Tag Archive | "alan watts"

How to successfully complete an IT contract – then rinse and repeat.


I’m coming rapidly to the end of my current engagement and have been reflecting on what I’ve been doing. Not out of any great sense of sadness or nostalgia but because I have to hand over to the permanent guys that I’ve been covering for while they were off doing more interesting stuff. Which means doing the Great Chinese Examination and writing down everything you know for them to pick up and carry on doing.

Then, while pondering how best to describe one less than dynamic project without embarrassing the Project Manager too badly, it occurred to me that my job is actually pretty varied in one way and very consistent in the other.

Don’t believe all that rubbish about monster pay packets, most contractors actually do it for the chance to work in different places with different people learning different things.

Although, to be fair, the monster pay packets might also have a certain appeal…

Anyway, my usual contract is to parachute into an existing team where I’m either filling the seat of someone off doing something else for a while, or adding some resource because the guys haven’t got enough hours in the day. It’s a case of turn up, get introduced, sometimes in detail, sometime very sketchily (although with my appalling memory for names and faces, it matters not a lot which!), work out the key players, the quick way to get to work and the coffee supply and get on with it. With a bit of luck I’ll also be asked to make things work better or even work completely differently, which is the bit I quite enjoy. But the real challenge is that steep learning curve where you have to fit into the team like you’ve been there for years. Then the real guy comes back and you’re out of a job again. Rinse and repeat.

So as I say, interesting work in a boring sequence. And I wouldn’t have it any other way, to be honest.

But there’s another thing I keep seeing, everywhere I go. Basically I work in and around Service Management, which is the bit that turns the technical wizardry of the data centre into the mundane consistency of the user’s desktop environment. All that stuff that ITIL used to be about before V3 came along and made it incomprehensible and expensive in equal measure. But ITIL has been around for a long time now, and certainly predates the working lives of a lot of the people I work with. So why does nobody know how to use it properly?

Everywhere I go, they have a Service Desk. The usually have a Change Manager. They may have got really enthusiastic and have a CMDB that works. Usually they’re just an asset register with aspirations; the test is to see if it can tell you who will shout if you turn something off. Which is all well and good, if you like your cappuccinos without milk.

Where is the Service Catalogue? I’ve yet to work somewhere that has even a pale shadow of the ITIL ideal. It’s not like it’s all that complex either, the broad brush approach will work perfectly well – email , internet, Office, Security, User Management, assorted approved applications, that kind of thing. Not the tin and wires, that’s for the propeller heads in the back office. The Service Catalogue is the glue that holds it all together, the steamed milk that makes your breakfast coffee sing and stops the cinnamon sinking. Without the Service Catalogue, how do you know what you’re providing, what your Change Manager is changing and what your Service Desk is servicing?

Perhaps I should get out more, but one day in my serial existence I’ll come across a site that uses the basic ITIL structure properly. And that would be really very interesting.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2012 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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I can’t be trusted to get to the Gents and back without an escort


Remember me talking about Cerberus, some while ago? Not the three-headed guardian of the underworld, but the new e-forms system that the Defence Vetting Authority launched with great fanfare – well, great fanfare in the world of security clearance, anyway, o actually it was quite understated – to speed up the whole clearance process.

Guess what. It hasn’t actually worked as advertised. Quelle surprise…

121 days ago I clicked “Submit” on my electronic Cerberus application form, having recently started at the current gig for a client that requires genuine clearance. Ever since I’ve been logging on to the portal to see what’s happening, and have always been presented with the somewhat cryptic message “In progress”. Which means my file is still dragging its way through the labyrinthine machinations of the clearance process. For CTC clearance.

(For those of you unfamiliar with the clearance grades, there are basically four levels: BPSS, meaning “You are who you say you are”, CTC, meaning “We know you are who you say you are”, SC, meaning “We really do know you are”, and DV, which means “Not only do we know who you are, but we know who your friends are as well”.)

So CTC is not exactly the most difficult thing in the world to check for. In fact the DVA’s own service level states that they will process 85% of CTC applications in 30 days. So, one might assume, something has gone a little astray. However, I can’t check that since, despite my having access to the Portal to see where I’m up to, I can’t actually ask any questions, that has to come from the sponsor. So that doesn’t really help. Nor does the interesting statistic that DVA are processing 250,000 clearance requests a year. Which seems rather a lot.

