My name is Ken Burrell, and since July 2011 I have been operating as an independent contractor, providing my PMO services to various clients (mostly London market insurance companies) through short-to-medium-term engagements of my company, Pragmatic PMO Limited.
I often get asked about contracting by the client employees I work alongside, and so I have written this article for PMO FlashMob to share some of my experiences with you, in the hope that you will find my observations useful if you’re planning a similar move.
I’m starting from the assumption that you’ve already made the decision to make the move, or you are at least seriously considering it. Everyone has their own reasons for moving into contracting, and you need to be certain that for you the (very real) risks are worth the (hopefully real but in no way guaranteed) rewards.
So, having decided to start the process, what should you actually do? As well as the obvious stuff (like sorting out your CV, doing a skills audit and so on), the steps I suggest below are based on what I actually did, with a few additions based on my experience:
1. Buy “Contractors’ Handbook: The Expert Guide for UK Contractors and Freelancers” by Dave Chaplin, and read it thoroughly from cover to cover. Twice. If you’re not serious, you’ll find it scary enough to frighten you off. If you are serious, it contains a wealth of practical advice from seasoned contractors who’ve “been there, done that”. It’s not cheap but it is good.
2. Find the contractors at your current workplace, buy them a coffee, and pick their brains. Get their balanced views on what it’s really like to work as a contractor.
3. Visit www.contractorcalculator.co.uk. If you haven’t done step (1) yet, this site is run by the same chap who wrote the book, and shares a lot of content with the book, written in article form.
4. Visit www.ipse.co.uk. This is the site of the Association of Independent Professionals and the Self Employed, and contains lots of useful resources you’ll want to come back to once you’re up and running. Sign up to their free email newsletter and download their free guides to contracting.
5. Pin back your ears and listen to some podcasts. Published by the PMO and PM recruitment experts Arras People (www.arraspeople.co.uk), I found the most useful and relevant episodes were the ones on Making The Switch: Contractor vs. Permanent, Differentiating Yourself in the Marketplace, and Posting your CV Online without giving away personal details
6. Talk to an Accountant that specialises in providing services to contractors, mostly about whether setting up a limited company is the most tax efficient way of operating for you, and if so to give you some help to do it. There are lots of accountants out there but I can recommend a good one if you contact me.
7. Get yourself onto LinkedIn. If you’re not on there already, LinkedIn is the world’s largest professional network with millions of members and growing rapidly. It can help you to establish your professional profile and control one of the top search results for your name. In a nutshell, being on LinkedIn makes it easier for people (OK, recruiters and prospective clients) to find you.
8. Optimise your LinkedIn profile. This is about doing all the things that LinkedIn suggests you do to raise the find-ability of your profile. We are talking here about things like adding a (professional!) photograph, listing your skills, obtaining recommendations and so on. There are quite a few articles about this available, and you could do a lot worse than starting here.
9. Sign up with the major job sites. Have a look at the job sites available on the web, monitor them for a while, and deduce which ones produce the highest number of the most relevant roles for your skills / target industry. By all means sign up for other sites too, but focus your attention on the 20% of sites that you find produce the 80% most relevant roles for you.
10. Get organised. Be as organised and single-minded about your aims as you are about your “day job”. Set up a spreadsheet containing all your applications, what version of your CV you used, the covering letter you wrote, etc.; this allows you to identify which approaches work better to secure an interview. Schedule email, text or pop-up reminders for yourself to prompt you to follow things up.
11. Join (relevant!) groups on LinkedIn. This increases the effective reach of your network by making lots of people “closer” to you through your shared membership of the group. Recruiters like to lurk in these groups too to see what’s going on. You are on LinkedIn, right?
12. Connect with Recruiters (by email, through contacts, in person, on LinkedIn – did I mention yet that LinkedIn is important?). Follow up on any applications if you can. Use your spreadsheet system to rate your interactions with recruiters. Try to develop a personal relationship with the top 10 recruiters on your list. Don’t stalk them though as that won’t go down well(!). Call them (yes call, not email – recruiters get lots of email and you might get lost in their inbox) around once a week to keep yourself near the front of the recruiter’s mind.
13. Always call recruiters back. If a recruiter calls you (rather than the other way round) then they already think you may be a good fit for a role. If once you have discussed the role you agree that your skills are a good fit (and you’re interested), then you will already be in the top 10 candidates for that role at that agency. Move quickly and your CV could be with the hiring manager before an ad is placed. Both of these things put you in a much better position than you would be in if you were responding to an advertisement, as one of maybe 200 other people sending in their CV at the same time as you. This is a golden opportunity for you – do not let it pass you by!
14. Be prepared for a long, hard slog. Keeping on top of all this whilst holding down an existing “day job” is hard work. it took me around six months, at about 2-3 hours each evening, and about 60 applications before I landed my first contract.
15. Do it in focussed “sprints”. There seems to be a “critical mass” effect that happens as the result of about 3 weeks of CV updates, applications, LinkedIn activity, etc. After this time, the number of calls from recruiters seems to increase significantly. So if you’re planning to take some time off from your search, make sure that the periods you spend “on” it last for at least 3 or 4 weeks.
16. Network, before you need it. I have read that when looking for a contract, you should spend around 80% of your time networking, and only 20% scouring job sites, newspaper adverts (old school!), job pages of corporate websites, etc. Through (authentic) networking you increase your chances of hearing about opportunities before they are advertised, thereby reducing the amount of competition and increasing your chances of landing the contract. Think about building lasting, mutually beneficial relationships – don’t be that person who only networks when they want something. You aren’t likely to get very far with an approach that’s essentially “Hello, my name’s Fred and here’s my CV. Do you have any jobs going?”. We’ve all met them, and they don’t do themselves any favours. PMO FlashMob is a great place for PMO people to do this, as well as Project Challenge, APMeEvents, PMI global and UK events, and just meeting people for coffee and a catch-up.
So that’s it.
I hope you found it interesting and useful. If you have anything to add or you want to ask a question, let me know in the comments.