IT contracting drawbacks Part 1: A contractor's view

Elsewhere in CUK's Successful Contracting section we cover the benefits of freelancing, but what are the disadvantages, or downsides, of being an IT contractor?

Freelancers are outsiders

In the summer of 1991, in my second ever freelance IT role, I was working as a contract software developer for one of the UK's best known insurance companies. The vast open plan office was modern and well equipped with the usual 24 hour fluorescent strip lighting even when the sun was blazing outside – a feature of UK office buildings due to their large flat architecture, darkened glass and sealed windows.

Hard at work writing database access routines and struggling with a Windows forerunner known as Panel Plus, I failed to notice the rest of the room's occupants disappearing until I was sitting by myself with just a couple of other contractors conspicuous in the far corner. I wandered over.

"What's going on?" I asked. "Where's everybody gone?"

"Oh, it's nothing to concern us contractors, it's just a project meeting," came the reply.

I was astounded, but as my contracting experience grew I realised the attitude is not uncommon. Some companies believe that contractors are monkeys to be wound up and set to a task. In the same way you would not invite your milkman to comment on the weekly shop, a contractor is not welcome to be involved in project decisions.

Not all companies take this position, but it is something you will face at one time or another and it can be demoralising.

The problem becomes particularly annoying when you are far more qualified to speak out on a subject than other, permanent, members of the team, or the project manager. Unfortunately, the longer you remain as a contractor and the more experience you gain the more likely this situation is to arise. Just because you are the most experienced technician on a project, it does not mean you will automatically be asked to comment, or that your unsolicited comments will be welcome.

A victim of politics

It has also been my experience that clients consider the development of their own staff first and foremost when allocating work, even though it seems unwise for companies not to use contractors' skills to the full.

Commenting on PCG member feedback, John Kell, PCG policy officer, says "In fairness, clients also have to consider the development of their own staff. But giving the worst work to the contractors very often makes no sense, and almost as often it therefore doesn't happen."

Contractors are generally happy to do some less interesting work if they're being paid to do it. Some members observed that making an issue of being handed less interesting work is essentially whingeing and that it would be better for the contractor either to accept that they've been unlucky or to reflect that contract selection is a skill that needs honing.

Many PCG members did report a division among clients "between those who view their contractors as 'temps' in a pejorative sense, and accordingly give them the donkey work, and those who see them as experts hired-in for a reason," Kell explained.

No room for promotion

Of course, from a political point of view, project managers and contractors' clients do need to balance the work going to contractors versus the work going to permies. All else being equal, you should expect the permanent members of staff to get the opportunities. And even though being out of politics is a benefit of contracting, you can still be the politician's victim.

Last in line for modern equipment

This political attitude might even extend to the desk, chairs and equipment you are supplied with. When working at what I am told is the world's favourite airline, the contractors were given the least powerful computers with the smallest and oldest screens. Some of the software was up to date, but unfortunately the machines were so ancient they could barely run a compilation.

I complained that I couldn't do my job properly without more computer memory and, to my enduring surprise, more memory was ordered. On the day it arrived, it was duly installed and I gained the benefit for exactly 25 minutes until it was unceremoniously removed and handed to a permanent member of staff on a different project. "Sorry, it was allocated to you by mistake," I was told, and the upgrade was never heard of again.

Difficult to get involved

But it's not just a political issue. Being a contractor means you are less trusted. Even if everybody has read your fabulous CV, which they will not have done and often even the project managers will be unsure of your skills, most people prefer to ask well-known sources for opinions, sources they have relied upon in the past. A new contractor has to earn respect and has to subtly make it known how much relevant experience they are carrying round in the grey matter. This takes time.

So if you habitually take up shorter term contracts, possible to enjoy a more flexible lifestyle, this problem will affect you proportionately more than for those who remain with the same client for years. You will always be fighting the new-kid-on-the-block mentality.

You need a thick skin

This can be a source of irritation for older, experienced contractors, but it's nothing personal. Your purpose as a contractor is to implement the task on the project manager's Gantt chart – or if you are the project manager, on the IT director's Gantt chart and so on. It's good to have ideas and to constructively share them with your paymasters, but a successful contractor will always have to knuckle down and do the work they are asked to do even if they disagree or think there is a better way. You cannot afford to be offended.

William Knight