That’s All Folks – I’m Out!

TLDR; I’m another statistic – IR35 and the Covid-19 outbreak have forced me into a position where I have to close down my contracting company and seek alternative employment.

Image Copyright of Warner Brothers

Well, that’s that! Today I instructed my accountant to ‘Pull the Pin’ on my company and start the process of winding it up. A sad but somehow inevitable day for me – I’ve seen it coming for a month or so but it’s not easy being here now.

I’ve been contracting through my limited company for the last 9 years and in the time I have worked on numerous projects across numerous sectors – an experience that has, I believe, left me a better developer that I would otherwise had been. I have no regrets – none!

But a combination of unfair an tax legislation and a worldwide pandemic have left me in an untenable situation – while the company might (just might) survive the Covid-19 Lockdown the specter of IR35 looms large on the horizon and I’d rather take a different fork in the road instead of heading into more uncertainty.

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Covid-19 Support Response – Update

In my previous post I stated that ‘As Directors we are not able to furlough ourselves and therefore would not be eligible for the Governments Covid-19 Job Retention Scheme‘.

I also said ‘the details of these measures are still coming out and there is a great deal of confusion so what I’m about to write may well change going forward‘ – and it has (although a bit quicker than I expected).

If you don’t know who Martin Lewis is then check out the Money Saving Expert website. Basically, when this guy says something, especially it’s all in CAPS then he’s checked and double-checked the facts. He wouldn’t make this kind of statement without being absolutely sure.

If he says that Limited Company Directors CAN furlough themselves – even if they are the sole employee of the company, then that’s good enough for me.

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Covid-19 Support Response

Update: 28th March 2020

With the UK in lock-down due to the CoronaVirus (Covid-19) everyone is justifiably concerned about their jobs and their income.

In an unprecedented move the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a raft of measures from mortgage holidays, deferment of tax payments as well as packages to pay 80% of people income (or £2500/mth).

As wide reaching as the measures are the contractor community is up in arms because we appear to have been left out in the cold.

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IR35 – Delayed; but not forgotten

Yesterday (17th March 2020) the Government announced that they would be postponing the rollout of IR35 changes into the private sector due to the Coronavirus outbreak.

Despite the Minister referring to ‘off roll payroll working rules‘ (maybe indicating that he has no real idea what they are) he confirms that the changes will be tabled again ready for implementation in April 2021.

This comes far too late for many genuine contractors and associated services such as accountants who have had to close their businesses down as clients imposed blanket bans or ‘Inside’ determinations requiring the engagement of Umbrella companies and significant reductions in income.

It also comes the day after HMRC provided evidence to the House of Lords and were found seriously wanting in their response to scrutiny. While the House of Lords cannot force Government to defer the bill we have to hope that this contributed to the decision to pause the rollout (regardless of what they say).

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IR35 and the Implosion of the Contracting Market

When I checked Twitter this morning my heart sank – I was watching the new Chancellor (Rishi Sunak) regurgitate the HMRC view of IR35 and the changes to be rolled out into the private sector in April.

He was essentially announcing the Death Knell of Flexible Working as we know it – the contract market will shortly implode even further than it already has.

We, the contracting community had hoped that the fresh faced minister would pause the roll-out and call for the review that was promised ahead of Decembers election.

Instead he stated “it’s not fair to all the people who is employed that someone else who is doing the same job is paying less tax” – the cornerstone of the HMRC argument for making the changes.

On the face of it that may be a reasonable stance to take – but they are not comparing apples with apples here (and they damn well know it).

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IR35 – Living with a Broken Promise

Well I guess it’s old news now, although it was quite foreseeable, but despite a pre-election promise the Conservatives have reneged on their commitment to review the IR35 legislation. Instead they will review the process for rolling the changes into the private sector – not the same thing at all.

Instead of me going over old ground, take a look at my previous IR35 post which was published prior to the election (and it’s broken promises).

In the weeks that have followed Twitter has been ablaze with tweets tagged with #IR35 – many are mine. There is a lot of anger out there and our worst fears, that end clients would take the ‘easy option’ and just stop using contractors altogether has come to pass (despite HMRC saying it wouldn’t).