So what does this actually mean? Now there’s an interesting question.

The client’s own rules say that I can’t have a building pass without clearance. So I can’t get past the front desk in the morning without an escort, my laptop bag (and carrier bag of Waitrose sandwiches) have to go through the scanner, I can’t get to the coffee shop by myself, I can’t visit the Gents and I can’t get out at the end of the day. I certainly can’t wander down the corridor to talk to my various colleagues about assorted problems, which, given I do Service Design and have to understand the end-to-end details of things, is something of a limitation.

Bizarrely, what I can do is read and review a host of technical information about the client’s infrastructure. I can talk to their staff about requirements, including discussions on access rights to services. In short, I can see all the information that clearance is intended to protect. Which, to be fair, is in the rules; someone has done a risk assessment and decided I can be trusted with that information. Which I can; after all I’ve held high level clearance before, several times.

And I’m not the only one. Until very recently one of our Technical Design people had the same problem, and he gets a lot closer to the detail than I ever need to.

So a bit of a disconnect in the process them. Basically I can do everything I need to do and read anything I need to read but I can’t be trusted to get to the Gents and back without an escort. And I’m getting just a bit too old to want people to hold my hand while I do so.

But don’t get me wrong. I take this security clearance issue very seriously indeed. I’ve been closely involved in getting the rules clarified and applied properly for several years. The rules are totally realistic and justifiable and offer a degree of protection that I fully support. But someone somewhere in the client’s security management team really needs to lift their head from JSP440 and apply just a little common sense. Don’t they?

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited.

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I’m not optimistic about a quick resolution to this one


You know when you’ve been commuting too long when, without having to think about, you stand on the platform, the train rolls in and you only have to stretch out your hand to open the door. The good thing is that you can get to work with minimal mental effort which, at the time of day I’m usually doing it, is rather a good thing.

In fact there’s only one thing that is really getting on my wick during the daily commute. A regular army of lycra-clad cyclepaths with silly hats who seem to think any rules of the road, the pavement and basic courtesy simply don’t apply.

I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve had to dodge them in the car coming off pavements or through red lights. Today I had to crash stop because one of them sailed across a zebra crossing; even the dumbest pedestrian has twigged that stopping and looking before stepping off the kerb is a good idea, so why are cyclists immune? Not to mention they aren’t damned pedestrians anyway and cycling across a zebra is actually illegal.

Then once off the train (having first waited for them to negotiate their idiot machines thought the barriers) and on the daily walk across the city centre I routinely get confronted by them ploughing through a busy walkway, heads down, mindless expression behind the obligatory dark glasses, utterly indifferent to any thought of risk analysis. Can’t slow down, got to get there, mustn’t stop, can’t possibly communicate with mere mortals, don’t care about anyone else; I’m a road warrior, me…

Remind you of anyone?

I paid my Corporation Tax bill last month, well ahead of the due date. Thanks to the vagaries of the banking system I couldn’t do it in one transaction (what, you think I’m going to pay extra to send Hector money?) so I sent two BACs transactions to occur one day apart. Same reference number, same destination bank account, accurate to the penny.

I got an acknowledgement for the first one. But not the second. Oh oh…

Then I get a letter. I have an outstanding payment on my Corporation Tax account. You now owe us the balance plus another lump of interest. The accountant has written to them pointing out their error, and enclosing a copy of MyCo’s bank statement clearly showing the payment.

No response. Hector doesn’t do letters, apparently.

So they phoned them up. All that achieves is to elicit a promise to send an internal email to the payments team. Say what? We don’t want payments, we want to you understand that no money is owed so payments have nothing to do with it.

Still no answer.

Next step is to log into the account and see what they think I owe. Got to wait for some more paperwork for that of course, can’t possibly use the credentials I already have to pay my employee taxes and VAT. Or register online, has to be done by post. Well I suppose it keeps a few hundred envelope stuffers off the streets.

Then the accountant tells me that Hector won’t talk to them about my affairs anyway until I fill out a form (one I’ve already done once, by the way) to allow them to do so: notwithstanding the minor detail that the accountant has been dealing with my company’s affairs for around seven years now, as even a cursory glance at their own records would demonstrate.

