So You Want to Be an IT Contractor
Life as an IT contractor can be very rewarding – both financially and emotionally. You get to be your own boss, accept only the jobs you want, and work flexible hours. With each assignment comes the opportunity to learn new skills and gain exposure to different work environments and cultures.
It isn’t for everyone, but many who move away from permanent work into contracting never look back. We talked to one of our MATRIX Recruiting Team Leads to get his viewpoint on some of the pros and cons of contracting.
Q: Why move from permanent positions to contracting?
A: While making more money is the obvious answer, I think it more so relates to people who work in technology needing new challenges. After a while, they get bored doing the same thing every day. They may be stellar at what they do, so the company wants to keep them in the same role. Yet they see their friends moving on to work on new, cutting-edge technology, and that sounds more exciting.
Q: Are companies recognizing this and trying to keep their permanent employees from going stale?
A: Some companies are smart and offer classes or prepare them for another role by moving them into cross-functional training. However, that is a minority. Overall, the market is slow to realize this. Some companies feel like the investment isn’t worth it, especially if the employee is preparing for a move anyway. Others may offer a bonus if they get wind that an employee is dissatisfied. Money is part of the story, but usually not the main factor. Employees need to be challenged.
Q: What other factors cause a developer to feel unfulfilled?
A: Most top developers want to work on new development, where the sizzle is. Big companies can accommodate this as they will have dedicated development and maintenance teams. They can keep a top developer engaged by moving him or her from new project to new project. But with small and mid-level companies, developers may have to maintain what they build. Unfortunately, many developers view maintenance as a graveyard for their careers.
Q: There is risk in moving to a contractor role, right?
A: Risk and reward. When you land a permanent gig, everything moves kind of slowly and you have time to settle in. There’s no time for that when you contract. It’s sink or swim. If the company loses budget, you may be out of a job. The flip side is you are going to be making more money as a contractor. If you have to work overtime, you are going to be paid for that. Smart contractors know this risk and put some of this extra money aside for that contingency.
Q: What about lack of benefits?
A: That is probably the second biggest thing that keeps permanent employees from making the move. As a contractor, you need to insure that your rate is high enough to compensate for lack of company-supplied benefits. To make sure you and your family are covered, calculate the upfront costs beforehand.
It’s worth noting that good staffing companies like MATRIX do offer their contractors benefits while they are on assignment.
Q: As a contractor, do you always need to be looking at your next assignment?
A: You should always be looking at the market when you are a contractor. When you have a permanent job, you can maybe sit back a bit and relax. You have a bit more job security.
Stay close to your recruiter. Check in frequently to help them help you find your next assignment. If you sense that your assignment might end soon, let them know immediately.
Remember that you are very marketable as a contractor. Companies no longer view contracting in a negative way, and are comfortable looking at shorter jobs on a resume.
Q: How should I network as a contractor?
A: Networking is paramount as long as you are not wasting your time. There are lots of user groups, Meetups, etc., where people are just lecturing or chatting. While you are on the job, learn who knows who. Have lunch or coffee with friends you make. Take a walk and find out the lay of the land. People are more than willing to help if you ask them questions. Use your best judgment to put the pieces together.
Q: What if you want to extend your stay?
A: At the start of a contract assignment, a company will usually make their intentions known if there is a chance of contract-to-hire. As a contractor, you should make your wishes known to your hiring manager. You can also demonstrate your interest by doing things like digging deeper into the company. Join committees. Attend happy hours. Ask to help with projects that are not in your core skill set. Some people think that behaving like this is taboo, and you shouldn’t try to act like you are part of the permanent team. Contractors are so well accepted these days, that I think you should be opportunistic and take your chances.
Q: As you move to different contracts, how much does culture really matter?
A: It is important to pay attention to this, as the work environment contributes greatly to overall job satisfaction. Seasoned contractors know this well and pay a lot of attention to these “intangibles”. Some environments (usually at larger shops) have lots of red tape and even the smallest requests must go up the chain of command. Smaller shops tend to be more loosey-goosey. You may be able to come and go when you want, play music at your desk, dress as you like, etc. Which type suits you best?
Q: Should you seek out contracts in other vertical industries?
A: It’s definitely easier to stay in the same industry over and over again. The assumption is you know how the industry works, so hiring managers will be more likely to consider you. While there is some truth to this, I would advise to get as much experience as you can.
Working in a variety of places --- big shop, small shop, different skills, different cultures --- makes you very valuable. Companies want to hire people who can get along with all types of personalities and can adapt to different work cultures.