Take a look at the site and you’ll see the extent of the problem that is unfolding.

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IR35 2020 – Thoughts from the Coal Face

I’ve been contracting for over eight years now and in that time I’ve been careful to ensure that, to the best of my abilites, I operate in a manner that places me outside of the IR35 legislation. That is, to provide a service to my clients and not to be seen as an employee.

Currently it is my responsibility to determine the employment status of a role with regards IR35. I do this by having contracts independantly reviewed to ensure that they comply with the legislation and take steps to ensure that the actual working conditions are in accordance with service provision rather than employment.

If I get it wrong then it is down to me to justify my determination, in court if need be, and pay any unpaid taxes should I be unable to do so.

However, in April 2020 that determination could largely be taken out of my hands and placed in those of the fee payer, e.g. the client if I’ve been engaged directly or otherwise a recruitment agency that have facilited the engagement.

HMRC have decided to make this change stating their belief that most contractors are incorrectly self-declaring themselves as being outside of IR35 and avoiding paying the correct level of tax.

They have not been able to substantiate these claims, despite repeated calls to do so – but that’s not the reason for this post.

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On The Fence Development – What’s All That About Then?

I’ve been contracting for over seven years now and during that time I’ve had  a number of clients, friends fellow contractors ask me “…why ‘On The Fence‘? What’s that all about??”.

Ignoring the fact that the blog I initially hosted on this domain was about my experiences with Linux and Open Source while working day to day as a .NET Developer using Windows, I think that the name fits – it’s all about not putting all your eggs in one basket as it were.

I think that there is quite a wide line between trying to be a ‘Jack of All Trades’ and a ‘One Trick Pony’ and as a Contractor I think that this is a good place to be.

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The Ups and Downs of being a Contractor

As with most careers being a contractor has it’s ups and downs and I have certainly had my share of both over the last couple of months.

When my last contract came to an end I entered the limbo land that is ‘between contracts’. Due to the nature of contracting many clients require someone who is immediately available, or at least within a week or so. Looking further than a couple of weeks ahead and you are probably going to be passed over for someone who can get their feet under the desk much quicker.

I had not been looking for a follow-on contract because I already had a holiday booked and, knowing that I would have minimal phone & email access for a couple of weeks, I had decided to leave that until I returned to the UK. I then gave myself a couple of weeks ‘off’ during which time I would continue work on the Xamarin implementation of the FillLPG for Android application and hit Pluralsight to keep my axe sharp and my stills current.

This worked out quite well and I secured a contract with a previous client pretty quickly – but this was subsequently withdrawn as their client put the brakes on the project. Disappointing but that’s how it goes sometimes. At this point I was approaching the end of the two weeks I’d given myself to find a new contract and for the first time in three and a half years I was not actually billing any time at the end of a month. Still – something else would come along….

And it did, in the form of a potential 12 month contract which required SC clearance (which I have). The location was a comfortable commute and the day rate was pretty good too. At the start of October 2014 I was offered the contract (subject to references) which I duly accepted. It turned out that the client was using an external resourcing company and they required 3 years of references – which as a contractor amounts to quite a few people to contact. Fortunately my recruitment agent dealt with most of this for me and after completing numerous forms I was finally given a start date.

But the story does not end there – more’s the pity. While driving to the client site I received a phone call (yes I have hands-free in the car) advising me that the external resourcing company had not processed my security clearance and I would not be allowed on site. This was disappointing but it turned out that while my SC clearance was valid it had deactivated because I was not in a security role for more than 12 months – who knew.

Worse was to come as the process of reactivating my clearance relied on a clunky website that frequently displayed the good old ‘Yellow Screen of Death’ but eventually served up a PDF form to be completed and was followed by a 10 day process of validation. This would be more billable time that would pass me by. I was able to pick up some freelance work, make good progress with my Xamarin development and watch a number of Pluralsight courses so it was not as if I was sitting around watching Daytime TV.

The validation process ended up taking almost 3 weeks and I was eventually given another start date and my recruitment agent was just waiting for the purchase order so that he could generate the contract.

The start date arrived but I still didn’t have a contract to sign. Finally, at 2:00pm I was advised that the client had reorganised resources and didn’t need my services anymore (apparently I was not the only contractor who was cut loose).

