Benefits of IT contracting Part 1: A contractor's view

Escape the featureless office

In barren, colourless IT-office ecosystems, lonely cubicles stand tomb-like on top of grey carpet tiles and bored staff trudge a worn path between workstations and the coffee machine near the plastic-tiled emergency staircase. In one corner a neglected pot plant sheds brown leaves onto a water-stained floor and the echo of long-forgotten Christmas parties, a deflated balloon, is sellotaped to the wall.

It is in this environment that many IT people become trapped. Still interested in technology and problem solving they take jobs for medium-sized corporations and find the technical puzzle is the only aspect of the job that keeps them alive. Uninterested in management, unable or afraid to move jobs, slowly and surely they are assimilated into the furniture where the flickering screens hypnotizes them to the chair for 50 hours a week. Number seven-of-nine!

But it does not have to be like that. You do not have to steer your career to an inevitable dead end, and you do not have to lead a flat single-dimensional existence in resonance with the screen in front of you. JUST SAY NO! You can be a contractor.

Benefits of working freelance are many and it's not all about the money, although there is obviously great earnings potential. But other benefits include improved lifestyle, respect from others, no ties to dead end jobs and tremendous variation of assignment.

It's really quite simple if you don't like some aspect of your assignment, move. And when you work freelance this is possibly the biggest benefit. Time and again I have heard contractors say, "Thank heavens I can just move. Imagine you'd taken a permanent job here on the strength of an interview or two."

Don't do serial permanency

It takes many months to really work out what a company is like to work for. Interviews for new recruits are conducted in swanky offices, glossy brochures are stuffed with testimonials from happy staff proclaiming how fabulous it is to work for the organisation, and the management seems open and competent. But it is only when you arrive that you realise just how dull and badly run most companies truly are, but unless you want to ruin your CV, you're stuck for at least the next 18 months.

Contracting is the antidote to this dreadful serial permanency. Many contracts last 18 months or more and by that time you truly understand how well a company operates: you can decide to renew of move to pastures new. This option is not available so easily to the hapless permie.

But a colleague of mine, Ben Straw, contract architect working alongside a major consultancy firm, suggests there is still a balance to be made.

"There are plenty of advantages, in terms of flexibility and efficiency, in working for yourself. Bottom line, however, is that most IT people should be employed most of the time, so the contractor is trading risk for better return. Sometimes it pays off; sometimes it doesn't," he says.

Straw has been contracting for over a decade. Considering his gapless CV, his comments seem a little conservative, but, he says that in his current role, "I am always expecting to be moved out as head-count pressure comes on. Government is likely to slow down, there is more pressure for large suppliers to take the cost, and contractor head-count should decrease."

William Knight