Being an IT contractor can be very rewarding. The money is often very good, and if you can find cost-effective benefits, it's not a bad life. Generally speaking, contract placements offer a more flexible schedule and even the ability to make some good overtime. The trade-off however is often unpredictable conditions, misunderstood project scope and some of the odd questions people ask you about your resume.
If you work in information technology or services, chances are very high that you’ll spend as much or more time as an independent contractor as a permanent employee. It’s a trend that started in the .COM boom of the 1990’s and has gained traction ever since.
So, perhaps the first question to answer is: Why do employers find contracting out IT such an enticing option? Well, the obvious answer is cost. Even though employers pay more per hour for IT contractors – a lot more – they save the costs of on-boarding another full-time employee; and of course save on costs incurred by providing health insurance and other benefits. Hiring contractors also allows employers to keep labor focused on the project at-hand. Generally speaking, there’s no phone to answer, no e-mail to constantly check and respond to, and not many meetings to sit through that distract from time spent writing code or fixing hardware or software.
Of course, as a contractor, it’s nice to focus on writing code and not having these distractions, but contracting also has its downsides. While it should seem obvious to employers looking to hire IT contractors for projects or short assignments that a contractor may have a resume that’s littered with short assignments and even some gaps, they often want you to explain each transition. So, for the IT professional, contracting is often a huge liability when it comes to presenting your resume.
It should seem obvious, right
– that if you, yourself, were looking to hire temporary help – that contractors would have such resumes? It’s typical, however, for contractors to hear comments like: “It looks like you’ve jumped around a lot. You were here for two months then there for four months. Can you explain that?” This also gets worse if you’re looking to break out of contracting and settle in full-time. The irony today is: Most businesses aren’t looking to hire full-time employees in the IT arena. Usually they want contractors that they can ‘try out’ and may consider converting to FTEs.
The second peril of contracting may be the environment itself. While most reputable contract placement firms are good enough to offer (or actually insist on) a face-to-face interview between the person managing the contractor and the contractor, IT contractors are treated like a commodity; so many times the contractor has no idea what environment they’re going into, or more importantly to whom they will report. In other words, it’s not unusual for a company to call up and say, “We need a C# programmer,” and provide little more detail than that.
I share the following example because it helps provide texture to my point, and it really
happened to me. Back in 2005 when I was working as contract programmer, I accepted an assignment with a small technology company after being called by a fairly reputable IT placement firm. The assignment sounded good enough and there were no red flags until I got on-property.
When I arrived at the assignment I met with a woman in human resources who told me a bit about the company and to whom I would report. She coyly and nervously said, “You’re working with ‘Tom’ [not his real name]. Hmmm. Good l-u-u-u-ck. You’re the fourth C# programmer we’ve brought in, so I hope you two will ‘gel.’” I inquired, “Why did the others leave, if you don’t mind me asking?” “Well, 'Tom' is … an interesting guy.”
She called ‘Tom,’ the IT Director, in and everything started off normal enough until I got to the workstation I was assigned to. Tom logged me in to the computer, opened up the Visual Studio project for me (using only keyboard shortcuts) and immediately had to run to a meeting – he said he’d be back after the meeting and would check on me. As I sat at the computer I immediately realized that the workstation had no mouse.
Knowing that Tom was in the meeting – and that as a contractor, once is expected to constantly produce – I couldn’t waste any time finding a mouse so I could start looking at the application I was brought in to fix. I managed to locate another person who worked in IT and let them know the workstation had no mouse and asked if he could find me one. He said to me, “Oh that
,” he sighed and sort of laughed. “I could give you one, but trust me, it’s not going to go well for you if ‘Tom’ finds out you need a mouse.” I was completely puzzled. He continued, “See, Tom won’t let us use them. He thinks it’s a sign of weakness if you can’t run Windows using only keyboard shortcuts. So, if I were you, I just would ask.”
With ‘Tom’ still in the meeting, I was further confused and decided to step outside and call the agency that placed me. After explaining my predicament to the account executive she informed me [now] that, “Tom can be difficult to work with. We’ve placed other people there and they have all left; but we were hoping you might be a good fit with him. Do the best you can without a mouse and see what happens,” is what they advised.
So, I struggled along for the next hour and did what I could. Tom finally emerged and asked, “How are we doing here? Did you fix it yet?” I reported that I had noted a few things that were concerning and we chatted for a few more minutes – and then I took a risk to try to correct the situation. “Tom,” I asked, “I’m not completely comfortable working without a mouse. If I could use one, it would make me much more productive.”
Tom starts, “It amazes me that someone like you doesn’t know how to use Windows shortcut keys. Windows wasn’t meant to use a mouse; as a matter of fact it was built for keyboard shortcuts. How can you be a coder and not know the keyboard shortcuts?” At which point he started pounding on the keyboard barking out commands like, “Restore window. ALT - plus sign! You don’t know that?”
It just got worse from there. I managed to make it until lunchtime, at which point I called the agency and told them that this placement simply wasn’t for me. (Not without a mouse anyways.)
While this example is very atypical, it’s good to know whom you’re reporting to and what their expectations are. Surely, if the placement firm had clearly stated that four other C# programmers had left the assignment because of the mouse issue, I could have made a better decision – and surely wouldn’t have taken the assignment. When they qualified me, if they specifically asked if I could operate Windows without a mouse, I would have seen the handwriting on the wall.
IT placements firms are generally wonderful, but just remember they are in business to place candidates and generally hope for the best thereafter. As an IT contractor you need to ask for details; because often the devil really is in the details.
About Tim Staney
has more than ten years (since 1997) of web development experience building enterprise-grade web applications for Fortune 500, small business and not-for-profit enterprises across the United States and Canada over a wide-range of industries. Tim specializes in information architecture, content management with a keen focus on user experience, and social media integration. Tim Staney
is a resident of St. Petersburg, Florida and active member of his community. Staney
regularly presents to professional and community groups, speaking on social media, social marketing, web content management and web strategy.
Tim Staney is a member of the American Marketing Association and <uwebd />, University Web Developers as well as the St. Peter's Episcopal Cathedral Communications Task Force. Tim is the Web Content Manager at St. Petersburg College working for the Marketing and Public Information department managing content in the college's Ektron content management system. Tim also teaches courses like Social Marketing for Small Buisness and Designing Effective Websites for St. Petersburg College's Learn to Earn program.
Except where otherwise attributed, the statements, thoughts, views and beliefs in this blog post are solely those of the author.