Gemma Church is ‘the freelance writer who gets tech’. A web development contractor and journalist, blogger and writer for the science and technology sectors.

Finding your first contract versus a full time job search is a little like comparing Mac with Microsoft - there are obvious similarities but user experience is worlds apart, and so is the end result.

In contracting, you only have one shot to impress potential clients as the decision to hire is usually made within one week and after a single interview. In high demand areas, you could even be offered the position on the spot. There are little, if any, candidate tests by the client, other than the questions asked at that all important interview. Some contractors even win work based on trusted recommendations from another contractor or a short telephone interview, but this is usually a route for more seasoned contractors.

Securing that all important interview is another matter entirely. Many first-time contractors choose to find work through an agency - it’s a safer and easier option than going it alone, but you can choose to approach companies directly as well (more on this later).

When I decided to start contracting, the hunt for work was a little overwhelming. But, with perseverance and a lot of research, the experience was a positive one. Here is an overview of how I found my first contract:

Writing a killer CV

I had heard that most CV’s don’t actually get read, instead they are scanned for certain keywords relating to that particular job role, so I had to optimise my CV for database searches. To do this I used buzzwords and phrases, that would be picked up by these scans to ensure I wasn’t missing out on any roles.

Coming from a permanent job role as a web developer, my CV didn’t fully showcase my skill set and instead focused on my job roles, which I learnt is a massive mistake in the contractor marketplace. I had to demonstrate how my unique experiences will benefit the client, and not just what I had done previously.

I kept my CV to around two pages long and placed my profile and list of skills on the front page. Keeping it concise with bullet points which were relevant to the contract I was applying for. Including a list of achievements, experiences and academic successes next.

My previous permanent employee CV carefully listed my job roles, responsibilities and experience. Whereas, my contractor CV lists my skills - from .NET systems development to LAMP web development to news editor. These skills were my new CV headers with a list of skills and experience to prove my worth underneath.

Because of this, I am now known as Gemma Church, the freelance writer who gets tech. I have built up a very unique skill set as I have worked in the science and technology sectors that I write about, so I have a unique understanding and a wealth of experience that most freelance writers cannot offer. My contractor CV reflects this USP, along with all of my technical achievements.

If you would like to find out more on this you can view our How to Write a Contractor CV page. 


Finding the right connections

In the UK, there are thousands of agencies specialising in all industries, sectors and specialisms. So I had to be very strategic when making these decisions.

Now that I had re-written my CV to suit the contractor market, I had to find out who to send it to.

This process involved a lot of research. My first port of call was a trusty Google search where I shortlisted agencies working with the skill set and sectors I was interested in. I then rang around this shortlist and chatted to the agencies - some impressed me with their knowledge, client base and references - others were struck off the list. 

Your job is now finding a job

Now my CV is sitting in an agency database, I couldn’t assume I could sit back and wait for the contracts to roll in. I needed to proactively seek out new leads and chase existing ones.

This is a job in itself. On a daily basis, I chased agencies where I had ongoing applications, chased applications where I had received no contact or feedback, searched the job boards such as JobserveCWJobs and Monster for suitable positions, opted in to free alerts based on several criteria so new job roles came to be and sent endless email applications.

This was the most frustrating and dull part of the process, but hang in there.

Working out my rate

Contractor rates are higher than the rates for the equivalent permanent roles to make up for the employee benefits that a contractor will miss out on, amongst other things. The recent Nixon Williams Contractor Survey will give you an approximation of the day rates contractors are currently commanding.

I found it tricky to pin down my day rate and, again, thorough research is needed. I tried speaking to fellow contractors, however they didn’t let me in on their rates but I could use them as a sounding board to see if my rates are too high or, as is usually the case with first-time contractors, too low.

Remember rates are determined by supply and demand, which can vary on a weekly basis, and your skills and experience. I used this online calculator to research the marketplace to get an idea of my worth.


How to tackle your interview

When preparing for a contractor interview, I was aware it was about selling myself based on the skill set I could offer the company, and not my previous roles and responsibilities. Anecdotal information was important here – I had to work out scenarios where I had solved problems relevant to the contract I was applying for.

As for what I actually brought with me to the interview: a portfolio, work examples and references. I dressed smart and made sure to get there on time. With the knowledge that I had researched the client, the project and brushed up on any skills required for the role.

Don’t forget the agency

If you are hunting for your first contract, you will most likely win it through an introduction via an agency. Although I now rely on recommendations and my reputation in the industry, it was a recruitment agency that won me my first contract, despite having built up years of experience and contacts in the IT industry as a permanent employee.

So, my advice would be to treat agencies well if you want to reap the reward of your first contract. The first person you must convince of your suitability for a role is the agent. The agent will have a lengthy list of quality candidates - you need to make sure you are on that list.

And now, forget the agency

There are also a few more unusual ways to win your first contract. Old colleagues and LinkedIn are both valuable resources. You could even monitor the permanent employment job boards and, if a role has been advertised for some time, offer your services and CV as a contractor to the employer.

The direct route is often used by experienced contractors, but you can register with the websites of prospective clients to hear about future openings with automated emails. It’s a long shot but definitely worth a punt to avoid the agency fees.

Whichever route you take, make sure you enlist the help of a specialist contractor accountant to help manage your finances and maximise your take home pay as a contractor. They can advise you on the nuances of each piece of work you win and maximise your take home pay.

The best of luck, it’s a competitive market so stay focused, hustle relentlessly and remember to celebrate when you win your first contract - it’s a great feeling!