Michael Brinsden is a full stack developer who has worked for a number of market leading clients across a range of sectors including Travel, Finance and e-Commerce. We speak to him about the initial panic of being a contractor when lockdown hit, the challenges of job hunting in a candidate heavy market and becoming a parent for the 2nd time during a pandemic.
If you cast your mind back to the first lock-down in March, what was happening then?
So, I was driving back from work with a temperature when Boris came on the radio and announced the lockdown. This was purely coincidental - I didn’t have the virus (or not that I knew of however I did have tight chest that evening as well?!). As a result, my household had to start the lockdown 7 days earlier than anyone else as I was showing symptoms. Workwise, everything was fine but the IR35 changes were looming and only a few weeks way. Every contractor I knew was at risk of being culled. What I had managed to arrange with my client, Bourne Leisure, was that from April I would move onto separate contracts for each piece of work I was completing and I would continue to work in silo outside of the main SCRUM team to make myself IR35 compliant. No one knew what was around the corner, but I was already in a slightly different situation to other contractors in that my daughter was due to be born at the end of May. To help with this transition (and to minimise the impact this event would have on my 2-year-old son), I was planning to take 3-4 months off work anyway and leave my contract just before her birth. However, as soon as the lockdown hit, all the contractors at my workplace including myself were released. My paternity leave had begun 7 weeks early.
Being a new parent and with the contract market on the verge of collapsing, how did you feel at the time?
I’d planned a bit because I knew the IR35 changes were coming and it was going to shake up the whole market. I was already looking at taking 3-4 months off to give the contractors who were looking for work time to find new contracts or go permanent, so that when I re-entered the market in July there would be less competition and I’d be able to find myself a contract straight away. But then Covid changed all of that, forcing us all out of work at the same time and costing me 7 weeks of work. As the months passed and nobody was finding new contracts, I knew my grand plan was doomed and that I was going to have to slug it out with every man and his dog to find work. Luckily, I run my limited company quite prudently and built up a reserve of about 8 months operating costs (and dividends) into the business. This took the pressure off returning to work. My story therefore isn’t as dramatic as it would be compared to others because I was prepared for a period of no income. What I wasn’t prepared for however was full time childcare!
Sounds like it was a lucky coincidence being so well prepared, but with the birth of your child in such uncertain times I’m sure there were some worrying elements.
It was certainly lucky in one respect and being out of work did come at a time when I was prepared for it. I remember when I first started contracting in 2006, another contractor told me then to always have 6 months continency in your business, so I have always tried to maintain that as a minimum. The impending birth worried us most and we had heard some stories about babies being born with Covid or contracting it thereafter. Our 2-year-old son also presented us the main risk of bringing Covid into the household from nursery once they re-opened in June. But once we had thought about things properly and rationally, we weren’t overly concerned, and my son went back to nursery the very first day it opened. I was also quite worried that I wouldn’t be able to be with my partner during the whole birth as initially partners were only allowed to be present for the active part of labour. Also, what if I couldn’t make the birth at all if I was showing any kind of symptoms? However, the further we got into lockdown, the more the hospitals got a handle on hygiene (and PPE) and by the time of my daughter’s birth I was allowed to be present for the whole thing.
When you started looking for work again how were you feeling?
I didn’t start looking for work until the end of July and speaking to a number of contractor friends, I knew that rates had plummeted. There were some contracts around, but the competition was fierce, and they were oversubscribed so no one was getting any call-backs. One of my old directors at Bourne Leisure had been in contact some time earlier advising of some potential work but in the end that got canned as they were still being impacted heavily by the pandemic. I’d put all my eggs in that basket and then once it had become clear there was no work there, I wished I had begun my search earlier. I was in touch with a few recruiters on LinkedIn, but all I was being offered were permanent roles. Then Vector got in touch with a C# role which I managed to secure. A case of being in the right place at the right time!
So you managed to secure a new contract through Vector, can you give us a bit of background on the role you were taking on?
The Wine Society are doing a new website rebuild that involves a lot of syncing of data between the new cloud-based ecommerce website with the existing on-premise applications and databases using on-premise ETLs and Microsoft Azure (Service Bus, Blob Storage and File Storage). I was hired primarily as I have an Azure background, but they also wanted me for my mentoring capabilities and to upskill their existing Dev team with modern devops techniques and CI/CD capabilities.
It sounds like there’s a lot more mentoring involved than there would be in a standard development role, have you ever had a role like this before?
As you get older and more experienced, it seems mentoring is par for the course with most roles now. Also, being a contractor, you generally get exposed to newer tech than permanent staff so have more to share. Like most developers however, I’d rather just sit there with my headphones in and write code all day. I do find the mentoring rewarding, albeit slightly painstaking to get people up to an acceptable standard (when you know you can do it yourself in a fraction of the time!). Seeing developers coding ability improve over time and starting to mimic the coding standards you are trying to adopt is satisfying. Mentoring remotely also has its own challenges, although being able to take control of another developer’s code via Microsoft Teams is very useful, as is being able to record meetings. I’d say that initially this role was a 50/50 split between mentoring and development, however recently it has become more biased towards development as the existing developers’ skills have matured.
So it’s looking likely that you are going to be looking for work again in the new year, how do you feel about that?
My current contract runs until the end of January and an extension has been mooted until after the new website goes live. Ironically, this will again set me on a collision course with the delayed IR35 bullet to the head of the UK economy. With no more children on the way, I won’t have the contingency afforded to me last time so will be in a more vulnerable situation. Because I managed to secure a role within a month of looking in July, I think this has given me more confidence that there is work out there. Admittedly not a huge amount, but if you are a good developer with a good CV and are proactive and your skills are relevant, then you should be ok. As I alluded to above, I think the Government would be stupid to enforce the IR35 changes at the moment as replacing skilled contractors takes time and will affect the productivity of many businesses at a time when they are already on their knees. If it came to it, I would consider taking a permanent role as there seems to be a few more of these floating around at the moment but it wouldn’t be my preference. Any time I do have off, when not doing childcare or DIY, I will use to up-skill myself. I’ve got a Pluralsight subscription so can gain learnings from that as well as doing some Microsoft certifications to enhance my knowledge (and job attractiveness) further.
What skills are you looking to learn?
I’ve already got pretty good Azure skills but it’s such an enormous product, and I’ve got more that I want to learn within that space. I’ll probably pick up a few AWS modules as well just to beef up my offering. I’m a full stack developer and there’s a few front-end technologies I’d like to gain more competence in like node.js and typescript. I’m certainly not going to waste any time. I think node and typescript are becoming more prominent and I think if I can pick these up it would mean I could apply for a pure front-end roles, which I don’t think I’d be considered for as it stands.
You clearly have an ability to secure roles in a competitive market, what advice would you offer someone who is currently trying to find work?
I would advise people to look at common skills across roles that are available and learn the ones that are missing from your own CV. Make a list and spend however long it takes to gain some competence so that you can get to the stage of being able to discuss them without being out of your depth. Commercial experience can come later and we all like to learn on the job!