Careers: If You Can't Beat 'Em, Join 'Em Revisited

Life as an independent contractor isn't all it's cracked up to be

The outsourcing wave has made it possible for some information technologists, including former mainframe and minicomputer pros, to try on a wholly different kind of hat—namely, that of an outsourcing services provider.

The contractor's life has its advantages, practitioners concede, but it isn't for everyone. More to the point, some self-employed service providers say, it's a difficult market to crack—especially for technologists with esoteric (or niche-oriented) skills. Not every aspiring mainframe or minicomputer pro can just up and become an outsourcer.

Consider the case of OpenVMS pro-cum-outsourcing provider Richard Tomkins, whose contracting workload primarily consists of Microsoft-centric technology efforts. The rub, of course, is that Tomkins hoped to leverage his experience in OpenVMS in his outsourcing work. Following his layoff (as a result of Compaq Computer Corp.'s acquisition of Digital Equipment Corp.), he trained for six months (at Ottawa-based Praxis Training Institute), learning Java, database design, Oracle applications, Visual Basic software development, and Web-based application development. He finished with Dean’s List honors.

In spite of several high-profile contracts with prominent Canadian health organizations, Tomkins says he’s having trouble making ends meet.

"I have thought quite a bit about how to respond to this question" about the challenges associated with a career in outsourcing, he comments. "I think I will … respond as follows: Business is bad, the bills are piling up, I have a mortgage to pay, children to feed, and the first one goes off to University next year." In fact, he now concedes, he's even thought about abandoning his IT career altogether. “To be able to at least hang on to what I have and possibly pay for some of things I have to, I am seriously considering joining the trucking industry.”

He isn’t alone. Just as some former mainframe and minicomputer pros have successfully transitioned into careers as outsourcing services providers, others are still trying to figure out how to get out—or, like Tomkins, get as far away from IT as possible.

Take the case of a Canadian contractor who spoke to us about his own experiences in this respect. Just because a mainframe or minicomputer pro has embarked on a successful career as a contractor or outsourcing provider doesn’t mean the proverbial rug can’t—or won’t—be yanked out from under his feet at any moment, this mainframe veteran says.

“Even though I have been contracting since 1987, the work I was doing here has been outsourced to contractors in Manila. Previous to that, quite a few of the systems on-call support functions and development that other people were doing [was also outsourced],” this mainframe configuration analyst with a prominent Canadian telco, said last year. “I am not opposed to giving work to other countries, but only if and when there is a shortage of experienced people here. Even then, [I believe companies should] find and train people who need jobs in your own country first.”

This IT pro, too, is thinking about transitioning to another, non-IT-related, career. “Thankfully I have been doing this IT stuff long enough that I am just about ready to start my second career—teaching golf. I am certified in Canada as well as the USA through the USGTF,” he notes.

Mainframe or minicomputer pros who have established successful outsourcing careers argue that low cost—or (as Civil War cavalry legend Nathan Bedford Forrest might have put it) the ability to do the mostest for the leastest—isn’t the most decisive factor in contracting arrangements. At the same time, they admit, it doesn’t hurt to price one’s services as compellingly as possible. “I believe I was chosen for the ability to do the job, period. The low price has been a benefit [for his employer], and has extended the contract to new work. A lot of that work would not have been taken on if the price had not been attractive,” observes Donald Tees, a Canadian COBOL programmer who does contract work for a U.S. developer of VAR-oriented products.

In this respect, Tees says, a low price bid—even one that amounts to an under-valuing of one’s services—can serve as a springboard to additional, more-lucrative work in future engagements, either with the same employer or with other prospective clients. “I was hired to fix a botched conversion. That has been completed for a year. I am now converting several older systems that will be marketed but would have been abandoned had the cost/quality been anywhere near the original conversion cost of the system I was hired to fix.”

Tees says his expectations and priorities have changed as a result of his successful outsourcing career. “[There are] lots of political problems, the main one being [pay] rates versus standard of living,” he says. He’s made changes in his life that reflect—or are otherwise occasioned by—his lifestyle as an independent contractor. “I look at myself as competing on a world market. However, on a personal basis, not having to spend [money] on cars, clothes, etc., is also a big plus.”

For example, Tees says, he’s been able to save a sizeable chunk of money by simply not having to physically go to an office every day. “I no longer spend $400 to $500 dollars a month for the ‘privilege’ of working—or driving to and from work. That also makes my day an hour or two shorter. I start getting paid when I sit down at the terminal, and I stop getting paid when I stand up again. I no longer use my car and have bought a bicycle.”

There’s also the issue of motivated self-starter-ship. Office Space’s Peter Gibbons might have bristled at the micromanagement of Bill Lumbergh, his nominal boss, but there’s something to be said for a well-timed kick in the rear from above. The simple fact of the matter, says Tees, is that some folks need a Bill Lumbergh-type to kick them in the posterior.

“I think the ability to work alone is the key. Most people need the discipline of going to a job to keep them working,” Tees concludes. “There is no boss to get you going. As an independent [contractor] you have to get up and start work all by yourself…. [F]ew people have the self-discipline.”

Nor is contracting for the faint of heart: “You also have to be very confident. There is no job-security or pension. But then I am an old hippy anyway, and do not worry about such things too much.”

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About the Author

Stephen Swoyer is a Nashville, TN-based freelance journalist who writes about technology.