So I’m not optimistic about a quick resolution to this one. Nor, come to that, the payment of the money (plus interest…) they owe me for overpaid income tax from last year which has also not appeared in MyCo’s bank account.

At least when confronted with a moron on a bike you get some satisfaction by thinking you might just send him on his way wearing it rather than riding it. Sadly, that doesn’t work for taxmen.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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Back again….and still ranting!


Took some time off last week to recharge the batteries and soak up some sunshine away from the rest of the world. Very relaxing it was too, once we got there; it was the bit between leaving the house and getting to the apartment that caused the grief.

Two factors conspired to make the journey less relaxing than it should have been; the ministrations of a certain Irish airline and the facilities of Bristol Unintentional Airport.

The airline is very proud to call themselves the “Low Cost” airline. What they don’t tell you is that means low cost to them, not you. Every step in the process of booking the flight to getting off the plane at your destination has been brilliantly engineered to save them as much effort and money as possible. So you end up standing in interminable queues to check in bags (with the best will in the world I struggle to get a week’s packing into my carry-on hand luggage and She Who Must Be Obeyed certainly can’t). You have to get to the most distant (and hence cheapest) gate possible at the most inconvenient flight times. Once there you stand in another queue to get on the plane, usually waiting for the incoming flight to unload its passengers so as not to waste any time when the plane is ready. Two hours at the airport and no chance for even a cup of coffee, much less some pre-flight drinkies

And, most irritatingly, all you hear over the loud shouters and in the in-flight magazine is how well they do in all the surveys, how few bags they lose, how few complaints they get (possibly because we’re not stupid enough to think they’ll take any notice if we do complain so we don’t bother) and how good their timekeeping is. So why were we 30 minutes late then…

As for Bristol Unintentional. I’m fairly well-travelled and as far as I’m concerned it rates as being about the least convenient one I’ve ever used (and that includes the one in Zanzibar). You kind of get used to paying to use the drop-off car park since they closed the front of the terminal building to everything bar their own taxis. You have to pay to use the trolleys; most places give you the money back when you return them, but not Bristol, In fact there is nowhere to return them to, so they usually get abandoned in the departures hall and the car parks. They’ve taken most of the seats out of the departures lounge to expand the Duty Free shop (which isn’t duty free anyway, come to that). And now, “for your comfort and convenience” they’ve scrapped the buses that take you to the more distant gates; instead you have a 450 metre walk along endless corridors and stairways with nary an escalator, moving walkway or lift in sight.

And all the time, you’re being told this is all for your own benefit. Yeah right…

So then I get back to the real world this week and have a read of a paper HMRC have submitted to the IR35 Forum to establish the scope of who is and who isn’t caught under IR35. Sadly, they seem to suffer the same level of doublethink; compare the level of understanding demonstrated in the paper to the realities of what the IR35 Forum is trying to achieve and there is a yawning chasm between the two. For one thing, it’s headed “Customer Segmentation”. Sorry, but I am not your customer, HMRC, for a start. Also taxation is simple, according to that nice lady in the adverts; how does segmenting the taxpaying population lead to simplification then? The paper was rejected and is being redrafted apparently, which will be interesting.

Meanwhile I’ve vowed never to use a certain Irish airline ever again. Such a shame I can’t do the same with HMRC.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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Recruiters – the only people who seem not to understand the value of uniqueness


How would you feel about a business where you didn’t really understand what the product is and were selling to someone who also doesn’t understand what it is but whose understanding was different to yours? But nevertheless the overall business has an annual turnover close to £30 billion.

Because that’s the Recruitment industry these days.

I was in a meeting recently where an account manager from one of the local agencies gave a talk on how the agency interacts with the contractor and all the various add on services they provide. Made for several PowerPoint slides of things ranging from de-risking payments to providing help and guidance And very interesting it was too, until another speaker, this time a contractor, stood up and gave their view of the same relationship..

Guess what? They didn’t really match.

To be fair to the agency, they do find the business and they do factor the money and they will, if pressed, negotiate rates and the like with the end client, all of which is pretty valuable if you want a quiet life. Where it goes wrong is how they represent us to the client.

