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TECH MONTH Derek Smyth

21 Jan 2021

Derek Smyth, Manager IT Contracts is in conversation with Gareth Fleming, Director of Brightwater’s IT division

GF: As part of our Tech Month, I am here with Derek Smyth. Derek Smyth is a highly successful manager with Brightwater’s Tech division and has been with Brightwater Group since 2010. He brings to the table over 22 years of experience in recruitment and key account management. He’s extremely well known in IT circles as a key person for organisations looking to build out their technology teams particularly their contracts teams and manages a number of our key clients, clients with whom he’s built very good long-term partnerships. They’ll come to him for recruitment services, market information, salary benchmarking work. His expertise lies within the IT contract sector and all IT verticals. It’s good to talk to you, Derek.

DS: That sounds very impressive. Thanks very much.

GF: Welcome Derek. Let’s start at the beginning with an introduction to you and what you do here:

DS: As you said, I’ve been with Brightwater since 2010 so ten years covering the IT contracts desk. On a day to day basis, I manage all roles that are not permanent. Typically, that’s your daily rate roles but also fixed term contracts. It’s been a very busy area. I cover all the verticals, from entry level tech support type roles up to very senior programme level positions. That keeps me busy

GF: You’re in a very interesting space in that you do a lot of work in the contract market and you have access to all of the IT verticals that we recruit in. So if you look at this year and the pandemic and go back to Q1, how did the year (2020) start out?

DS: The year had started very well. We were very busy in terms of job flow. We felt that the year was going to be a very strong year and all of a sudden, it changed so quickly. But the year had started very well. We were busy in terms of job flow, a lot of things happening, we were out visiting a lot of clients, everything felt very positive, market sentiment was good and then all of a sudden we were working from home and everything had changed, really overnight.

GF: And if you look specifically at what happened in the IT contract market, from April onwards, what has the effect been?

DS: It’s been a mixed bag. Some of our clients have done very well this year, they’ve increased their workforce, they have been very regular contract users. Others have collapsed, particularly in sectors like hospitality and travel. Some sectors have been really badly hit. Those clients have lost staff, some of them are struggling to survive. It’s a real mixed bag but other clients have been really steady, exactly as they have been in previous years, plugging gaps in the business, adding skills when they need them, so it’s been a real mixed bag. What I would say, as the year has gone on, April, May, people were very uncertain, recruitment had stopped, people were asking questions, looking carefully at their own business plans. The last quarter of 2020 everything changed again and we have been exceptionally busy. Floodgates opened in September (2020), job-flow increased and we’ve been exceptionally busy ever since. There are a lot of roles on and a lot of talk about the New Year, people are feeling very positive about it and particularly now with thoughts of a vaccine, we’re hopeful that 2021 will be really busy.

GF:  I think that we’re lucky that we work in such a resilient space and contracts have always been that resilient when companies can’t hire permanent headcount. They will plug the gaps with very talented contractors. Did you see a trend towards companies using contractors more because of the pandemic?

DS: Yes, and some definitely did. I think that in general, IT is always resilient. In 2020, there were so many changes this year and a lot of the challenges that presented themselves and a lot of the challenges that remain, require IT solutions. Some of them are short term solutions and some of them are easily plugged by contractors. Again, it’s different depending on the client and depending on the industry. Some clients have reacted very quickly. If you think about what has happened in the world of work and the world of study, for example, we went overnight from working in an office in the city centre to everyone in our business suddenly working from home. That obviously has a big impact on IT. Some companies are very well set up for that and some companies were not. The challenge was greater for companies who weren’t used to some sort of home or remote working and easier for those organisations who already had some elements of that already in their business and they just scaled that. I suppose there is a different story according to each individual client and we work from your very small SME type clients up to big multinationals with everything in between. There’s a different story for each one but I would say, in general, normally when there’s a retraction or recession in the market, the contracts side picks up a little bit and we’ve definitely seen that. At the same time, some of our regular clients and contract users have had a difficult year. Some have slowed down, some have picked up and some have stayed the same. So it’s been a really mixed bag. Again towards the end of the year of 2020, especially in the last few months, we’ve seen a real increase in demand. People are thinking about the New Year, they’re thinking about budgets, they’re thinking about headcounts. They’re thinking about opportunities in the market now and people are starting to gear up for all of those things.


GF: Do you think some of the urgency around contracts has had an effect on daily rates? Have they increased in certain areas?

DS: I think at the very start of 2020 around March, April May, any contracts that were due for renewal, there was pressure on some of those contracts and people were asked to take cuts in some cases. Some stayed the same. There was very little appetite for increasing rates. As the year went on, as we’ve got more used to the situation and people are able to predict more and assess what’s coming into their businesses and what they can afford, we’ve seen, particularly for those highly skilled roles, we’ve seen increases in daily rates again and candidates who are confident in their skillsets and what they can do, are pushing for increases. Again, it’s a mixed bag. Some contractors haven’t worked this year, they’ve been out of work and what happens then is that these people are very negotiable in terms of rate so companies have a decision to make. When they look at candidates and they make a choice, they can do very well with some candidates while others are trying to hold their rates that they’ve enjoyed and push for increases so again, it’s a real mixed bag.

