Winning business: Know your strengths – A contractor's view

If you can't get a contract, you can't be a contractor. Many in the business convert to contracting and continue with their existing client. Others leave their permanent jobs and throw themselves at the mercy of agents. But at one time or another, all contractors will find difficulty in getting the next position. So how do you maximise your chances at every opportunity.

It is a happy fact that most contractors have little difficulty finding work for much of the time. Years can pass as you get your teeth into a position, and then the next role can fall in the lap like an autumn leaf floats to the ground.

But it is also true that those contractors who have made a career from contracting in the IT sector also set about getting a contract with the same fervour as a ferret hunting rabbits or a dog chasing a ball. They realise that looking for work is as much part of their career choice as performing each contract and competently doing the technical tasks.

It is very possible to get a contract – to be a contractor – without too much effort, when the market conditions are right, you have a good selection of skills and you are in the correct place at the correct time.

Watch out for the bad times

But what happens when the market falls, when your skills are no longer in demand, when a major project ends and agents are flooded with candidates all with your skills. It happens a lot even during the good times. Public sector projects and large infrastructure changes in the private sector can suck up skilled contractors and retain them for years on end. But when the project ends, or a new executive accountant makes cut backs, all those easily ended contracts can expire pushing dozens of contractors with similar skills onto the job markets all at once.

Further, many of those contractors will be flexible, hard working and carry excellent references – if only by virtue of a respected company name on their CV. How will you compete without giving yourself the very best chance.

Learn about marketing

You probably guessed we were getting round to this subject. "I didn't become an IT professional just to do silly business stuff," I hear you shout. Well, if you expect to run a freelance business, then you must understand your market and that means marketing. And it really doesn't hurt to understand how sales people and marketing professionals operate.

"Authentic marketing is not the art of selling what you make but knowing what to make. It is the art of identifying and understanding customer needs and creating solutions that deliver satisfaction to the customers, profits to the producers and benefits for the stakeholders." Philip Kotler.

The four Ps of marketing

In an act typical of sales and marketing fuzziness, those in the business, marketers, are fond of breaking up their strategies into four Ps: Product, Promotion, Price and Place. And sometimes five Ps to include Packaging – but we can leave that until you start your multi-million euro export business.

Thinking about the four Ps is a simple way of remembering the important aspects of your business and does help you understand what's important in defining your career and your "getting a contract" strategy.

Discover your product

What is your product? Simple, you are a programmer or analyst, architect or project manager, or network security consultant...next!

But it isn't that simple. If you consider Philip Kotler's words that marketing is "the art of identifying and understanding customer needs and creating solutions that deliver satisfaction," you will see that each position to which you apply actually requires a different product; a different you, if you like.

Each client company has a unique set of problems it needs to solve, and it will have an idea of what type of person, with what skills, will be most likely to solve its problems in the most satisfying way. Your combination of skills and experience is your meta-product from which a product to satisfy a client can be extracted.

Very often in IT freelancing, the extraction of a suitable product from a bag of skills is achieved via an agent. It is the agent that intimately understands the client, it is the agent that has invested hours, perhaps days, months or years, appreciating the client's business, and it is the agent that knows – or at least should know – what the client is looking for.

So your agent, if you have one, will present you and your CV in the best light to get the interview; he or she will extract the perfect product from your CV's meta-product.

Rewriting your CV

So you will, on occasion be asked to adapt your CV to suit the client and the position on offer. It's inevitable. One day, some obscure technology featuring on a five year old contract on your CV will be the one skill a project manager thinks will solve his problems, but you will have given it so little emphasis the agent will ask for clarification.

Usually clarification involves discussing with the agent how your skills match the client's requirements and they make a note to accompany your CV when they send it to the client. But sometimes they will ask you to "emphasise" experience on your CV.

Does this mean you should rewrite your CV for every position you apply for? No I don't think so. But you should certainly review your CV each time you send it out in response to an advert on the internet job boards, and consider what, exactly, the client is after. What problems does the client want solving that you can help to solve, and is it clear from the CV?

Boring

Yes, it can get tedious when there are twenty jobs to apply for, with different agents all with subtly different requirements, but it is important you keep up the pressure. You never know which job will be the one, and it is easy to miss out just because you didn't mention your involvement in team leading a minor part of a project with an obscure application.

And it's not just the client you need to convince. Remember that the same process applies to getting your CV in front of an agent in the first place. If your CV does not jump out as being suitable it might be confined to the slush pile before being properly considered for submission. It is therefore vital to read any job specifications properly before sending an application, and then follow up with a phone call.

Ask yourself, "Does this CV make it clear I can solve the client's problems? Have I shown the right product?" If not, change it.

William Knight