Every agency tries to tell the client that they have this pool of highly expert staff ready to fulfil any role the client wants filling. And what is more their sophisticated search facilities and in-house databases match candidates to roles with unfailing accuracy. So explain why, if that’s what they do, why is my Inbox getting three or four emails a day from agencies offering me a whole series of roles, almost without exception ones that bear little or no relationship to my actual skills or location. Could it be that what they do and what they tell people they do aren’t exactly fully aligned?

And, of course, this same doublethink has permeated the client HR departments. Because they get contractors from the “recruitment” agencies and those contractors are presented as individuals, rather than as service providers, they see us as a slightly weird form of employee. OK, we may have different email addresses to the permie staff and we might miss out on things like car parking rights and canteen access, but ultimately we are still seen as just another worker.

So why is this important? As long as we get paid, does it really matter?

Well yes it does, actually. In fact it’s getting increasingly important. The career contactor has to demonstrate more and more to HMG that we are free-standing businesses; small ones, admittedly, and ones who probably won’t ever grow too much, but still businesses with all that implies. Sadly, that argument gets cut off at the knees by the way the market treats us as a lightly modified employee with an inflated salary.

Of course, deflecting this juggernaut from its path is not going to be easy; in fact, it may not even be possible. After all, £30 billion a year is something with a lot of momentum. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. The freelancing model we have in the UK is certainly unique in Europe, and pretty much unique in the rest of the world, with only Australia and the USA coming close to the level of operational freedom we enjoy.

So it’s a real shame that the very people we have to deal with to get our skills to work are the only people who seem not to understand the value of that uniqueness. I think it’s time they found out.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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Four words that seem to have passed by St Vince of Cable


I see St Vince of Cable is back in the news, challenging Mr Cameron’s views on immigration. What a shame that he is continuing to confuse two entirely different issues, which is most unlike a Liberal Democrat.

I offer no comment on immigration in general. I tend to side with the Cameronian view that controlled immigration is a good thing while uncontrolled immigration is not, but that’s as far as I go on that subject.

However, the importing of foreign labour to do jobs that used to be done by UK workers? That, I’m afraid, is a different issue entirely.

Sadly it is a distinction that Cable seems determined not to make. He remains wedded to the view that UK PLC is in such dire straits that it absolutely has to import a range of technical and engineering workers to maintain its position in the world economy. Furthermore he is supporting this contention by pointing out that it allows us access to markets that would otherwise be closed to our industries. This has a degree of merit, if you allow that we have something that market wants to buy.

But it is interesting to note that I don’t see a great influx of Chinese workers on ICTs coming in to the country to do a range of fairly low level technical jobs. After all, China has a rapidly growing economy and probably the biggest untapped market anywhere in the world. And we seem to be pretty good at selling into it, without reciprocal trade deals – at least, none that I’ve seen reported. I could be wrong but I also don’t see us paying for China’s growing nuclear industry, nor its education system.

Funny that, isn’t it?

It doesn’t help that the people charged with supervising the new ICT rules on salary banding and the like don’t seem to have much of a clue what’s going on either. The transcript of a discussion at the Public Accounts Select Committee makes for depressing reading. Not that they aren’t concerned about the issue, they clearly are, but that they are so vague about the rules themselves and vague about how compliance is going to be measured. At one point they are saying that the number of request for salary information to enforce the rules is too high for the system to cope. In other words, the rules are in place but there’s no effective way to apply them. They are even rather vague about the local resident working test, which is intended to stop an existing worker being booted out by an incoming ICT one.

And Cable and friends still fail to grasp the fundamental point here. If we give all the entry-level jobs away, how are those 20,000 IT graduates, to take one example, ever going to get their first step into their chosen career? And in a few more years’ time, where will we find the middle managers and technical experts who actually get this somewhat overrated ICT workforce to deliver to the required standard?

This is something that needs decisive and effective action. Four words that seem to have passed by the honourable Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills without leaving a visible imprint.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited

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So when is a business not a business?


That is a question that’s been exercising me and a few like-minded souls over the last week. And this existential philosophising has been prompted by the planned creation of the IR35 Forum, which aims to establish who is liable for consideration as IR35 fodder and who isn’t. So first a quick history lesson may be in order.

