Review of a Quarter Century in IT Contracting – It Began in the 1980s

Fireworks celebrating 25 years in business

Something to celebrate

My first company was incorporated on 30th September 1987, 25 years ago last Sunday, and there’s been a lot of water under the bridge since then both for me and the IT industry as a whole. In this short series of blog posts I want to share a little of those years with you.

For the benefit of any younger readers, let’s be clear that back in 1987 the world was a very different place from now. I’m not so much thinking that the first branch of IKEA had only just arrived in UK; Saddam Hussain had yet to invade and loot Kuwait; that Apartheid was still law in South Africa; or even that wearing a seat belt in the rear of a car was still optional. Rather I’m thinking that a portable music player was called a Sony Walkman, and it played a Compact Cassette tape because CDs (and the later Sony Discman that played them – I had a D121) had yet to be invented; if you wanted to heat food you probably did so without a microwave, because most UK homes still didn’t have one; “mobile” phones did exist (just) but they were called “transportable” phones (and preceded the Motorola “brick”) and you needed to be strong to carry it any distance; a portable computer was available, but is was about the size of a small suitcase and weighed the same as one would if jammed full of duty-free booze; and as for the internet… in 1987 that wasn’t even a figment of anyone’s imagination!

So that’s where we were, 25 years ago, when I first decided to jump from “permiedom” into contracting. My hand was perhaps forced a little by redundancy proving irrefutably that there’s nothing permanent about a so-called “permanent job”, and it was a little scary at first, but my Dad (then a practising solicitor) quickly set up a limited company for me and with hindsight it was one of the best things that’s ever happened to me. And sticking it out for a quarter of a century has definitely turned out to be one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Compared with now the Computer Industry (as IT was then referred to, also getting itself labelled IS at some point) was something akin to the Wild West, but it worked well despite (or perhaps because of) this. To get a contract in those days you had to be able to demonstrate that you could do the work, as simple as that, and anyone who couldn’t usually found themselves leaving site with zero notice. A contractor was there to deliver a service, full stop. Now, in complete contrast, it appears that to secure a contract a litany of certificates, accreditations and exam results is what’s needed. Once onsite the contractor now appears to get treated more like an employee than a method of achieving deliverables, and the only time I’ve seen a contractor terminated and removed from site forthwith in the last 10 years was when I instigated it because the individual in question was disrupting my team. Compared with a quarter century ago it no longer seems to matter whether somebody actually does the job: it appears to be sufficient that they have certificates saying they are potentially able to, and are prepared to attend site to tug their forelock on demand. Personally, I don’t consider this to be progress.

At the early part of this period I was programming Windows 1.0 Software Development Kit (SDK) and for those who program Windows now I can only say it was very different then: I had one of only five Windows 1.0 SDKs in UK, and when we later progressed to version 2.17 I was one of about twenty-five UK-based programmers with it; DLLs were introduced then, although you had to write your own custom loader-code using assembler, and the remainder of the program was in C; C++ was more of a concept for the hardy few, and available only as a pre-compiler which then spat out heavyweight (rather than beautifully tight) C for the regular C compiler to laboriously chew through; Microsoft Windows UK Tech Support comprised two guys, both working part time in the role, and the support process comprised asking them the question, for them to then phone up one of the other SDK users who was doing similar… they were effectively facilitators of a mastermind group, which worked brilliantly and the relationship was fantastic.

Front Cover of MSJ

In my early IT days I enjoyed freelance journalism as well as programming

I was writing magazine articles too. I remember one about my early Windows SDK experiences entitled “Windows: A Clear Future Ahead, Or Just Another Pain In The Glass?” Another article, comparing Analyst Workbenches with full-blown CASE Tools, was published by (the long-since defunct) Systems International Magazine. And because I was the first person ever to get Windows 2 working with Oracle 5.1 on a standalone PC, and proudly demonstrated this at the Healthcare & Computing Conference in Harrogate in 1989, I was asked to write an article on Product Integration for the (also now defunct) Microsoft Systems Journal (MSJ) although I can’t recall whether it ever got published.

And all this started when I first played on a friend’s BBC Micro, following which my Dad bought me an Oric-1 home computer for £169 (a huge amount of money in the early 1980s) and I used it to teach myself to program games, which I then sold. So things had moved on a lot from there, even by the start of the quarter-century I’m discussing here. It does leave me wondering where the next UK generation (i.e. our children) will end up though, because the X-Box etc. don’t offer anywhere near the same educational experience suggesting we’ll no longer be a nation of IT innovators, and the youth of nations such as India and China will probably wind up leading the world’s IT forwards. The Raspberry Pi is making a belated attempt to address this, although I still don’t know any children who play with one at home. But I digress, and I should leave history to be the judge of that as I am with so much else here.

