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Now What?  The Advantages and Disadvantages of Being an IT Contractor

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Now what? In these turbulent economic times, career-changers and established IT professionals are seeking new employment opportunities, either by choice or necessity. Many choose to work for an established company. This IT professional describes life as an independent contractor.

Now what? Since "Now What? The First Steps Into IT" was posted, I received a number of e-mails asking me about which career path to follow in IT. The questions I was asked were not which sector of IT to enter, but which geographical areas are hotspots for IT and which companies are secure IT employers. Those are tough questions in this market. I had to be quite honest in my reply. I don't trust many of the companies in the IT market, and generally the major cities in the U.S. are IT hotspots. Many of my friends, who are highly trained, certified, and have years of experience are seeking new jobs because of layoffs—layoffs that caught them by surprise.

In these turbulent economic times, I have become more convinced that the decision I made when I entered IT in 1994 was the best decision I could have made. I did not go to work for a major company or a small mom-and-pop operation. I did not go to work for a government agency or a school district, which were my obvious choices in my geographical area. Rather, I went into business for myself as an IT contractor. Career-changers and established IT professionals who are seeking new employment opportunities should explore this viable option. There are many advantages and disadvantages to working for a company. But there are also many advantages and disadvantages to becoming an independent contractor. Over the past seven years, this is what I have learned about life as an IT contractor.

As I was putting my notes together for this essay, I saw a job on one of the Internet job boards. I am always fascinated by the possible job opportunities that companies post. I ignore most of them, but some of them catch my interest and I submit my resume. I might not be interested because, quite honestly, I love my life as an independent contractor, but you never know what opportunities will arise in a conversation. This particular job was with a school district that was looking for an instructor who is certified to teach the Novell CNE, Microsoft MCSE-W2K, CompTIA's A+ and Net+, Cisco's CCNA, and a variety of Wireless LAN technologies. I am not a Wireless LAN person. That has not been a focus of mine. When I looked at the advertisement, I laughed. There are few if any certified instructors who can teach all of those disciplines—and none that I know that can teach them all well. The job requirements were unrealistic. They reminded me of ads in 1996 that required candidates to have 10 years of experience with NT 4.0—NT 4.0 had just been released. No one had 10 years experience with NT 4.0, except maybe Bill Gates.

So, I submitted my resume, figuring that I might get a contract job teaching a Novell class or a Microsoft class or two. The HR people contacted me the next day after I submitted my resume, and they were serious with their requirements. They wanted to know why I submitted my resume if I was not certified in Wireless LAN technologies. I told them I had a strong background in Novell and Microsoft LANs and Cisco WANs, but Wireless was not my strength or interest at this time. They immediately told me I did not qualify, but they would pass my name along to one of their training partners who might be interested in my skillset. The following day, I received a call from the CEO of the training partner that was mentioned, wanting to know if I were interested in teaching some contract Novell and Microsoft classes and consulting with a number of companies that needed assistance with their networks.

Bullseye!! I stuck to my guns as a IT contractor, and though I was not interested in working for an employer who had unrealistic ideas about IT, I was open to talking with them, all the while marketing what I do. The CEO of this training partner, after talking to me by phone for 90 minutes, told me that I had the best possible job in this turbulent economy. Did that make me feel great!! As a side note, the salary that was being offered for the Wireless LAN job was an insult for the skills required. I made more as a high school science teacher. So, as late as last week, I was even more convinced that my life as an IT contractor is fantastic. Now, for the disadvantages and advantages.

Advantages

When I start to laundry-list the advantages of being an IT contractor, the list goes on and on. Some of the reasons include independence, quality control, job diversity, short-term jobs, and no politics.

One of the first reasons that motivated me to life as an IT contractor is the independence associated with being self-employed. Self-employment can be terrifying when you start out. So many variables can lead to success or failure. If, however, you are patient and deliberate in developing your strengths and business strategies, self-employment is fantastic.

As a self-employed, independent contractor I have to work with a lot of people in order to maintain my independence. Many of my friends contact me when they run into a problem on a job. I gladly help them out. They do the same for me when I run into problems. One realization that became evident when I became a contractor was that although I was independent, I was not alone and I did not work alone. I have developed many tremendous friendships that are mutually supportive. If I know of a job or a contract that I can't fit into my schedule, or does not match my skills, I am glad to refer my friends and associates. This helps me to maintain a good relationship with customers and training partners, and it helps friends and associates. In my experience, there can be little ego as a contractor. You cannot exist as a contractor all by yourself, though independent. I work as an IT contractor in a community of network professionals. It is a small community that continues to grow because of the support of its independent constituents.

With independence, there came a great deal of responsibility. I had to offer high-quality service to my customers and students. I quickly learned that I was only as good as my last job or my last class. This motivated me to high levels of professionalism, continued study, and advanced certifications.

As an IT contractor, I have found that most of the jobs—whether teaching or network support—are short-term and demand a variety of skills. This has been wonderful because I am continually pushed to find better and faster ways to get a job done. If a client asks me to come in and migrate 15 servers in a week, I have to have the requisite skills to do the job. I have to be honest with myself and with the client so that I don't get into a situation that could be disastrous. If I go over the week, the customer will probably not contract with me again. If I work within the schedule and on budget, the probability is I will get a lot more work. That has been my experience. One successful job with a client leads to another and another—in essence, the jobs snowball. Then I have a problem in scheduling time for all of the work. That is a good problem.

As an IT contractor, I don't have to be concerned with long-term, petty politics that are often associated with working for a company. There is no dog-eat-dog mentality. I have found life as a contractor to be devoid of the tension and stress that are the direct result of the corporate politics. There is an atmosphere of tranquility. The only politics that exist are the short-term politics that sometimes exist when working a contract. Since it lasts only for a limited time, it is bearable.

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