The idea of IR35 as a way to recover NICs avoided by use of dividends has been around for quite a while. It was certainly floated to the Thatcher/Major governements and was firmly rebuffed as being both ineffective and unnecessary. Still, treasury officials are nothing if not doggedly persistent (or doggedly bloody-minded, if you prefer) and it came up again when we switched to New Labour. And found an ally in the Paymaster General, the fragrant Miss Primarola.

However, Primarola – herself, let it be remembered, a failed tax evader (which takes a degree of ineptitude all by itself, having had a tax bill she didn’t agree with paid for by a supporter with perhaps more money than sense) – was adamant that IR35 was only aimed at people cheating the system,. Those “genuinely in business” need have nothing to fear.

Yeah, right…

So wind on ten years and we have a new government and IR35 cases are still being prosecuted almost at random; a recent case is against someone who has been providing services to multiple concurrent clients for several years. Like I said, the usual dogged persistence by HMRC. Or something canine anyway (or should that be lupine…?)

Anyway, now it turns out that we get to keep IR35 because it will stop people leaping from employment to freelance doing the same job to avoid paying the taxes they now owe since their offshore EBT money boxes have been slammed shut. This is almost as skinny an excuse as the original Dim Prawn explanation, but we can live with it, as long as IR35 is only aimed at these cowboy Friday-to-Monday converts and not us real businesses.

Osborne took the key OTS suggestion and has determined that the administration of IR35 needs to be vastly improved. Setting up the IR35 Forum for that very purpose is happening now. It is something of a shame that he didn’t take the extra step and set up something vastly to improve the administration of HMRC itself, but let’s be grateful for small mercies

So the IR35 Forum’s most knotty problem will be working out the common factors between Mr Patel at the corner shop, the guy with a successful SME business, the average jobbing contractor and the traditional self-employed and separating them from someone who genuinely has incorporated just to save paying some taxes. Perhaps they should look for the crossed fingers?

It ought to be as simple as saying your client today isn’t the same as your employer two days ago, you’re VAT registered and have a company bank account, but the more you look into it the harder it gets. This is one debate that I suspect is going to run and run. And one that whatever the outcome. A lot of people aren’t going to be happy with it.

If only we could wave a magic wand, bin IR35 and start from a clean sheet of paper. If only…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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IR35 – an abomination in the eyes of the Lord?


Now the dust has settled on the OTS report, it’s been fascinating to see the various reactions to it. Most interestingly, nobody seems to have focused on the biggest potential recommendation, that IR35 be suspended with immediate effect. Which is a shame, really.

Most of the discussion obviously centres on the main recommendation, that PAYE and NICs get merged into a single tax. As I said last week, this is a far from trivial exercise, although the ultimate benefits in terms of simplicity and consistency would be enormous. Even if Mr Osborne does take this on, as many commentators seem to think he will, it will be years before it is achieved. More importantly, if the focus stays on the anomalies that are bound to arise during the transition, such as pensioners who don’t pay NICs in the first place, rather than on the real benefits then it will go nowhere. So let’s hope that just for once the commentators and pressure groups keep their eye on the real prize and, just for once, look at the long term picture.

So assuming Osborne does bite the bullet and make a bid for being a seriously reforming Chancellor (as opposed to one who simply wants to cut everything, which is how the opposition want to portray him and which really is a load of Balls), then what is the next OTS recommendation?

That’s right – stop IR35. Whoo hoo…

Needless to say, even doing that is not that simple. What happens to the cases currently being investigated? Are they simply stopped, leaving the worker hanging without a decision in case it is later reinstated, as may happen? Are they abandoned altogether, which seems a little unlikely? Or will they be allowed to continue to a conclusion, which is my guess since legal processes are fairly much unstoppable once invoked. About the only certainty is that nobody else would have a simple PAYE audit mutate into a five year, £50,000 court case.

Take out IR35 and would we then see a rush of incorporations as all those who say they use umbrellas because they can’t be bothered with the administrative overhead of their own company suddenly realise it isn’t actually that much of a problem and the extra income would really come in handy. That wouldn’t do the umbrella companies a lot of good either, especially with the Agency Workers Directive kicking off later this year.

In fact the only people to remain comparatively unaffected by it all are those like me who have their own companies, understand the rules who are trying to work as a business and always have done.

The “In Business” tests didn’t get a lot of attention, possibly because the OTS doesn’t really see adding an extra layer of administration as a simplification, even if it would greatly limit the number of cases HMRC would have to worry about.

