How to make clients think you're good

UK plc. does not believe its IT professionals are any good. It does not think IT users have good general software knowledge or that they are capable of using a spreadsheet. Further, it considers that ICT professionals need to address shortfalls in their technical abilities, and 92% of firms report a 'professional skills gaps'.

This is according to the e-skills quarterly survey of 1,000 UK human resource contacts reported on CUK.

Contractors, of course, are a traditional filler for IT skills gaps, but what makes a contractor think they can impress clients any more than their mediocre permanent counterparts?

According to the survey, only 39% of companies have an IT training plan. So while whingeing about the skills gap, companies do little about it. Which makes you wonder what feeble plans are in place to measure contractor competency and make accurate appraisals.

Probably none. Nonetheless, contractors do wish to impress in order to gain that all important extension, but how do they go about it, if their skills are rarely measured or noticed?

Ardesco, a contract tester writing on the CUK bulletin board, firmly believes work can be assessed and thinks contractors should concentrate on fault-free fast delivery.

"If the work written by a contractor flies through testing with no problems it is good, and the management know because they finish ahead of schedule. If it is poor, it gets bogged down in testing with hundreds of iterations as all the bugs are exposed. If you deliver work that flies through testing, you know that you are good."

Ardesco admits that this tactic depends upon testers keeping excellent records so that "good" contractors can be identified.

Robert Wallace, veteran contractor, software developer and designer, thinks this is hardly ever the case.

"Defects rarely show up in the expected place. Defects are assigned to the screen or business process, but not at the level at which a software developer works. Just finding out who should fix a problem is usually a task beyond the tester's ability."

So if good work goes unnoticed because statistics are inaccurate, what else can you do to impress?

Wendigo, contract technical author, and CUK bulletin boarder praises the power of communication.

"Doing a good job is obviously top, but talking to people is important too. Especially getting the customer's customers onside. If they are happy, your customer is happy," he says.

And networking is a theme taken up by Doug Twistner a contract business analyst. He recommends you "rush round discussing the issues with people who do actually know what they are taking about, to raise your profile."

But both Twistner and Ardesco agree that the size of the project dictates the strategy for success.

"I've studied a few 'great contractors' and it has always struck me that the size of the site makes a difference. If the site is small then be honest and willing. Get involved, do a few extra hours now and then," says Twistner.

And Ardesco adds, "In a large team your individual contribution could get lost in the overall program. If you work well with testers and integrators and the whole process goes smoothly, without the management having to stick their oar in, they will probably have a good opinion of you."

In contrast, Twister explains how his cynical strategy for bigger projects relies on harnessing the power of woolly statistics. "Start keeping a folder of all the jobs you've done. Throw everything into it to bulk it out. Do as many fast and dirty fix jobs as possible to keep your numbers up, only fix the visible fault, don't investigate too far since when it comes back as another problem, you can fix that too."

Twistner's comments may be ironic, but they are not without an element of truth. Ben Straw, contract architect believes "spin" is sadly a foundation for building good impressions and thinks achieving noticeable results is key.

"Renewals are dependent on getting results that are visible, and maintaining a good relationship with the client i.e. a good reputation. I find the most useful thing is to work on having a positive and supportive influence. My tip is to study hard and share what you know with your colleagues," he says.

All sensible advice, of course, but relying on a client to pay attention might be wishful thinking. Ardesco suggests a simpler, informal approach to impressing the client.

"Buying the management a drink every Friday lunchtime in the pub will probably help," he says.

William Knight

Wednesday 29th Nov 2006