Laid-off IT workers can contract their skills

Nick DeCastro has been an independent IT consultant for 11 years, the last eight of which he’s been running his own Toronto-based network support business. He said with IT professionals falling victim to layoffs, as a result of the economic downturn, becoming a contractor is a definite option, but not everyone is cut out for it.

“Just because you’re an IT guy and you can fix computers, doesn’t mean you can run your own business,” said DeCastro, owner of Altuno Inc. There are countless things to think about, not the least of which is the fact that the market is often saturated with IT contractors on the hunt for work, he said. “There are so many guys out there that are tossing out business cards because they are out of work.”

Independent contractors must worry about invoicing, accounting, sales and marketing, said DeCastro, who hires third-party expertise to take care of all that.

Before he started his own business, DeCastro spent several years subcontracting his skills through another company, and while a portion of his hourly billing went to his employer, he said he didn’t have the headache of actually running the operations. “You must have a burning desire to do it,” he said, referring to the challenges that come with business ownership.

Tulay Guneysel, president of Toronto-based business consultancy TG Financial Services, a provider of business services and coaching to startups, said more technical-focused professionals tend to lack the necessary communication skills to really sell their assets. “Most technical people don’t like selling, they don’t like interacting with people a lot. And that’s their weakness,” said Guneysel.

Like DeCastro, Guneysel suggests that IT professionals turned entrepreneurs hire others for the expertise they don’t have – finance, sales and marketing – instead of trying to tackle it themselves. “If you do too much multi-tasking, the result will be very low. And people get burnt out,” she said.

Many IT professionals choosing to take the route of business ownership are often surprised, she continued. “Some don’t realize until they start how complex it is. It requires patience and persistence.”

Part of that persistence is spending the first year establishing the business and identifying the target market, said Guneysel, adding that it’s really only in the second year that revenue will start rolling in.

DeCastro recalls it took four or five months to get his first client and even that gig didn’t completely cover his bills. The business didn’t really get going until after a couple of years, he said.

But if owning a business is not palatable, then subcontracting through another company or employment agency is a viable option. It requires a great resume, said DeCastro, and is not unlike the traditional job seeking process where an IT professional will have to troll the job boards and prepare for interviews.

Terry Ross, who is currently a contract IT project manager, has been an independent contractor since the early 1990s. She said contracting can be a bit of a transition for someone who has always been employed in a full-time capacity. “It could be a big change, but if you’re open to the change and you’re willing to do something differently, then why not?”

Among those changes, are working without the usual luxuries afforded to full-timers. “Don’t expect the nice desk, don’t expect the cushy chairs, the things you are so used to,” said Ross, adding that skills training, too, is on her own time and expense. That said, as a contractor, Ross enjoys the freedom to dabble in different areas and really broaden her portfolio of expertise, having in the past worked in telecommunications, retail, manufacturing and banking.

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Masoud Baharlouie, currently a contract business systems analyst, has been an independent contractor since 2002. An adventurous spirit is a requirement, he said, “because it means you would work in different environments within different sectors of the industry … An understanding of that and an appreciation of the change is the basis of even considering to be a contractor.”

The added advantage of working in various roles – developer, technical lead, systems designer, etc. – means learning not only new technologies, but also the communication styles of different groups, said Baharlouie. “When you talk to a network specialist they talk differently from DBAs from architects from developers,” he said, adding that it makes for better rapport and confidence-building among team members.

Besides having good people skills, a successful contractor must continually deepen and broaden the technical skillset, said Baharlouie. A business analyst or project manager, for instance, needs to stay abreast of new trends and technologies. And, a developer must fine-tune those skills that are gaining popularity.

“If people were coding cobol 10 years ago and it was fine, now with less and less companies relying on those sorts of experience, it’s going to be difficult to stick to what they knew in the past to try to secure a job as a contractor or even a full-timer,” he said.

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