And the third option, that HMRC’s administration of IR35 be greatly improved, was described by PCG as “risible”. Not because the idea of HMRC doing anything even vaguely resembling effective administration is seen as something of a forlorn hope (which it is, of course), but until HMRC are subject to a formal duty of care and subject to a full cost benefit analysis of the cases they bring, there is nothing to stop them pressing cases that they have little or no hope of winning, just because they can. They demand we do everything 100% correctly and attack us for the merest slip, but are totally exempt from any such constraint themselves.

We have to wait until the Budget to see what is going to happen of course, but PCG are to be congratulated for driving us to the position we now find ourselves in, that not only HMG are recognising that IR35 is an abomination in the eyes of the Lord, but that they may actually do something about it.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

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IR35 – The war is not won….yet


Big news of the day is the release of the Office for Tax Simplification’s report on Small Business Taxation. Well, big news for freelance contractors anyway. This is because this is the report that lays out what they think should happen to IR35. And it’s received a resoundingly cautious welcome from people like the PCG.

So not all good news then?

The main recommendation is that HMG bites the bullet and merges PAYE and NICs into a single tax. This is something that’s been around for a while – the Mirrlees report said exactly the same thing last year, as did a Treasury consultation from 2007. Except we didn’t really have a functional government back then and it went in the “Too difficult” box.

However merging the two has a lot of useful side effects, such as eliminating the advantage of payment through dividends, which among other things would make IR35 completely unnecessary. Which has to be a good thing in anybody’s book.

The snag is this will take years to bring into effect and the more you look at what’s involved the more complicated it gets. For example, the tax system recognises the difference between earned income and risk-based investment income and taxes them separately so as to encourage entrepreneurialism. Pensioners don’t pay NICs, so would need their own separate tax treatment. And so on – getting from here to there is a complicated and politically dangerous road.

But the report goes on to say that if that basic principle is adopted, then IR35 should be suspended with immediate effect. This suspension would allow HMRC to focus on other, frankly rather more important areas of tax gathering – you know, the ones that actually return more than they cost to collect – as well as showing what would happen to tax revenues if IR35 was simply abolished outright. So, for example, all those people who work through umbrella companies out of fear of IR35 may well incorporate and get the benefits of being a real contractor. There may be a rush of companies pushing their employees into turning freelance, which is what IR35 was supposed to prevent (it didn’t, as it happens, but let’s not go into that right now). There’s also a whole industry built on the existence of IR35 that would go into a sharp decline. So lot’s of potential issues to be resolved.

To be fair the report also suggests two other options; firstly that IR35 remains and HMRC are far more sensible, responsible and systematic in the pursuit of its enforcement (which caused me some hilarity and probably wins this weeks Littlejohn prize for “You couldn’t make it up”) or secondly the adoption of a series of tests that put you outside the scope of the IR35 legislation, clearly and simply.

So why a “cautious welcome” from the PG, who have been pushing for the abolition of IR35 for a long time? They are totally in favour of the suspension of IR35 as a step towards its removal but suspensions can be reversed, so it’s not the 100% solution they were hoping for. They also support the idea of the “in business” tests (as does the IoD, come to that), but are not exactly in favour of the “HMRC taking more care option” – to quote them, “This is widely regarded as risible”. And of course, it is all dependent on Mr Osborne taking note of and accepting the main recommendation for merger.

Still, it is a huge step forward and PCG deserve all credit for their work in getting us to this point. The war is not yet won, but we have perhaps now won the El Alamein battle for the abolition of IR35.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

Image: soldier marching by HikingArtist.com

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The three headed dog from hell or a huge step in the right direction?


I don’t know if anyone’s noticed, but there’s a bit of a revolution going on this weekend. Something I’ve been banging on about since early 2003 is facing a big and, to my eyes, rather significant change. And I bet 90% of the people it affects don’t even know about it.

It’s called Cerberus. OK, that’s a three headed dog from hell to some, but to others it’s a huge step change.

Cerberus is primarily a Case Management System to look after the security clearance of anyone who holds it or are put up for clearance in order to get work in any of the myriad HMG-sponsored roles that demand it. It’s aim is to simplify and standardise what is currently a fairly creaky and almost totally paper-based system.

