Five soft skills IT contractors require in today’s (still) tough tech jobs market

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With tech contractors telling us they find the UK’s temporary IT labour market to be challenging and unstable right now – made worse by the false dawns of a few recoveries, there’s a crop of ‘soft’ skills coming up again and again, as being invaluable to such freelance computing candidates.

In fact, here, exclusively for Free-Work,  I will list the five soft skills technology contractors need in today’s (still) tough IT jobs market, writes Matt Collingwood, managing director of technology jobs agency VIQU.

Think of these five as five ways to approach typical scenarios or turn common situations into a potential upside for you -- a freelance job candidate --  when there’s a lack of opportunities or a dearth of assignments that meet your expectations, including on pay rates. 

1. Networking: Little-to-a lot and often on LinkedIn, with ex-colleagues and recruiters

If you hate the awkwardness of a room of suits making meaningless ‘small talk,’ you are not alone!

Some people thrive in these ‘hail-fellow-well-met’ situations, and that’s fantastic. There can be great value in such traditional, face-to-face networking.

However, there are also many simple and efficient ways IT contractors can network with their existing, online network, which is likely to result in more tangible contract opportunities thanks to virtually rubbing shoulders with their tech industry peers.

LinkedIn is a great place to start.

Send those LinkedIn invitations as soon as you start

Connect with your colleagues as soon as you start a contract, and doing so means that over time, as you move from project to project, you will have built up a network of industry professionals who know you and your skillset.

On LinkedIn, take the time to comment on posts, send a quick message to a contact or two, and re-post content you think your peers would be interested in – while, where appropriate, linking it back to what you do as an IT specialism (skills), or where you work (location), or when you’re next available (date).

These three virtual networking tasks achievable on this single platform are a great way to keep you at the forefront of the minds of those you worked with in the past. When those people or someone they know is in need of a contractor with your skillset, you stand as good as chance as anyone to get recommended.

Don't leave out recruiters like me

The easy and simple techniques outlined above can also be great for networking with IT recruiters.

I often hear complaints about recruiters not ‘getting back’ to contractors once they apply to job adverts. But did you know that not all freelance tech jobs get advertised? There are times when I personally know the perfect contractor; we’ve kept in touch, and they get a call from me and get offered first refusal. If you’ve ‘gotten on well’ with a recruiter, keep in touch, and be on their speed-dial ‘list’.

2. Negotiation: deploy my four tried and tested ‘to-me-to-you’ techniques

Some IT recruiters are using today’s challenging market conditions and increased contractor applications to negotiate harder on day rates, with a view to maximising their own margins.

It would be easy right now for a recruiter to write margins of 30% if they wanted to!

I even know of a recruiter who negotiated a rate decrease for the candidate, so the recruiter could hike his own margin, even though the ‘charge rate’ to the client remained the same!

Is this fair? No, not in my opinion. But likewise, some clients are aware of the current conditions and are using them to their advantage.

Learn, mould, refine

Effective negotiation is something that is learnt, moulded and refined over time.

But there are straightforward negotiation techniques any good IT contractor should know and deploy regularly, to achieve a ‘to-me-to you’ sense -- whereby both parties feel like they are winning -- and that’s often the key to negotiation success.

i) Always be first to bring up money!

-  It might feel uncomfortable, but being the first to the table on rates gives you a subtle edge in the bargaining power stakes.

ii) Be direct and clear on pay expectations!

-  Say “My rate is £X per day.” Never (never!) give a rate range, and similarly don’t say things like “I would like £X per day.” Both of these give the recruiter an opening to renegotiate or negotiate your rate down.

iii) Don’t overtalk!

-  There is a power in silence. And it can put the recruiter on the back foot. If you are having the discussion in person or on a video call, make sure you retain eye contact and only talk when needed. Also, keep it brief without being impolite. Staying quiet can give you interesting insights into the recruiter’s viewpoint or the role. You might even find that THEY overtalk to fill the space you’re leaving, potentially even revealing to you something they ought not to!

iv) Keep it friendly!

-  Whether you end up securing the IT contract or not, you never want a recruiter to walk away from a negotiation thinking you were rude, unreasonable or unprofessional. As I mentioned earlier, you want to be on a recruiter’s speed-dial ‘list’ of contractors to contact. Don’t give them a reason to remove you.

3. Interview-prep 101: My top 5 pre-interview preparation steps, because first impressions count

 You won’t need this ‘soft’ skill too often hopefully, and it’ll be used for such a short period of an assignment, but it is by no means less important. It is the first impression you create on that client, and that’s usually at the interview stage. It frustrates me to see skilled IT contractors falling at this very first hurdle, and it's totally avoidable.

If I were to compare a seasoned IT contractor to a permanent tech job candidate, I can nearly always guarantee the contractor will be more confident and calmer in interviews; after all, they do more of them! They're used to the questions, the process, and managing the pressure. A permanent candidate, in contrast, might not have done an interview in a decade and, in some instances, needs coaching to manage nerves. 

