The Web, Configuration Management, Y2K, ITIL, IR35, Theft & B2B IT Contracting

In my previous blog post in this series, the early years of IT contracting, I shared my experiences of working in the UK IT industry in the 1980s.

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web

Sir Timothy Berners-Lee, creator of the world wide web

Sometime while I was busy doing all that, another (at that time) IT contractor and utterly brilliant Englishman, by the name of [Sir] Tim Berners-Lee cobbled together something he called the World Wide Web. If there’s any one truly remarkable thing, with world-changing benefit, that’s happened in the last quarter of a century… this is surely it. And the times were right for doing it, we were still (just) in the era when an “Englishman In His Shed” was a force to be reckoned with (although in truth Sir Timothy John Berners-Lee’s garden shed was CERN in Switzerland).

As an aside, this does prompt me to ask a question: Given it was invented by an Englishman in Switzerland, why do the Americans now act as though they own the internet? And why does the rest of the world, and in particular the European Union, not appear to care about this apparent theft of our technology and data?

Configuration Management Sheriff In Wild West

Contract Configuration Manager: A Sheriff for Hire to tame the Cowboy Programmers

Time passed and I gradually moved from programming into making sure others programmed properly, and their programs were safe. I started to focus more on making sure that software was tested before being released, that we had a copy of the source code of precisely what had been released to make patches later if necessary, and that we had a backup plan if a software release failed. Moreover we ensured that software was changed for approved reasons, which had been impact assessed, and not merely because a techie thought it was a good idea to lob in some untested wizz-bang tweak moments before something went live!

In truth this formal “Configuration Management” was a definite step forwards from the Wild West we had all enjoyed for the previous decade or two, and it was needed, but without that earlier freedom we’d never have achieved all that we had. It frequently wasn’t referred to as configuration management in the early days incidentally, merely “common sense.”

The Year 2000 chases a terrified PC with CRT monitor

The Year 2000 Bug aggressively hunted down any programming short-cuts

Three simple letters sum up the next big milestone, or hurdle to overcome: Y2K. The Year 2000 was looming fast and, unlike quality control or configuration management, it was a real and immutable deadline that even the most die-hard and belligerent of old-school managers could neither fight against nor postpone. Our great nation prepared itself for this potential disaster by dragging numerous COBOL programmers back out of retirement to fix-up what they’d previously short-cut due to machine limitations, and Britain’s world-beatingly flexible IT workforce, comprised mainly of contractors, got the job done in time. Y2K passed with barely a hitch. Lots of contractors made lots of money along the way (and rightly so as many sacrificed a lot to put in 100 hour weeks, and I still recall doing a 12 hour shift on 1st January 2000), and the government inevitably took a huge amount from us all in tax revenue.

Gordon Brown, Britain's worst chancellor ever

Gordon Brown shows his hatred of all contractors and destroys UK's flexible labour market

Britain’s flexible workforce was seemingly too capable for the worst Chancellor of the Exchequer that the United Kingdom has ever had the misfortune to endure however, and so a few months later in April 2000 old-school socialist Gordon Brown introduced IR35 to bring the flexible industry that had served the nation so well to its knees. The PCG was formed to fight it, and I’m proud to have been one of the 50 founder members that kick-started it all. The rest is history and, regrettably, we’re still lumbered with Brown’s legacy of avoidable red-tape.

Despite this attempted theft and extortion from legitimate businesses, run fully in accordance with English Company Law, I remained true to contracting and continued to move between clients, delivering guidance and expertise their own staff lacked, and support and assistance as needed. I was enjoying the challenge and, judging by the 50+ recommendations I subsequently collected on LinkedIn, the clients appreciated the quality service I was providing and deliverables I was achieving too. Some of the industries I worked in over the next few years, providing consultancy on things like software configuration management, process improvement and best practice included banking, transport, government, retail, publishing, aviation, defence, mapping, ecommerce, research and insurance.

For the benefit of anybody who thinks “industry experience” is the be-all and end-all of hiring the right skills I’ll say just this: It isn’t; the underlying principles of best practice pertain to all industries and in many cases you will benefit by introducing specifics from another industry.

The ITIL Service Lifecycle

The ITIL Service Lifecycle: Does it have, and should it even want, customers?

And while I’m on this subject, I’d also like to clarify another detail: The customers are the most important part of a business. The business exists to serve its customers. The business and IT processes exist to support and serve and the business (just like the staff do). The various software tools exist to support those processes, not define them. The role of the systems technology is to make those tools possible. And at this point I differ from ITIL (which also didn’t exist when I started contracting) because I prefer a far more entrepreneurial definition of a customer: it’s somebody external to your business who pays real money for something, with that money going from their account into your company’s, and in so doing enables your business to make the money to pay its bills. Whether a business wants customers or clients is another matter entirely however, and again I’d argue that under ITIL those receiving the service would far better be termed clients than customers (if indeed a purchasing relationship should be inferred at all) but now I’m splitting hairs and getting away from the point of this post.

Somewhere along the way, from Y2K to here, I partnered up with another contractor colleague and formed a niche consultancy. We had about 20 staff working for us in total, mostly sold out to various clients, and a turnover in the millions of pounds. As our company insurance premiums started to go out through the roof, an unavoidable feature of a society increasingly intent on blaming others and seeking litigious satisfaction rather than accepting responsibility for its failings, so he dipped his fingers in the till… which is where I found them during an unscheduled audit. (And you thought the “Theft” in the title was a reference to IR35, although that is too.) We prematurely followed our exit plan shortly thereafter, with much reduced profit for us both as a consequence; such is the price of one person’s greed.

Direct IT Contracting: Straight B2B

Approaching half of my contracts have been direct, against a simple purchase order; the other half have been through agencies. As time has passed my preference has increasingly moved towards direct contracts. The reason is simple enough: as agencies have got bigger, often through acquisition, they have invariably focused more on sales than service, and I have increasingly found myself trying to explain to somebody who was selling used cars or manicuring fingernails a few weeks earlier why I won’t compete on price with somebody who has 20+ years less experience than me! There are some good agents of course, and I’m always happy to speak with them and try to help out with my network when they’re looking for something or someone specific, but sadly they’re in the minority. And even when I do find a good agent, a person with whom I can build a relationship of mutual trust and respect, their back-office will normally go and screw something up big-time: that’s happened on three out of our last four agency engagements!

Perhaps because of this my preference is increasingly becoming to work with smaller businesses, who prefer to deal direct, and give them the benefit of my skills. I can’t do it all myself , of course, so I’m now partnering up with other entrepreneurial contractors with a view to building another multi-person niche consultancy. This is in its early stages at present, and we’re currently tentatively seeking a sales director, so as I type it’s far from a success story yet.

I'm happy being a genuinely independent consultant

I’m very fortunate to have enjoyed my 30+ years working with computers, and my 25 years in business: it’s a real privilege to have spent my working life having fun and making a difference. I’ve worked with some great people along the way, and made some proper friends too. I’ve also worked with fools and liars, who make promises they don’t keep, but luckily they’re easy enough to forget. The good people however will remain in my professional network, and my true friends closer still.

Coming next in this short series I will attempt to predict what the next 25 years holds for the IT industry. Until then, if you wish to comment to anything I’ve written above please do so below using the comment facility, and if you’ve enjoyed reading this post please use the various icons and social-media mechanisms to share it with others.

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