I’ve spoken before (at great length, some may say…) about the Catch-22 of no clearance means no job but you can’t have the clearance without the job. This is especially true of contractors, who have to be able to take up new roles on fairly short order; permanent staff are usually (but not always) in a position to stay with the old job or otherwise sit around until they are allowed to start the new one. So contractors like me are the real victims of this situation to the extent that I was not allowed to apply for a role a while back to implement a system I’d designed while I was cleared, since my clearance had lapsed in the interim.

The reason for this is the blind insistence from many agencies and more than a few prime contractors is that clearance takes forever to come through and without it you can’t work. And since the rules are that you can apply for clearance without a sponsor, the net effect is the aforementioned Catch-22, and the jobs on offer go to the same old circle of those inside the fence.

But this is wrong on several counts.

Firstly the main clearance agencies have been working to get their existing systems much more efficient. DVA, who look after the MOD, routinely clear 95% of SC clearances in less than 30 days and can fast track them in as little as 10. Again using me as the example, I was cleared by one of the constabularies to the same level in two weeks flat. So time is not really an issue.

Secondly you don’t need clearance to start the job, most of the time. The basic level of BPSS is not a million miles away from the kind of ID and residency checks we are routinely asked to do for any role. BPSS allows you to access material marked up to “Restricted”, which is around 90% of it. There are a very few exceptions, where informed supervision can’t be given, and until your full clearance comes through you will have to be collected from the front gate and taken back to it, but that’s hardly a major barrier to overcome.

And finally if you only ever take your workers from the same limited gene pool, how are you ever going to improve? Hoe many projects have failed because of the lack of up-to-date skills and practices I wonder.

Cerberus will bring all the clearance records into a single database, supported by on-line e-forms to replace the paperwork. All the various clearance agencies will have access to it, led by DVA and the Home Office equivalent, which makes everything far more traceable and, more importantly, transferable (my police clearance is not accepted by DVA, even though the police checks are actually slightly more rigorous. Go figure…)

So a big step forward. The target is to get SC clearance down to 15 days and CTC to less than a week. Let’s just hope the agencies notice…

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

Image: Herlitz Monster-Talent Monster04 by Herlitz-Monster-Deal

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How to bid for freelance work in a fog of ignorance


Have you ever thought that contracting is about the only job where you have no idea how much you should be charging? You go for a job, you talk to the agency advertising it (assuming you can find them at their desk…) and you have a two minute chat about the work required. With a bit of luck (and some smart questions) you will know where the job is based, roughly what’s to be done and what the agency believes the key issues are (there’s always issues in my experience!).

What you don’t yet know, usually, is who the client is and quite probably not even what their line of work is. That’s because if the agent decides you’re a waste of his time, he doesn’t want you calling the client and offering your services directly, so he’s only protecting his own business.

But on the basis of this rather minimal information you will be asked how much you would charge. And that’s where it gets difficult.

Personally I have a clear idea in my head about what I would like to charge. The answer, oddly enough, is not “as much as I can” although that is certainly one of the parameters. I know what I need to live and I know my routine overheads, so I can work out how much I need to earn a year to pay the mortgage and keep the dog in biscuits. Working on the assumption I’ll probably work seven months a year (OK, that’s a bit low, but I’m getting lazy in my old age) I can set a base day rate.

To that you add the cost of getting to the job. Daily commutes are either so many miles at 40 pence per mile or the rail fares. Staying away I usually cost at £100 a day (slightly more in the Smoke, but that’s usually commutable). Either way I add that amount to the day rate; while I do an all inclusive deal for my labour, I also aim to recover all my costs.

Finally I add a fiddle factor, based on the seniority of the role (it costs more if I’m managing people, for instance) and something I call the risk factor, which reflects how hard the job is going to be and how much damage I could do if I get it wrong. Then add 15%: after all, I aim to make a profit at the end of the day.

So then I have a base price. Sadly, so does the agent, driven by what the client tells him the budget is and his own margins. If we’re really lucky the two will coincide. If we’re even luckier, the agent will be willing to beat the client up to what I want, since he gets more money that way as well. These days, though, that’s increasingly unlikely.