So between the incompetence of the external resourcing company and the unprofessional behavior of the end client, who has expressed their desire to get me on site as soon as possible, I had essentially ‘lost’ over £6500 in billable time. This was bad enough but I had been contacted about numerous other contracts while I was waiting but due to the nature of this one I decided to wait it out.

But it’s not been all bad. During the last month I have been able to migrate a local church website from an aging version of Joomla to a slick Squarespace site and secure a maintenance contract to administrate and maintain it. I’ve also migrated their creaking database (created by a parishioner) to an MVC4 web application and add new, desperately needed, features that the previous implementation could not support. The FillLPG for Android application has been written using Xamarin, has gone into Beta testing and should be released before Christmas. I’ve also watched a number of Pluralsight courses to help keep my skills current and improve my chances of securing interesting contracts in the future.

They say ‘You Can’t Keep a Good Man Down’ and as I type I have an interview for a Bristol based contract later today and have a number of other irons in the fire so things are looking up.

Dealing with Recruiters – a Contractors Survival Guide

I’ve been contracting for about a year now and this has meant that I’ve had numerous dealings with recruiters and recruitment agencies. While I’ve been quite successful in obtaining contracts I’m afraid that my opinion of many recruiters (not necessarily the agencies themselves) is that they do not provide any value to the process, indeed the detract from it. Now before all you recruiters out reading this head down to leave a comment (please do so after you’ve finished reading though) let me qualify that statement with a few examples in the form of some tips for the unwary (a survival guide if you will):

  • When you answer a call from a recruiter, make your first question – ‘Is this a contract position?’
    • My CV states that I’m a contractor and my job site profiles indicate that I’m looking for Contracted positions but I constantly receive calls and emails about permanent positions. Not only is this wasting my time but also that of the recruiter. This is compounded when I receive a call while at a client site and have to stop what I’m doing to have a pointless discussion.
  • I’ll send the details over to you now – believe it when you see it
    • I’ve lost count of the number of times that a recruiter has said – ” I’ll send all the details over to you shortly “, and then hasn’t bothered to do so. If they don’t think that I’m suitable for the role then just say so, I’m cool with that. By promising to do something that they have no intention of doing is unprofessional to say the least.
  • Beware the question – ‘Have you been put forward for any other positions recently?’
    • This sounds innocuous enough but could be the recruiter just trying to uncover any opportunities that they are unaware of. I have first hand knowledge of this after I told a recruiter about an interview I had lined up. I later found out that he had contacted that company with a list of candidates he thought they should also consider for the role. As it happened his agency was not on the approved supplier list so it was a non-starter for him but it proves the point.
    • The question may be rephased as ‘So that we don’t duplicate applications, have you been put forward for any positions recently?’ but the upshot is that you should remain tight lipped about your leads and ask them to name the client to see if you are already represented. If they genuinely want to represent you then they’ll tell you or at least give you enough of a hint to let you know if it is someone you are already speaking to via another agency. If that’s the case then there’s no harm in telling them.
  • Before I can represent you I need you to provide some references – really?
    • Again, this may sound innocuous but be careful what information you give out. I was recently asked for references (including a name from the company I was currently contracting for) BEFORE a recruiter would pass my details onto his client. Apparently this was to maintain a high level of quality in the candidates that he represented. Fair enough I thought. The client I was working for at the time said that they normally didn’t do this for contractors but was prepared to provide some basic information if required. However, the phone call he received had little to do with me, the recruiter was really asking whether he had any upcoming need for any more contractors!
    • Essentially the recruiter was phishing for points of contact that he could call to offer his services – he had no opportunity for me and I never heard from him again (which may be a good thing)
  • Automated Emails
    • One you are on the recruiters databases you will start to get automated emails containing opportunities that may interest you. At first you think that this is a good thing but that opinion soon swings around to thinking of this messages as little more than SPAM.
      • Many of the automated emails I receive are of such low quality that it beggers belief. Many are for Permanent positions (see above) and others are so irrelevant as to be comical – I received one for an ‘Underwater Product Engineer’ and have no idea why the system thought I may be interested.
      • Some appear to come from individual recruiters but if that’s the case then it’s an even sorrier state of affairs than I thought.

