16 tips for thriving as an IT contractor

Companies continue to supplement their full-time technical ranks with temporary contractors. Here’s how to make it work.

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When demand exceeds the supply of available IT talent, many companies are using contractors to help fill the gaps. IT contractors provide manpower when workloads spike and can bring key expertise and skills to a team. (See related story, Life as an IT contractor)

Across all fields (not just IT), independent workers are on the rise, according to MBO Partners, which provides back-office services to self-employed professionals. The number of independent workers is forecast to reach 40 million in 2019, up from 30 million today. Over the last four years, the independent workforce has grown 12.5% -- greatly outpacing the 1.1% growth in the overall U.S. labor force, MBO asserts.

If a shift towards contracting work is in your future, consider these 16 tips and warnings from experienced IT contractors and staffing experts. 

1. Pursue what you like. “You should have a core competency. It should be an area of technology that you do really well (and hopefully is in demand),” says Fred Granville, who has been working as an independent networking consultant in the Kansas City, Mo., area since 2000. “You should enjoy working in your field -- your customers will notice.”

2. Be professional. “You are always under a microscope as a contractor, and you have to keep in mind that you are viewed as extremely expendable by your employer,” says Jodi Minshall, an IT analyst in the San Francisco Bay area. “Make sure your demeanor and work ethic are above reproach, or face a quick exit from your contract.”

3. Articulate your strengths. “My 10-second elevator speech is simple,” says Mike Drabicky, who has worked as a consultant for 15 of the last 20 years. “I’m really good at making technology useful for people and companies. I like using technology to address business issues, solving them for today, and putting the companies I work for in a good position for what’s coming tomorrow even if they are not yet aware of those needs. This allows those running the business to concentrate on the business where their time and effort are best spent.”

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4. Learn to market yourself. “Marketing is a challenge. As with most technical folks, it doesn’t come naturally” to me, says Ken Rubin of High Road Data, which provides IT consulting, web design, and programming services in Orange County, Calif. “I am a member of [business networking group] BNI and make extra effort every week to get together with other business owners and professionals to meet and learn how we can help refer each other,” Rubin says. “Since I’m not trained in marketing, I find this an invaluable tool to get myself out there and make sure I’m constantly marketing.”

5. Follow through. “Always keep promises. Always,” says Jodie Bass, an IT contractor based in the Portland, Ore., area. “If you tell somebody that you’re going to do something, then either you complete that task, or you call them and say, ‘I’m not able to complete that task, but here’s what’s going to happen.’ You reassure them. The quickest way to upset any client, any time, is to make them feel like they’re being neglected.”

6. Prepare for a rainy day. “You have to budget your time, budget your money,” says Nancy Silverthorn, an IT contractor based in Charlotte, N.C. “You have to plan ahead.”

7. Be thinking about your next move. “You need to stay alert to the trends in the job market, and keep your skills up to date, because as a contractor you are in effect always in the market for your next position,” Minshall says.

8. Be patient. “Many times I’ll be in the middle of a huge technical solution and get asked to train someone on a desktop software like Word or Excel. I’ll have to shift gears immediately and put on the teacher hat,” Rubin says. “I’m happy to do it but all the while, I’m thinking about getting back to solving the bigger issue. If that student is a slow learner that could easily cause stress and frustration. Remember to be patient!”

9. Have a thick skin, Minshall says. “Having even a minor tiff with the little weasel in the cube next to you, who also happens to be a brown nosing permanent employee, is a sure way to be leaving your assignment early. Ignore them, they are usually jealous of your skills and are trying to goad you into bad behavior for their own gratification.”

10. Don’t underestimate people skills. “No matter what job you do, it is the people skills that get you everywhere. In the end, you have to be a critical thinker, be able to solve problems quickly and learn as you go,” Rubin says. “However, if you can’t get along with the staff or management and explain to them what you find and how you’re dealing with it, they will get frustrated quickly and in many cases move on.”

11. Be sensitive to company politics. “You are dealing with people. They have to play in the political arena of their workplace. You, as a consultant, must also be sensitive to company politics but, as a consultant, you also can work to break down barriers to progress,” Drabicky says. “Your goal is to improve the environment while making those who must live in it successful. It really helps if you don’t care who gets the credit.”

12. Don’t judge existing conditions too harshly. “Consulting is a funny business. Some places welcome you with open arms and immediately make you one of the team. Others treat you like the proverbial ‘red haired step-child’ or like you’ve come to rain on their parade,” Drabicky says. “I try really hard to make all my clients understand that I’m here to help, not to judge. There are usually good reasons why things are the way they are. I look not to hang anyone out to dry; rather, I like to learn what is, why it is, understand the issues with the current environment, understand the business issues that the current environment fails to address, then gently work new ideas into the fold, migrating their IT design to something that will more effectively address their needs and concerns.” 

13. Keep learning. “I like to learn new things so in between assignments, I’ll spend time learning new technologies, new techniques, new ways of doing IT, of looking at the world,” Drabicky says. “Technology and ideas about it are constantly changing. You owe it to yourself and your clients to be up on the latest trends.”

14. Choose agencies wisely. Agencies have different approaches, and it’s important to talk to the recruiters, make sure their values align with yours, and find an agency that “takes a real interest in the person,” says Jerry McKune, an independent IT contractor based in the St. Louis area.

15. Voice your career goals. When you’re considering a temporary assignment, make sure it’s in your best interests, says Jason Hayman, market research manager at IT staffing and services firm TEKsystems. Is the company a good fit? Does the assignment make the best use of your skills and offer the potential to learn new skills? Oftentimes contract discussions will focus on salary, but there’s a lot more to it, Hayman says. The right agency will work to make a good match for both the contractor and the employer.

16. Be adaptable. “Whatever they’re working on today is probably not what they’re going to be working on three to five years from now,” Hayman says. “They’ve got to have that mindset, they’ve got to be constantly learning, trying to train themselves, learn new skills, and get new certifications.”

This story, "16 tips for thriving as an IT contractor" was originally published by Network World.

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