In nearly every way that counts, we are all contractors now
Your future success in the IT industry depends on embracing one simple, but hard-to-accept idea: There are no more jobs. I don't mean that there's no more work to do. Of course there is. Nor do I mean that you won't get hired to do things. Of course you will.
What I mean is that in nearly every way that counts, we are all contractors now. The only difference between being an employee and being a contractor is the benefits. The critical features that we think of as part of the employment relationship can't be relied on: security, career path, skill development and so on.
You don't need to fret about this. It's not necessarily a good or bad thing. It's just a fact of the labor market as it's evolved in much of the world. Employer incentives encourage labor mobility, so you need to account for it in planning for your career.
What that means for us in the IT profession is that even if you are an employee, you need to think like a contractor. Employees tend to think about the employment relationship as an exchange of skills, time and effort for salary and benefits. Of course, many contractors think about it the same way, but those are the less successful ones.
Successful contractors attract a constant flow of work because they create good experiences for their colleagues, users and customers. In the contract labor market, most work comes from referrals and invitations. As people move from gig to gig, they often bring in other people to help. And whom do they call? The people they know, trust and, most important, like working with. No one recommends someone who is a pain in the patooty, no matter how skilled he or she may be.
To recommend you, people need to feel that you will be sufficiently competent, invariably trustworthy, good to work with and, maybe most significantly, someone who will make them look good for recommending you.
And this helps determine the job opportunities that come your way. Your competitive advantage in the labor market will derive from your interest in, and aptitude for, creating good experiences for the people you work with. The higher you are on their list of people to recommend, the better you'll do. So the quality of the experience of working with you could play a bigger role in shaping their opinions than the quality of your work.
The good news is, you don't need to be an extrovert to put this approach into practice. You don't have to become some sort of glad-handing, back-slapping, joke-telling caricature of a salesperson. You just need to think about how other people feel and how they experience you and your work.
And above all, you need to be willing to create positive experiences for them. It's not hard. You just need to commit to doing what you promise, keeping them in the loop (especially if you can't keep your promises), really listening to them, knowing what's important to them, ensuring that they know that you know what's important to them, and responding to their sense of urgency.
Ultimately, your future security rests on your ability to embrace the idea that there is no security. In this new world, your relationship skills are as important as your technical ones. The more adept you are at thinking about the experiences of others, the more opportunities you'll have to tackle exciting technical problems and work in engaging roles.
Paul Glen, CEO of Leading Geeks, is devoted to clarifying the murky world of human emotion for people who gravitate toward concrete thinking. His newest book is 8 Steps to Restoring Client Trust: A Professional's Guide to Managing Client Conflict. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.