I moved from contract to contract, with proper contract terms in place like a cap on the maximum number of consecutive days without delivering service (even for a broken limb) before we got either terminated (if lucky) or sued for a breach of contract by virtue of non-delivery, necessarily taking holidays whenever gaps between contracts allowed. Compare that with now when many so-called clients even keep “holiday records” on their so-called contractors, although I always politely decline to partake in such nonsense as business is business and should remain strictly B2B!

Along the way I programmed for clients in various niches including market research, and retail banking, with a small supplier to a telecoms giant about 20 years ago being one of my favourite contracts (it was a rolling 2 week contract, that amazingly lasted for a full year, and for which I attended interview on a Sunday afternoon in bike leathers on my way home from Box Hill on my race-tuned superbike). Moving on from there I found myself getting security cleared to program some of the in-flight systems for the then un-released Boeing 777 (a machine on which I have never flown, with much of the software being under-pinned by Windows for Workgroups), before beginning a long association with an aspiring services provider (since bought out by a Japanese company and now a household name). I was still programming on Windows using C, of course, but by now I was getting into workflow systems and then CORBA in the then Object Software Laboratory as we strived to productionise software that had started life in the research labs. For the most part I was privileged to work on teams with a truly great bunch of people, and we had some great times and big successes as a result; some of my personal favourite achievements include being the first person to program a server ORB running on Windows 3.n, and being on a team of two to achieve the same on Netware and subsequently demonstrate it to Novell‘s VP who flew all the way from America just to see it.

They were heady days, where skill and innovation ruled high over certificates and exam results, and where remarkable people achieved remarkable things because nobody interfered and told them they couldn’t. It was also where I learned that something or somebody that’s good works everywhere: it doesn’t matter what niche or vertical market the client is in (and all-too-often now unwisely considers to be the all-important decider on who to hire). Good experience, good skills, and the right attitude work brilliantly for any client, in any industry!

In the next part of this series we’ll meet fellow contractor Tim, look at the arrival of the internet, discover formal configuration management, and leap into a new millennium. Stay tuned, or subscribe to get an update notification.

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6 Responses to Review of a Quarter Century in IT Contracting – It Began in the 1980s

  1. JVS says:

    Good post. Excellent read for a comparatively new contractor.
    Just one point though – I think the Iraqi dictator came to power much before 1987.

    • JVS, Having just checked this, you’re absolutely right. According to Wikipedia he was “the fifth President of Iraq, serving in this capacity from 16 July 1979 until 9 April 2003.” Thanks for pointing this out, I’ll correct my blog post to remove this error.

  2. Matt Miller says:

    Great blog, Andrew! You’ve got 3 years on me for length of tenure in the contracting world (although I have, briefly, stepped in and out of “permiedom” in my 22 years’ worth, and so you’ve probably got even more still).

    I think I can provide some contrast from the perspective of having nearly always been an expat contractor, as I came from nearly 5 years of permie days (daze?) in New Zealand to contract here in the UK (and largely London) in 1991 on a two year working holiday visa. That was after a year’s stint in Australia to see if I could hack the contracting life (if you’ll pardon the pun in saying “hack”).

    The thing I remember about my first days of contracting in the UK was that Freelance Informer was the main publication to source contracts from, and that applications for contracts were largely done by a mix of faxing in an application to an agency (and occasionally direct) and then following up by phone calls. You also got to meet your agent face-to-face, even if the interview with the end-client might end up being by phone.

    That is quite unlike how it works now in London just over 20 years’ later, where it’s all about how relevant your CV is in keywords used to make it findable online, or otherwise how good you are at searching for what is relevant to you from contracts published online through agency web-sites or job-sites generally. You rarely get to meet your agent, with little opportunity to contract direct, and first physical contact with the end-client is more likely to be once you have won the contract and turned up on the first day at the end-client’s site.

    The means for managing contracting back then was also a helluva lot simpler than now, as there was no IR35 and so only a simple arrangement of setting up your own limited liability company and ensuring necessary compliance for N.I. and tax purposes. The irony is that we have almost come full circle back to that!! Aside from the LLP arrangements that some operate now.

    It’s funny you should mention about no Internet back then. It was only when I got back to contracting in Australia in 1995 that the Internet came into play in applying for contracts, and the first IT job-site I remember back then was Monster. When I came back to the UK in 2003, CWJobs was the site to use for contracts – but since then I believe JobServe has taken the lead for IT contract jobs (although it would be interesting to hear others’ view on’t).

    It will be interesting to see whether social media changes how things work for sourcing contract work, as well as what the final outcome will be for how we can manage it from what will come about from the latest incarnation of the UK Governments’ Agency Worker Directive and IR35 laws.

