We chat with Matt Burgess, an experienced CFO and contractor about his views on the life of a contractor.
Matt – what made you decide to go contracting?
I first went contracting when I arrived in the UK back in the 1990s. At the time, most London-based HR recruiters and some employers were very focused on what they called ‘London experience’. Without that it was difficult to get a permanent role, so most Kiwis with Accounting degrees started off as contractors.
What do you enjoy about it?
There are many aspects that I really enjoy, particularly the variety and the number of roles that are available to you, as well as the relationship between skills, effort and reward. I also like the flexibility and control you have over your roles.
Because there is less risk involved in hiring a contractor than there is a permanent employee, it often means you will be considered for roles where you may not be the ideal fit. This gives you the chance to prove that you can perform in the position. If you are targeting a particular employer or industry, then a contracting role is the ideal place to start.
I like the fact that as a contractor you usually have a very good idea of what you’re worth – it’s explicit in your rate and that rate is regularly marked to the market. As you acquire new skills and perform in new roles, you will receive prompt feedback from the market as to the value of those skills and experiences.
Contract work tends to be project-based with a work cycle very different to the monthly routine of most Accounting departments. For some people this can be a welcome break from a monthly cycle that includes demanding deadlines and extremely high stress levels. As a contractor you can also focus on roles you find particularly interesting and fill niches that might not justify salaried staff but can lead to very enjoyable multi-month contracts.
Contractors tend to have good control of the terms of their engagements and when they take their time off. Usually there is no need to request or negotiate for holidays, you just make sure that your contract finishes before you want to start relaxing. If you are the sort of person who likes to spend the summer surfing or the best parts of the ski season in the mountains, then time spent contracting can be a good way to indulge your passions.
Also, if you are concerned that you are becoming overly invested in a particular industry, or if you’re looking to move from the public to private sector or vice versa, then contracting can be the easiest way to make that leap. You can experiment in different roles and areas without creating the red flags on your CV that short stints in permanent roles will tend to do.
What things should potential contractors consider and what are the challenges?
I think the biggest challenge of being a contractor is the uncertainty. You need to be comfortable that the roles will not come with the same level of protection as a permanent member of staff and that your contract could be terminated at short notice.
Most contractors earn more money than permanent people at similar levels in an organisation, but there may be times when you will have no work, so you need to consider how you will manage that.
Often as a contractor, you will be coming into an environment where the team is overloaded or something has gone wrong that needs fixing. There may not be a smooth handover and so you need to be the sort of person that is able to start contributing immediately without a great deal of training.
It is good to be mindful too that contractors are not always treated the same as permanent employees. Personally, the organisations I prefer to work in view contractors as an important component of their overall staffing and empower them with responsibility that enables them to be a member of the team.
My final point is to think carefully about the timing of your contracting career. Ideally you should wait a few years until you have acquired sufficient skills and experience to be valuable to your employers from the beginning of your contract. Contractors can acquire some very good experience relatively early in their careers and turn that into a succession of lucrative contracts that are hard to move away from. Always keep in mind your long-term goal because if you want to work towards being a senior member of the Accounting team at a significant organisation, then at some stage you will probably need to think about moving back into permanent roles.
What has been the best assignment you’ve done so far and why?
The best contract I’ve had was a 13-year stint as CFO of an Ethiopian oil exploration company. But it would be fair to say that is a somewhat atypical example.
A more recent contract I’ve performed is probably a better indication of some of the best aspects of a New Zealand contract. About a year ago a colleague and I started as contractors on the same day, for an organisation that needed resource to assist with year-end. We have quite different skills sets and after getting to know us, this was identified by senior management and we were moved into positions that took advantage of our particular strengths.
A year later we are both still there. My colleague is now a permanent member of the team in a key position. I have been heavily involved in a very enjoyable project that has significantly improved the speed and accuracy of the reporting system and am now handing over the developed system before moving on to my next contract.
What is your advice to others thinking of contracting?
I would encourage anyone with valuable technical or organisational skills to try a stint at contracting.
You will need to be able to handle the uncertainties around not being a permanent employee, moving from one workplace to another more regularly, and being required to perform consistently at a high level. Hopefully that sounds like a set of challenges you will enjoy.