Tender loving care for top-notch techies

Rachelle Thackray on a company that helps go-it-alone computer contractors through the self-employment minefield
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The Independent Online
IF the thought of earning an average pounds 50,000 to pounds 70,000 per annum on a freelance basis appeals to you, you're not alone. The market for information technology contractors is growing at an exponential rate, with an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 practitioners currently in business.

With agencies crying out for new blood, and companies falling over themselves to lure people who know their visual basic from their VDU, there's no shortage of work for the technically competent, and in a market awash with so much cash - some contractors can command pounds 1,500 for a single day's work - there's also plenty of business for those with different know-how.

Accountant Barry Roback, a self-proclaimed "frustrated computer analyst" who runs the UK's largest accountancy service for IT contractors, foresaw 10 years ago that this market was a goose which would, in time, lay a golden egg. "Back then, the only contractors in existence were the guys who fed tapes on to expensive mainframe computers.

"They had these great big computers, but since the early 1990s, there has been a tremendous trend to downsize, to put things on to localised PCs or mid-range hubs," says Mr Roback. This led to an enormous shift in the nature of the market - a swing towards outsourcing and contracting.

"Companies suddenly realised: hang on a minute, if you can implement things in half or quarter of the time, why do you need all these highly- paid IT staff sitting round waiting for the next stage of the project? Why don't you buy in the expertise as and when you need it?"

In 1988, Mr Roback - who had worked with Touche Ross and who at the time was financial director of the highly successful Tie Rack chain - identified a niche and decided that with his love of computers and accounting expertise, he was the person to fill it.

"Nobody seemed to be offering this type of person a professional service at a price they could afford," he recalls. "By their very nature, computer contractors have no one to kick an idea or a problem around with. Their needs are probably greater than a company with 20 staff. They are one- man-bands, and they need a lot of hand-holding."

Roback left his job at Tie Rack, set up his own company, JSA, in a small office, and has never looked back. He had 300 clients within two years: he now has 6,000 clients and a workforce of more than 150. Together with his fellow directors, he has put together a package which guides a first- time contractor through the maze of sometimes worrying taxation requirements.

Those looking to become long-term contractors, for example, usually find that they need to set up a limited company. Tim Burnett, 28, a self-taught contractor from High Wycombe, launched his one-man company Mission Computer Consultants Ltd last month, after spending several years in salaried IT- related employment. JSA, he says, showed him a video, gave him a manual and explained the options. "They gave me a software package, where you type in all your receipts and invoices, and it tells you when there's a problem. Then you send the data back for processing."

Mr Roback realised that the majority of his clients were ringing in with one-off financial queries, so he set up a help desk and began to employ retired bank managers - with experience in accounting and setting up people in small businesses - to interview potential clients. Those wanting to try out contracting can become an employee of JSA's own IT contracting company; if contractors wish to work abroad, they can opt to become employees of another part of the group, JSA International.

Alan Head, 59, a former IBM employee and now working on contract for Barclays, is typical of the new, heterogeneous breed of IT contractors: he is particularly pleased that his working patterns give him the time and money to do IT voluntary work for the British Executive Service Overseas and London's Maudsley Hospital. Contracting is not restricted to up-and- coming whizz-kids, he says. "When you're working with young sparks, you do pick up a lot from them, and I'm learning all the time. I'll carry on for three years and then I will pack it all in and retire again." Meanwhile, he has also signed up with JSA. "One of the problems I had when I decided to contract was filling in those income tax forms. Now that they're going to do that for me, it's a great weight off my shoulders."