By Mark Feffer
Whether you make your living as a full-time IT contractor or are simply taking on assignments while looking for a full-time gig, contracting offers more than just a chance to make money. It also provides a unique opportunity to expand your network to include potential new employers and land future projects.
This means you should approach each contracting engagement as if there's an element of strategy to it – that it's about more than getting a check. Of course, you want to perform well, but when you arrive at the office do more than focus solely on the work at hand.
Be visible, too, as an active and contributing member of the team, an experienced expert with detailed knowledge of the latest technical tools, and a smart businessperson who understands how your efforts impact your client's business and contribute to its success.
The first one is obvious: Do your job well, and take advantage of opportunities to attend presentations to management or members of other departments.
The second element is to network beyond the org chart of your team.
Some contractors hesitate to do this, thinking that they should restrict their interactions to the department that's engaged them.
They don't want to go "out of bounds," as it were.
But the truth is, such self-imposed restrictions aren't necessary, as long as you reach out to the right people in the right way.
Before we go further, bear this point in mind: These elements aren't either/or strategies. Pursue them simultaneously. As a contractor, you're a member of the employer's community – albeit a temporary one – and it behooves you to take advantage of that fact.
Remember that networking is the single most effective way to find your next job. When they're sifting through candidates, employers weigh a number of criteria, like skills, experience and cultural fit. But they always feel more comfortable when dealing with candidates with whom they have some kind of connection. Those connections result from your networking efforts.
Networking is a long-term proposition that starts with building relationships – meeting new people, then helping them get to know your background and understand how you can solve business problems that they or members of their own network may encounter.
Of course, the logical place to begin building those relationships is with your team. To do that, go beyond making your expected contributions to its work by actively
communicating – sharing opinions and advice, say, or helping out colleagues when they run into a problem they can't solve on their own.
But don't leave it at that. Ask team members out to lunch or coffee, and get to know their personal as well as their professional interests. At the same time, tell them more about your technology and business experience than they might have learned when the boss introduced you.
After this initial meeting, keep building the relationship by sending links to articles that might interest your colleague or having more casual conversations when it's appropriate. Connect on LinkedIn. This isn't communication for communication's sake. It's all about laying the groundwork for staying in touch after you've moved onto your next assignment.
You can follow a similar path when getting to know people beyond your team, though here you have to proceed more thoughtfully. Chances are a number of your client company's employees can be useful contacts, but don't approach people blindly. You want to connect with those whose interests align with yours, who share some kind of common ground with you.
These people are probably obvious: They're the ones you see in multi-department project meetings, for example, or those who are in some way involved in your work. They might be the salespeople who'll connect your project with the customer, the marketing people who'll raise awareness about it, or the Finance guy who's keeping an eye on the budget.
As with your fellow team members, your goal here is to develop relationships that will show their value over time. Even though your background is in technology, people in Sales, Marketing, Finance and other departments will know about new projects or full-time opportunities at both your client company and businesses their own contacts work for. Also, they may recognize areas where your talents overlap with the needs or interests of someone in their network, which could lead to another valuable contact.
The fact you're involved in the same project gives you any number of conversation-starters. Reach out to ask a question related to their work on the effort, or tell them how helpful their input has been to your own work. From there, it's simple to ask if you could have a little of their time to learn more about what they do and how they view the business. These are professional questions that will help you be better at your job, and as everyone in IT knows, good technology pros are always looking to learn.
Every contracting assignment brings with it the chance to expand your network of contacts into new companies. In turn, that means you'll hear about more contracting or full-time job opportunities, and meet more people who can help you develop your career down the road.
Mark Feffer has written, edited, and produced hundreds of articles on careers, personal finance and technology for leading business and career sites. He is currently writing for JobsinME.com, JobsinRI.com, JobsinVT.com and JobsinNH.com, the top local resources for job seekers, employers, and recruiters in New England.