Diary of a first time IT contractor - Making the jump

Ultimately, only the individual can make that decision, however, with the wealth of information available on the Internet it can at least be an informed decision.

A friend once told me that the trickiest part of moving from a perm role to contractor was getting the first contract. The consistent advice I've been getting has been to build a stock pile of cash, quit my job and take the first reasonable contract I get offered. In the current climate that is a monumental leap of faith to make.

Periodically, I consider starting my contracting career; over the past few months I've been revisiting to the 'First Timers' section on the Contractor UK website. I also found the CUK Guide to Contracting which had a lot of the pros and cons. While reading this guide, I found myself growing increasingly enthusiastic about contracting; even the negatives didn't seem to be that big an issue.

I think everyone agrees, we're in a pretty bad place economically. Deciding to make the jump from the relative safety of perm life to contracting is made ever more difficult by the uncertainty we're all facing. There are three key points that helped me my decision; firstly, other areas of our internal IT department were facing redundancies. This disposes of the "safety of being a perm". Secondly, a previous employer whom I have the greatest respect for pointed out that people still need to spend money, even in an economic crisis. I extended this by rationalising it was simply a case of selecting my first contract to ensure they were likely to afford to keep the contract running.

The last deciding point is more of a character trait. I have something of a cavalier attitude toward pressure and risk. It's a risk I'm prepared to take and if all goes wrong I'm confident I can recover one way or another.

I genuinely considered following my friend's advice; saving some money and waiting till the time was right. I do think that you have to act when you think it's right; and although I have no savings to speak of, no guarantees that this is the right time to make the jump and all logic says I should wait, I'm going to make the jump now! If I can succeed in the current climate, I can succeed at the other side.

About me

When I left the RAF late 2004, I was 25 years old; I had established a successful career as an Engineer during my service. With experience of telecoms, radar and IT, I was at something of a loss as to which career path to follow on 'Civvy' Street.

At the time, my friend was contracting for a large petro company and seemed to be raking it in; I decided to learn C# and the associated technologies with a five year plan to be contracting by the time I was 30. Currently, I'm a perm in a Formula 1 team doing internal development for the IT Department.

My wife had our first baby last Christmas and we made the decision for her to leave her job this year to bring up the boy; I should have never underestimated the cost of a baby, but that's a whole different article. The short and long of it is, I need to fill the gap left by the loss of my wife's income.

Like most people who consider contracting, it's the perceived financial reward that keeps bringing me back to the idea I should accelerate my "plan" and look for a contract now.

The first contract

An unexpected email arrived in my inbox this morning. A contractor I've worked with previously has a role in London and they need a SharePoint developer, yesterday. My immediate thoughts are of my four week notice period which I think will rule me out straight away.

I've said I'm interested but that I have concerns about my notice period and how soon they need someone; he's going to talk to the Project Manager and see what he says.

Agents

I've just had a call from the agent that's dealing with this contract; my details have been passed to him by my friend inside. It seems that there is a corporate account set up between the client and the agency so there won't be any direct access on this one.

As long as I've thought about contracting I've struggled with the question, what is my market worth? I understand that with experience of contracting this question gets answered, but what of the first one? There are a multitude of sites on the Internet that cover the current market rate for various technologies nationwide. This is the best place to start when working it out.

I've been looking at a combination of jobserve and CWJobs to see what the going rate is for my particular skill set. ITJobsWatch also seems to offer good information when trying to see what the average market rate currently sits at.

As it happens, the agreement between the agency and client includes a fairly fixed structure for contractor rates. My friend had already given me the heads up on this so I got what I wanted without trying to conduct any negotiations without really knowing what I was doing. Luckily, it's the market rate I identified from my research.

The agent is happy to put me forward for the contract at the agreed rate. I need to protect my current perm position for as long as possible, so I've asked for telephone interview if possible.

The interviews

My contact inside tells me that there isn't anybody else applying for this role, so I'm lucky in that respect. I was once told that you can get tens of people applying for desirable contracts.

I had a teleconference with the Project Manager and the Technical Architect today; it seemed to go well with both of them. Talking with friends and colleagues I already knew that the contractor interview is rather different to the perm one. The ease with which a contract can be terminated makes it less of an issue to "vet" the interviewee as you would were you employing someone.

We discussed the project I am being brought in for and the structure of the existing team, I told them my background and it all seems positive for moving forward.

The agent called the other day; I've got a face to face interview with the Project Manager and the Program Manager this afternoon in London. I'm hoping it's a formality but I'm prepared for it being a full interview and I'm ready to sell myself.

The actual interview went well, the Program Manager seemed satisfied that I would be able to carry out the required work. Unfortunately, the urgency has been lost, the project I am being brought in for has yet to be authorised and it could be a few weeks before I find out if it's a go and I can quit my current job. Until then, I need to keep quiet at work and look at alternative contracts as a precaution.

I had a call from the Project Manager tonight, its four days since the face to face and they have secured the project.

I have my first contract.

Owen Rumney