    My view is that we have to work out a way to think more about what we want to achieve from contracting, as there are now so many more contractors out there (with work outsourced to India, Vietnam or elsewhere offshore) and so rates are affected as well as financial flows generally no longer such that IT contract work can be relied on locally as a single source of income for the independent-minded. Perhaps IT contracting should now be seen more as part of a lifestyle choice, packaged in with (to use a Spice Girls turn of phrase) with what we really, really want (such as cash flow to support another business or hobby) – and perhaps even be about who we want to be, as much as what we want to do (i.e. determining if IT is worthwhile as a career, or simply to gain experience in IT for achieving something else). So what’s your view on’t?

    • Matt

      Whatever happened to Freelance Informer, eh? I remember that fondly. Like you I also remember using a fax machine as a leading-edge business tool (do any readers still have one?), and travelling to meet an agent.

      And wasn’t it so much easier when all you had to do was set up a limited company and operate it legally, i.e. in accordance with the law, the same law that applies to everybody? If you do that now you risk challenges left right and centre on things like IR35 and S660. The truly perverse thing there appears to be that if you run your business badly, for example by failing to do proper credit checks (have you ever managed to get an agency to complete your credit application form and agree to you taking trade references on them before you must trust them with a five figure credit facility?) and proper credit control, and lose a large amount of money as a consequence when several invoices go unpaid, HMRC considers that to be a pointer to being in business rather than an employee and it helps from an IR35 perspective!

      If the message that HMRC is sending to business is that you need to run your small business badly to protect yourself from their enquiries, i.e. exactly the opposite of what you need to do to grow it successfully over a decade or so, it’s no wonder our economy is in a mess!!!

      I like your observations on CV keywords though, and suspect that I’m not alone in wishing that the modern breed of agents would learn how to use search algorythms properly. If I had a pound for every email I’ve had that begins “Please ignore this e-mail if it is of no interest…” (or words to that effect), and even that’s the politer ones who actually bother to apologise. These spam emails are invariably irrelevant with a poor skills match, and quite often permie too (is that where they put the trainee agents who can’t be trusted with contractors?). I wish they’d just do their job properly in the first place and realise that learning to send an ill-targeted mailshot does not constitute adding value for anyone, let alone justify a comission cheque.

      Social media is changing this though, that’s what LinkedIn is after all, and I get as many (if not more) good quality approaches through LinkedIn than I do through the various jobsites combined (I have multiple email addresses to track the source so I even have metrics on this spam). This may be something to do with the fact that I insist on using the word “contract” everywhere and avoid the word “job” like the plague, but that’s a different conversation.

      You’re right that contracting is perhaps no longer a “career” (if that’s the right word?) in the way it used to be, but I think that’s as much down to Brown/Blair/IR35/HMRC wrecking the industry a decade back, and the current government failing to fix that despite pre-election promises, as it is down to offshoring etc. At the senior end where you and I now sit there’s probably more quantity (and more lucrative) work in interim-managing those offshore workers than there ever was their onshore equivalents. For sure though Brown/Blair/IR35/HMRC has wrecked the entry-level to contracting, destroying the UK’s once world-leading flexible workforce in one stupid act, and forcing those jobs offshore in the process. It’s just another example of a dumb, short-term, populist, socialist money-grabbing (and thus vote-buying) policy not being properly thought through and leaving a horrible mess in its wake. But hey, this isn’t supposed to be a political blog!

      Contracting has given me the lifestyle I want: as much time away from client sites as I want, when I want, with the result that I’ve always been there for my children whatever they were doing; and the cashflow and time to start (and occasionally sell) other businesses as part of ensuring my retirement strategy. I wouldn’t have had my time any other way, but I’m not sure I’d recommend this route to my son either…

  3. Mark says:

    Congratulations on the 25 years. I only know a few that have been contracting longer – 22+ years myself. I’ve got to take issue with some of your 1987 factoids, though. By 1986, roughly 25% of households in the U.S. owned a microwave oven and my luddite parents had had one for a good few years. And as for CDs, they’d also been increasing market penetration since the early 80s (the ubiquity put me off Brothers In Arms for many years). I didn’t get one until ’88, I think, but things weren’t quite as primitive as you might be leading youngsters to believe. :)

    • Mark, Many thanks for your observations. I’m pleased to see that you’ve read my post so carefully :)

      However we’re in UK not US (although I can see you’ve been on Wikipedia so know that it wasn’t until 10 years later that “over 90% of American households owned a microwave,” and we all know the UK lags behind US), so I’m basing my remarks on my observations and memories (maybe getting hazier as I get older? :-) ) of my home country. However, I’ll go and tweak that sentence a fraction to avoid misleading the youngsters. Thank you.

      I well remember buying my Sony Discman in the Sony Shop in Farnham when I was on a Windows & (Watcom) SQL contract there though, so I was able to date that event fairly accurately by looking back over some of my old CVs.