many client-representatives who still tell me they check their prospective contractor candidates from several sources, even where those candidates aren’t going to be vetted formally.

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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