However, where permanent candidates often excel is their effort and preparation pre-interview.

'I have the skills, so what else do you need to know about me?'

Too many contractors still go into an interview having done NO research, possessing only basic knowledge of the opportunity that I, as a recruiter, have offered. The attitude is; wrongly, "I have the skills, so what else do you need to know about me?”

The thing is that more and more clients are taking pride in their vision; their values, and their product/service or offering. No time spent getting to know the basics of what a client does is a turn-off and recruiters like us are duty-bound to relay that, or at least mark down the candidate for such disinterest! 

By contrast, it excites a client and leaves a positive impression when an IT contractor like you at interview has taken the time to do some or all of these:

i) You read the company’s social media profiles and on the day of interview even double-checked their LinkedIn for the latest announcements or activities by the business. This up-to-the-minute knowledge will impress a client – especially if whatever you mention is a detail only gleanable from you doing your own research.

ii) You are knowledgeable about their products and services which relate and don’t relate to the opportunity you’re going forward for.

iii) You connect with the interviewer on LinkedIn – or at least know a little bit about them from doing some research into them as an individual.

iv) You ask a few relevant questions which demonstrate genuine interest and/or foresight.

v) You are ready and prepared to answer the popular interview question, ‘Why are you right for this role?’ Or better yet, you pre-empt the question by saying, “This is why I believe I can support you with this project” -- and then you match your experience against the client’s needs.

4. Self-reflection: You detect ‘limiting beliefs’ and partition them off during a job-search

For many tech contractors, times are tough at the moment, and this can be emotionally draining with extended times between contracts. Applying for lots of assignments, sending out endless emails, and not getting feedback from interviews. It can be grim, and can manifest negatively, causing you to doubt the market and even your own abilities!

These almost catastrophising-type thoughts and ‘confidence blockers’ you might put on yourself are often known as ‘limiting beliefs’.

Everyone experiences limiting beliefs but learning how to identify them can help you proactively prevent these beliefs from limiting your next contract-search.

Here’s an example. I had a debate with a (jobless) contractor on LinkedIn recently about the proportion of tech roles that are outside IR35. He said it was just 5%. My reply to him (and we both work in tech) was that it more like 50%, or potentially lower at 40%. But it didn’t matter how many stats I shared with, or examples I gave, he had placed a limiting belief on himself that outside IR35 opportunities virtually didn’t exist and that’s why he wasn’t securing contracts.

Another example is when contractors say things like:

  • “All job adverts are fake,” and;

  • “There are no contract jobs out there,” and;

  • “All recruiters are in it for themselves.”

These statements may get endorsed on a night out, or by contractors who are ‘on the bench’ but they simply aren’t fair or accurate. These types of statements can also serve to subtly limit your capability, resilience and determination in relation to finding temporary IT work.

Ditch the limiting thoughts brigade

The easiest thing to do early on is understand where the belief came from. Just because you feel it, doesn’t make it right. Seek out evidence. Talk to IT recruiters, ex-colleagues, former clients, those who have landed outside IR35 contracts via an agent. Take an exploratory approach and try to ingratiate yourself towards those parties (online and in-person) who will be able to support you, by not reinforcing any limiting thoughts you might be having. 

Unconvinced? Well, I spent 18 months working with an NLP (Neuro Linguistic Programming) coach to understand and manage my own limiting beliefs. And this was the catalyst for me to become self-employed and start VIQU, as previously I’d held myself back prior, believing I wasn’t ready!

5. Conflict minimisation: Because ‘office politics’ isn’t part of this contract, or any temp IT contract

Many IT contractors become IT contractors to move away from permanent work so they don’t have to get involved in office politics. They want to turn up, deliver a service and get paid without the wrangles which a permanent job can impose.

Yet, I still see examples from contactors we place who get into unnecessary conflict in the work environment! I’ve encountered examples of contractors sharing gossip and giving or contributing to negative, unsolicited opinions on how a project is run (often discrediting the end-client’s internal project manager). We have even been made aware of all out fist-fights - and unfortunately, no I’m not exaggerating!

Blaming the external techie who leaves next month anyway

Behaving as a freelance IT contractor in any way to cause conflict will not be helpful to the situation, and will likely end up with you alienating yourself from the team, upsetting the wrong stakeholder and ultimately, not having your contract extended. You’ll also likely get your reputation trashed -- even unfairly, because it’s often easier to blame the whole thing on the external consultant who moves on next month! 

Seeking to work in alignment with all the stakeholders involved in the project -- and finding resolution where any conflict does occur; or just not getting involved, is a key tool in a seasoned tech contractor’s ‘soft’ skillset.

Written by

Matt Collingwood

Managing Director of VIQU

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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