After the bug ...

With millennial IT problems sorted, what do the experts do next? asks Sandra Deeble
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The Independent Online
If you overhear a conversation between two slick suits, reminiscing, misty-eyed, about the golden days of big money, fast cars and excitement, don't presume they are 1980s traders - they're probably IT contractors.

A year or so ago there was a stampede as IT specialists (freelancers and people who left permanent positions), jumped on the lucrative millennium- bug bandwagon. As many large organisations are now on the home run - at the testing phase - the number of positions for contractors has dropped drastically.

Yet although many of the resting IT people are thinking that things will never be as good, others are using the experience to great advantage. How can the IT contractor seize the day post-Y2K?

Think e-commerce. The growth of online retailing and the use of the internet for business-to-business activities in the UK is hot on the heels of the US. IT people who develop internet skills and Java-based tools will be in demand. And anything webby has the added advantage of being perceived as glamorous.

Look beyond IT skills: understanding the bigger picture will set you apart from your fellow expert.

"People see Y2K as the ultimate piece of project management; it's a great thing to have on your CV," says Melinda Libby, NatWest group-wide communications manager for the millennium bug.

Last year, NatWest had more than 800 full-time and 300 part-time IT staff. This year, the figures are more like 300 full-time and 150 part-time people. Ms Libby recognises the wider skills displayed by the Y2K brigade. "You have to be good with people. The bottom line is getting people to do what is needed. Project management is a critical part of the whole millennium programme, and some IT contractors have flexible intellects - they can deal with anything."

Take on the mantle of your surroundings. "Some contractors are very good at slipping into a corporate culture, they pick up the language. Other people refuse to fit in," adds Ms Libby.

As for dress code, while in the US IT specialists may be found wearing a tank top knitted by their mother, sitting boggle-eyed in front of South Park, in the UK it's a different story.

"If you walk through the offices of a large organisation, you have difficulty differentiating the IT analyst from the marketing manager," says Lloyd Moore, contract services director at Computer Futures, one of the largest contract suppliers in the UK.

Don't be too picky. "Contractors who will really reap the rewards will be flexible; they'll have a willingness to travel," explains Mr Moore. "Freelancers can earn fantastic money: pounds 2,000-pounds 3,000 per week; but we warned: people know that the money they would be earning as Y2K contractors would be at a ridiculously artificial rate."

Inland Revenue proposals introduced in the last Budget were aimed at curbing the activities of the one-person limited liability companies traditionally set up by independent IT contractors in order to capitalise on tax benefits.

Yet it is far from being a contracting landscape of doom and gloom. Some recruitment experts say that it is about time that contractors came down to earth - they've had a good run for their money. At the same time, there is a wave of positive reports from the IT recruitment consultancies, saying that next spring will see another, albeit mini, boom for the contracting market, when organisations unlock budgets for development programmes.

Yet the overriding message from recruitment agencies and clients alike is clear. While IT used to be a separate activity, it now impacts on every person in every department throughout an organisation. The ability for IT contractors to think laterally and to develop a broad perspective of their client's business - rather than focusing on a specific task - is essential for future success.

So if you've spent the last year hunkered down, working long hours and feeling that you've been in a millennium-bug time warp yourself, take heart: "You're more marketable having worked on the mother of all contracts," explains Ms Libby. "At least everyone knows what you have done."

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