Opinion: Contractors live from their skills, deliver value

Contractors are not responsible for soaring rates, says Berend de Boer

In the Computerworld of 6 August, Tony Stewart asked whether contractors are the answer to the skills shortage. It’s not that question that got me excited, the answer is probably “it depends”. But it is his description of what contractors are and what drives them that drove my blood to boiling point. According to Tony, they are individuals not interested in schooling and not interested in deadlines, happily billing the client for hours and hours on end.

Stewart doesn’t mention any examples, nor cite statistics. So where do these generalisations come from?

I will tackle his claims about contractors one by one, starting with the personal qualities of contractors and ending with some economic realities.

According to Stewart, a contractor is typically not interested in learning. They’re “out of the mainstream and out of the fold”. And when their skills have become outdated, they return to a regular job to receive training again.

But the realities are vastly different. A contractor sells skills. Updating them is of prime importance or else your business has a short future. Contractors are keenly interested in updating their skills.

On the other hand, many companies are not interested in such things. ICT is a cost centre, not a profit centre. Skills are only gained in doing new things, and most companies are only interested in keeping their Visual Basic 6 application running. What do they gain if their employees learn about Web 2.0?

I have yet to encounter an ICT employee that has read a book on programming in the last three years. Or who is a member of the ACM or IEEE. Or even has a subscription to a computer magazine. The only training they receive is that they are allowed to attend product launches by Microsoft.

As an example: the PHP user group here in Auckland meets monthly. My estimate is that at least two thirds of the people that turn up to these meetings, to learn, to discuss, to support, are contractors or running their own small business.

Stewart also claims that with contractors there is no quality assurance. With vendors this is supposedly different. This is a question that could be answered factually. How many local ICT companies in New Zealand have a Capability Maturity Level above 1? Exactly zero I believe, or none dare to mention it on their website.

How many companies use any of the best practices such as source code control (Source unSafe doesn’t count), peer review, write test code first or employ techniques such as design by contract? Such companies are well-hidden.

Stewart also accuses contractors of ripping off their clients. At least my dictionary doesn’t have another word for “the longer a project takes the better it is”. Many contractors have fixed-cost projects, so this claim simply doesn’t apply. Many projects have hard deadlines. What good does it a contractor if the deadline is missed and all his effort is wasted? And, as few contractors work for the government, most are all too keenly aware that what they do costs the client significant amounts of money.

I believe there are only very, very few who consciously steal time. In my career I’ve met only one such individual and he lasted just a few weeks on a project where I was also a contractor.

Let me at last touch on some market realities in a free and capitalist society, as Stewart’s grasp of these things was tenuous. Economics is very simple: a rise in demand, and steady supply, will lead to an increase in price.

Contractors are not responsible for soaring rates. That’s utter nonsense. This is just a market correction where clients with a higher return on investment are more able to attract scarce talent.

Given that New Zealand is rated the fourth most unaffordable housing market, one pays the top tax rate here at about the poverty line in the US, and one earns 30% more in Australia while paying a lot less tax, there are severe economic obstacles that are neither caused by IT contractors, nor can be solved by more or less of them. The only thing we can say for sure is that the skills shortage will not be over soon.

- Berend de Boer is an IT contractor specialising in web architecture

and best software engineering practices

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