IT contracting drawbacks Part 2: 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? As William Knight explains, 'take the money and run' doesn't always compensate for the downsides.

Take the job you can get

With permies on the same project team getting all the interesting work, many contractors would see dull jobs as the only ones available for contractors.

This is the nature of contracting, and it is probably best to get used to it if you want to remain happy, particularly as you gain experience but find yourself trapped in low-level positions that pay good money but are hardly the most glamorous IT functions.

Little job satisfaction

A report a few years ago by the University of Bath produced a report showing how Information and Computer Technology (ICT) was the 66th least satisfying career out of 88 different occupations.

The study leader, Prof Michael Rose, said, "ICT professionals emerge from the survey less satisfied with involvement, sense of achievement, job security and training provided."

And that's talking about permanent staff members. With freelancing, the work feels less secure, no training is provided, you are lucky to get a thank you over and above the pay packet, and you are quite likely to be cut out of the important, strategic decisions. It's a recipe for dissatisfaction and the money only keeps you happy for so long.

Say goodbye to regular pay rises

As a contractor you say goodbye to regular pay rises. It's true that each contract renewal, and at the times you change contract, give opportunity to negotiate a new rate, but largely speaking you may be paid at the prevailing rate for your skill set and job position for many years. Ten years of project management experience is unlikely to get you that much more pay than if you only had two years, and it's even possible your rates can fall.

But luckily, according to Steve McConnell, author of several influential software development books, money is only the ninth most important motivator for those with a coding or analysis bent. The others include: achievement; personal growth; the work itself; life outside work; interpersonal relationships with peers, and recognition.

Freelance Stress Disorder

By its very nature, contracting means working to tight deadlines by implementing ever expanding and changing specifications. Demanding users require either hand-holding or time-consuming explanations and all too often you are not in charge of all the salient technical details. Add to this the fact that contractors are often expected to out-perform permanent staff by putting in longer hours and producing better quality work, and you have a recipe for stress that is only surpassed by crossing a minefield on stilts while juggling saucepans.

And because projects can last for years you may be required to maintain this fantastic effort until the project is finally canned – which happens to more than you might imagine – or you finally refuse to renew your contract and stumble exhausted to the nearest hammock.

The reality of project work

Research by the Standish Group shows that for each contract you are involved with, you will have only a one in three chance of being totally successful and a one in five chance of the project failing or being cancelled. (You will probably not be blamed for project failure, but neither will you be thanked if a project turns out to be successful.) So as an IT contractor you can look forward to more partial success and failure than outright success.

Worse still, as you gain experience of many different projects, you will be able to tell the ones that are going to fail within a few days of taking up your seat. There will be a resigned attitude among the permies, the management will be either micro-managing or not present at all. Yet the demise could nonetheless be avoidable for your insight. Mention it at your peril though, your thoughts are usually not welcomed.

Look forward to little control

Despite excellent experience falling out of your ears, you are likely to have very little management control to change a project's direction; the chances are that you will start work after the seeds of failure have already been planted, and you will depart before the project is finally cancelled. There is very little you can do to affect an outcome, and, particularly on a large project, even if you are the most talented technician on planet Earth, your individual efforts will count for very little apart from a coloured entry in a management Gantt chart.

Naturally, it's not good for job satisfaction. In time, even if your attitude is "take the money and run," the realities lead to disillusionment and stress, and because of ever increasing commercial realities, the pressure will only increase.

William Knight