One problem is that the clients have a very clear idea of what they want to pay, Unless you are a serious specialist, there is very little chance you can name your own price any more. Most clients have a rate card of their own which they use to cost their own internal budgets: it’s a brave manager who will deliberately put in an overspend on his own budget. Then there are the companies who have no idea, who set the budget by dividing the permie’s salary by 260, who set the rate stupidly high – councils are good at that one – or even do a kind of Dutch auction, asking for three CVs and saying they’ll take the cheapest (oddly enough they are also the ones wondering why their delivery record on projects is so poor…).

Of course it would be good if we could delay the rate discussion until the interview stage, but that would expose the agent’s margin which would never be allowed. Or we could go in with a per diem and a percentage share of any resultant savings or client income growth depending on the role. (Someone I trained did exactly that: offered to do a job for 10% of the first year’s savings then proceeded to save his client £2.4 million…)

But at the end of the day you are having to bid for work in a fog of ignorance. This probably explains why my rate now is usually within 10% of what I was on 15 years ago when I started out.

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

Image: vector scuba diving by ?ukasz Strachanowski

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My new year resolution


Is not to lose weight (a lost cause, I fear) or cut down on booze (shudder), but something that’s far better for the heart rate: to stop being get annoyed with Recruitment Agencies any more. I will try to see them as being more like my dog; smart by the standard of his peers, keen to do well but not really sure how to achieve it. The reason being that having cunningly avoided the worst of the snow by being terminated three weeks before Christmas – serve me right for delivering the project early! – I start the New Year looking for the next challenge.

This means I’m back in the commoditised world of modern agencies, where speed is of the essence and box ticking is the required skill. And that is why most of the time my 30-odd year career is being assessed by someone with a job history measured in months and that has successfully managed to avoid any contact with IT at all. Still it’s not their fault, so no point getting worked up about it, is there?

One positive thing I have done is to get my CV reviewed by a couple of people who know about such things. I thought it wasn’t too bad, to be honest, and followed all the usual recommendations, but clearly not. Nobody said so explicitly but I got the feeling they all thought it a bit clumsy, a bit wordy and just a little unfocussed. Come to think of it, that describes me pretty well so what’s the problem…

Anyway, it’s had a revamp and it’s being rewritten to suit each role I’m applying for to ensure I’m highlighting the relevant bits of my skills. And it seems to be working. I’ve even had agents call me back on receipt, which is almost unheard of.

It’s also encouraging that there seem to be a lot more jobs out there right now. Mind you, every single one is demanding that you have a million year history in their business and nobody else need apply. That’s fair enough in finance, which is a world of its own, and some of the regulated industries, but quite often it is a terribly blinkered way of looking at it.

The worse culprits are the Public Sector. These are organisations that are looking at having to make savage savings, they need to get the best value from every penny they spend, and they need to explore all sorts of alternatives to survive the year.

So what do they do?

Firstly, they outsource their recruitment to people like Commensura, who are very good at supplying standardised bulk skills like cleaners at minimum effort (and usually minimum rate), but hardly appropriate for finding a specialist. Then they offer some frankly mad rates, either way under market rate or well above it. Then worst of all they exclude everyone who isn’t already in a Public Sector role. Which I think is unforgivable.

Think about it. One of the key things they can do is to share services, consolidate common functions and infrastructures and even outsource some areas so as to minimise overheads and maximise economies of scale. That is not a trivial exercise, and it’s not something that most public bodies have really tried (there are some notable exceptions, of course). So why do they think they have to disregard people with extensive business knowledge in this area and that have made it work, simply for doing it in industry. Apart from having to understand the dead hand of OGC procurement policy – which is easily learned in a day or so – those people are exactly what they need. But will they hire them? Nope, let’s stick with people who know all about how we work now and nothing about how we can work better.

And going back to the professionalism of the average agency. I just got an email from one of the big ones. Do I fancy applying for a Help Desk role paying £15 an hour on a three shift system in North Yorkshire? I may have to think about that one….

About the author: Alan Watts

Alan has worked in IT for most of the last 35 years, and first went freelance in 1996. He has been a PCG member from its start and has been spreading the message that freelancing is a professional career choice for many years. Alan also runs Malvolio’s Blog, a personal but highly informative take on the life of the modern freelance.

Alan Watts, Principal Consultant, LPW Computer Services

© 2011 All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited<

Image: Just the Grocery List by KTVee

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