Top tips on how to survive as a contractor
By Asavin Wattanajantra, Editor, Microsoft UK Developers
According to experts, 2014 is the year of the IT contractor. Increasing numbers of people are exploring a career path which doesn't follow the traditional full-time or permanent route.
In the past, the use of contractors was simply put down to companies not wanting to commit to long-term employees. But increasingly, it's actually more to do with what technology professionals themselves are looking for.
Many don't want to be tied down to a single company – they like flexibility and the ability to move around. Working as a contractor can also be significantly more lucrative than a permanent position, while it also provides the opportunity to work on fresh new projects and keep skills current.
But it's not for everybody. The flexibility it offers must also be counterbalanced with the lack of security in these types of roles, and the need to constantly look for new contracts to prevent yourself being stuck in between jobs with no position and no income.
Finding the opportunities and improving your skills
As well as the lack of security, having the right skills is something contractors really need to keep in mind when looking for new roles (which they'll have to spend much more time doing than a person in a secure, full-time and permanent position).
They'll also need to find ways to keep skills up to date, as well as potentially certified. There are various ways to get 'skilled up' in your spare time if you don’t have the time to train – there are free resources with which a tech professional can use to teach themselves, from the likes of Microsoft and others.
However arguably, the tougher prospect is finding roles which match the experience and the remuneration candidates feel they deserve. This can be easier said than done. To do this you'll need to present the best version of yourself and advertise on all the available channels.
CVs and branding
Whatever skills you have aren't any use unless you are put in front of the right people, and this is why branding and advertising is so important.
Most obviously, you need to get your CV right. This is a 'living' document which will constantly undergo change due to your constant changing of roles. In the end you'll need it to sell your capabilities and achievements in the best way you can, so you can get the interview.
It's really important, as a well-presented and effective CV can be a way of presenting yourself in a way which is better than somebody with more experience. And don’t forget the value of a good cover letter. Here are a few tips on getting things right.
Social media is also a great tool for finding and applying for new roles, in particular LinkedIn. As well as being a great place to find hard to find positions, you can turn your profile into an advertisement of your skills and experience. As you network and connect with more people, the wider the pool of hirers who you have contact with.
If you’ve got more time and are willing to put the effort in, you can even make a push with content marketing, showing off expertise through blogs and social media. For example, LinkedIn offers a way to blog with its LinkedIn Influencers programme, which can increase your exposure significantly. You can also put the effort in creating a personal website and blog.
Done right, managers and recruiters will be coming to you rather than you needing to come to them. And talking of recruiters...
It'll be very surprising if you don't make use of recruiters in your contracting odyssey. They can be extremely useful – they might have knowledge and access to roles which aren't advertised, and will spend time looking for roles which they think are suitable, rather than you - especially valuable if you're looking for a new contract while you are actively working.
But it's likely that you'll already know some of the issues in working with recruiters. They are working for employers, not you. This means that they won't necessarily understand your CV and immediately fit you into the job roles you're looking for. And they won't necessarily have your best interests at heart.
However, if you can build a good relationship with a recruiter, then you have a person who will actively do a lot of the hard yards when it comes to searching for the right roles - and it's in their best interests as they'll get rewarded when you sign on the dotted line.
It is all well and good having the skills and getting them down on paper, but understandably, getting in front of people for the dreaded interview is a completely different matter. And a contractor will have to do this fairly regularly.
Now there are masses of literature detailing the best way to do and approach interviews. But at its most basic things to think about are doing the preparation and research, as well as trying to look the part and show a bit of confidence. Hopefully if you have the right skills for the role, this won’t be too much of a problem.
Dealing with money
If you're at all serious about embarking on a career as a contractor - get an accountant. Although they'll cost you, it'll be money well spent considering a good one will get you through the complicated maze that is the British tax system.
There will be various ways in which you can set yourself up, such as becoming a limited company, joining an umbrella company, or working as a virtual 'employee' for the company. More information on this can be found here.
Whether you decide to pursue the flexibility and rewards that contracting offers, or the security and stability of a permanent role, a career in IT and development should be one that sets you up for years to come – the pace of technological change seems to be continually accelerating. Good luck!