With all that said, I have encountered a number of recruiters that have not only secured contracts for me but also shown a level of professionalism that many of us would expect. This handful of recruiters will be my first port of call in future when my contacts are coming to their conclusion – I’ll not reactivate my CV on the Job Boards in the first instance. They have gone that extra mile, delivered on their promises and above all earned my respect and more than likely that of the many clients they can introduce me to.

So there you have it – my survival guide for dealing with recruiters. Now I’ve been pretty hard on recruiters here but i speak as I find and frankly that’s what I’ve found. If you are a recruiter reading this and wish to respond then please feel free to do so. If you are a contractor with some tips or experiences of your own then I’d also like to hear them.

Contracting – A Year (Almost) After Taking the Leap

So it was about this time last year that i decided to move out of Permanent employment and into the cattle market that is Contracting. Looking back I have to say that I’m happy with my decision and have no regrets on that front. That said, the last year has not been plain sailing and in this post (during which I will try not to rant too much) I’ll try to paint a fair picture of the good and the bad from the last year.
Contrary to what many people may think, my decision to enter the Contracting market had nothing to do with charging huge day rates. Yes money is important but, as people who know me will confirm, I always say

“If you don’t like what you are doing then do something else”

I cannot understand (nor tolerate) people who complain endlessly about the fact that they hate their job but are still happy to take a salary for doing it.

I am in the fortunate position of loving what I do. I enjoy Software Development and want to be the best that I can be; although I may never end up working for Google or Facebook. The problems arise when you are working in an environment which cannot (or will not) keep pace with the changing technologies and practices.

One of my previous employers still has not adopted any form of source control beyond just creating a new folder for the next version of the application and copying the current code into it!

I know it is not possible for companies to simply adopt every new thing that comes along but by not moving forward they are not just standing still, they are moving backwards and the technology divide between them and the bleeding/cutting edge only increases.

Looking back at the companies/organisations I’ve worked for on a permanent basis I can see that the point at which I decided to leave was when I saw no more room to grow as a developer. When I’ve suggested using some new technology I’ve normally been told that there is no business need to do so and that they are happy with what is being produced with the current one. The fact that I was not happy is what has caused me to look elsewhere and ultimately leave for a new role within a company that is adopting the new technologies – or at least so I thought. After a few years I found myself once again hitting the hard ceiling of progression and start to look elsewhere.

Now that I think about it, isn’t this just contracting for the long term, i.e. years instead of months?

So, the decision was made – I’d go quit my job and go contracting..!

I took a lot of advise from a friend of mine who had gone down the same road and within a week of so I had formed a limited company to trade under, secured the services of an accountant specializing in contractors and setup a business bank account – what I didn’t have was any work!

During my notice period I revamped my CV and posted it onto about half a dozen job boards. This generated numerous phone calls from recruiters, between 6 and 15 a day – every weekday, but most of these came to nothing. As a fresh faced contractor I didn’t really know what to expect but this certainly was not it!

In terms of promising much and delivering little I’m afraid that many (not all) recruitment agencies are up there with politicians

Yes there are many good ones out there but you have to sift through the rest to find them. I’m writing another blog post (to be published later in the week) on my experiences of dealing with recruiters but suffice to say that I have found this aspect to be the biggest burden of contracting in my opinion.

Over the last 12 months I have found some good ones and now feel happy that I do not have to tout myself on the Job boards in the first instance – I’ll contact these recruiters who have shown themselves to be professional and actually follow through on their promises – even if this does not result in me securing a contract at the end of it all.

Each of the contracts I have secured to date has been a challenge, without exception. Each has exposed me to new technologies or to those that I only had a small understanding of – I’ve had to come up to speed very quickly indeed. I felt the need to prove myself very quickly, to show them that they made the right decision in hiring me and that I am worth the day rate that I’m charging. So far each of my contracts has been extended so I guess I must be doing something right.

This year has certainly raised my skill levels and fed my desire to become a better developer. Using new technologies and techniques as well as working in different environments has been a boost to my professional development and I hope to see it continue during the next twelve months.