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IT Contractor Q&A: Tom Pettigrew


To get some insight into an IT contractor’s world, we talked to Cheltenham-based Tom Pettigrew.

Tom’s been in the industry for over fifty years. But his interest in IT hasn’t waned with retirement. Far from it. He’s still freelancing – helping silver surfers make sense of software.

How long have you been an IT contractor?

I’ve been an IT contractor for about 30 years now. I went freelance about 25 years after I qualified. Having been made redundant, I thought it was as good a time as any to take the plunge.

I’m retired now, but I still take on freelance work for silver surfers.

Why? What made you decide to do this?

I’m quite cross that the IT industry hasn’t progressed to the point where computing is just like any other utility.

Software should work out of the box. It should be intuitive. It shouldn’t be difficult for people, but it still is.

One of the reasons I decided to do this was to help older people who, unlike the younger generation haven’t been learning about computing almost from the cradle. I help them try and make sense of what is a difficult world for them.

So, there’s a social element to it and that’s important to me because I’ve been in the industry for so long.

Plus, as silver surfer myself, it’s quite good to get out and meet people.

I’ve got a wide variety of clients. Just this last week I visited one of my favourites, a retired vicar. He and his wife, who are both in their 80s, are delightful and both are new to IT. But not only do I teach them,we have the most amazing conversations.

They’re very grateful for my help and that’s a good reward for me.

I don’t make a lot of money from my clients and that’s deliberate. It’s part of the social thing I want to do.

I could charge £50 an hour but that might put customers off. So, I only charge my older clients £10 an hour and the newer ones £15 an hour.

What’s next?

More of the same. I rely mostly on word of mouth so business goes in spurts and sometimes there are fallow periods. But that’s a good thing, as I do a lot of voluntary work, too, for the Cheltenham Lions and The Gardens Gallery.

How long did it take for you to consider that you had a viable, bill-paying business?

Going it alone as an IT freelancer is different to setting up something like an architects’ practice where you need a lot of clients to make it viable. IT contractors only need one client.

It took me about 3 months from being made redundant to get my first client and contract. But it was quite a tense period. Because all that time, you’re wondering if you’ve made the right move.

What sacrifices have you made to keep it going?

I think the biggest sacrifice, really, is the toll it takes on your mental health.

When I started out, I was usually on short-term, six-month contracts and I’d get stressed wondering whether I’d get another contract after it finished. Or, would I have to go back to full-time employment again – which wasn’t a great prospect, to be honest.

There’s also the strain it can put on your relationships. Being a contractor means you have to go where the work is. If you’re lucky you can commute to it. If you’re unlucky you have to be away from home. You could even be abroad.

In the past, I’ve had contracts which meant having to live away from home during the week.  Long-term, that can affect your personal life.

I was never worried about getting paid, but there are stresses that come with government legislation about contractors. It’s getting tighter and tighter. IR35, for example, is now making IT contractors’ lives difficult. 

Plus, like any contract work, you often have to work unsociable hours.

Describe your biggest challenge. How did you overcome it?

The biggest challenge was making the move in the first place. I was lucky. I got made redundant, which sort of pushed me in that direction. But going out on my own was still a big step to take.

There are so many risks attached to the decision, like whether you’ll have a pay cheque at the end of the month and if you’ll be able to pay your mortgage.

But early on in my career, I’d already spent a year in Holland on contract. That gave me a taste for contracting and the confidence to have another bash at it. Because the rewards are good.

How’s your work/life balance?

It’s different now, because I can please myself. I have quite a good work/life balance although my voluntary work takes up a good deal of my time.

But I do think work/life balance is down to the individual in a way. It depends how he/she wants to spend their lives.

Finding that balance has sometimes been difficult in the past. For 2 or 3 years I was in charge of a 24/7 operation and during that period I was on call all the time. I might get a call in the middle of the night, for example. It was quite stressful. I began to dread the phone ringing.   

As a contractor though, you’ll put yourself out because you’re getting rewarded for it.  That’s part of the balance.

It’s also down to your work ethic.  If you’ve got a good work ethic, whether you’re a contractor or in full-time employment, you’ll get a good reward from it.

What do you like best about running your own business?

It’s the self-determination I think. Ok, you succeed and you fail, but it’s largely down to you. You haven’t got someone else telling you what to do. Being your own boss means you’re in control.

How do you get on with the duller side of running a business? Do you have any tips for those who find that sort of thing hard?

You just have to get to grips with it. I did my own PAYE, but it’s worth paying for professional advice and help for some things, like marketing or insurance. It gives you peace of mind.

The admin side of being a contractor does take up a lot of your time. And it was time I certainly begrudged, because it’s boring.

How do you get new clients? What works best for you?

By word of mouth works for me.

I also do some advertising on social media. Not just on Facebook or Twitter, I use other online groups. Nextdoor is one worth using.

Are you a member of any professional associations or networking groups, or similar?

No. They're not for me.

That’s not to say networking doesn’t work. For people who relish it and are good at that sort of thing, it’s a great way to get your name out there.

What’s the best thing about being an IT contractor? And the worst?

The best thing is not to do with being a contractor.

IT’s been something I’ve been interested in since I was about 20 years old and I’m still as excited about it now as I was then. It’s my hobby, if you like.

(I would have much preferred a career playing cricket for England, of course! But IT was a good second best.)

The worst thing about being a contractor is the uncertainty. And the stress caused by that uncertainty.

If you had 30 seconds to give a newbie your best bit of advice, what would it be?

Go for it!

It’s like anything in life. If being an IT contractor is something you think you’d like to have a go at, do it.  Because you’ll always regret not having given it a go.

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