GF: You’ve mentioned a good word there, confidence. If you look at the contractors that are constantly picking up work, has there been a shift away from just that pure technical skillset that a contractor needs towards needing more softer skills? I know that in the permanent market, that has become a huge thing. Are there softer skills now that IT contract professionals really need to have alongside their technical skillset?

DS:  Absolutely. There always has been but this year some of the things you need to have, they have become much more important. Communication and interpersonal skills would be number one, particularly because people are working from home, they’re working in remote teams and everything has changed about the way they work. On top of that, team-work and collaboration is also a huge area. Work ethic, I think is also an important one because again, people now are self- managing, they’re working from home and out of the eye of their direct manager, it’s really important to be able to self-manage and to manage your time effectively. That whole thing about making sure you get things done is really important.

A key thing now is about learning, learning your role and learning your place in a team.  You have to remember that people are now joining teams whom they’ve never met, they are working completely independently. They have to learn how things are done, the culture of an organisation, the way work is done, the way things are scheduled. Everything now has to be learned from home and that’s a real challenge for people so that’s another area that’s really key. Problem solving is another area, there’s a whole list of things that people have to be really good at. You could say leadership as well, depending on the level of role people are going into. Flexibility, adaptability, creativity are all things on the softer skills list. I’ve been placing some people in UX and UI roles and it’s a different way of brainstorming, especially if you’re looking at brand guidelines. It’s being creative in a different way and you’re contributing from home, it’s a whole different way of working. I would say there are a whole lot of skills now that are becoming more and more important.  

GF: What are the technical skills in demand? Are the skills we thought would be in demand, still in demand or has that changed due to the pandemic?

DS: They’re exactly the same. The main pillars for the last couple of years have been around software development: the big 4 languages such as Java, .Net, Python, Java Script. Web developers, Java Script, Angular React.

Cloud is becoming more prevalent, if you look at what’s happening in the market right now, everything has gone digital. If you look at our shopping habits, they’ve  more and more gone online so there’s big pressure on companies to have that Cloud, hybrid Cloud, developing side so Cloud Engineers, DevOps, Cloud Architects, SREs, Systems Engineers, all of those kinds of roles are really in demand at the moment.

Cyber security was always in demand but this year, if you think about it, everyone is working from home, there’s a huge pressure on infrastructure. Because of working from home, people are accessing work through so many of their own devices so there’s big pressure on cyber security. Data always was and still is in demand. Project related roles are our bread and butter day to day business so Project Managers, business analysts, QAs, developers, ScrumMasters, all of those kinds of areas are in demand.

There’s a big push on the technical delivery project side, digital transformation projects, Cloud projects and data projects. All of those areas are still really busy. The skills are still hard to find and that’s the real challenge for us at the moment, where are those skills coming from, how quickly can we get those skills into the country, particularly when you have a pandemic and travel is restricted. That puts another added problem ahead of us.

GF: Hopefully the vaccine will help as we certainly missed the talent that tends to migrate into Ireland. One thing that I thought of while you were answering that question, is about start-ups and scale ups. I’ve just finished an interview with Martina Fitzgerald, the CEO of Scale Ireland which is the representative body for indigenous start-ups and scale-ups. Is there a contract market within start-ups and scale-ups in an area where cashflow can be king?

DS: There definitely is. I do think that within that area, cost is a factor. Often contractors can be expensive as you need them to hit the ground running from day one. It depends on the role and it depends on the contract duration. But you’re in competition with established firms, some of the big investment banks in Dublin, some of the big internet companies, some companies that are really established contract users who pay strong rates and who have very good and interesting projects. So some of the attraction lies in whether you’ve interesting projects, if you’re using up to date technology. We work with one small Irish company, the sell for them is that they’re involved in really interesting work, it’s to do with the Space Station, NASA, it’s stuff you don’t see day to day in financial services environments. If you do have a good offering, people will come to you but it does depend on all of the other things that draws contractors to roles. It isn’t just money; it’s the tech stack, it’s the people around you, it’s the work that you do, it’s the location, it’s all of those things that feed in as well but if there is a demand there, contractors will meet the demand if the offering is right.

GF: What are the growth areas for 2021? Where do you see demand?

DS: Software development is going to be number one. There’s huge demand for developers at the moment. Cyber security is a big one, it has been for the last number of years and it will continue to be. This movement to the Cloud drives a lot of the roles we see day to day. Data, everything from your BI analysts all the way up to your top data scientists, that whole area is growing rapidly. Again there is a skills shortage but huge opportunities exist for people. Then day to day, roles such as change management or PMO, the project related roles and everything that supports those projects that are rolled out such as project managers, QAs, Business Analysts, development teams, all those kind of areas are the key areas that will keep going throughout 2021.

Infrastructure as well as the support roles will be busy. We’ve seen a big uptake in that this year in particular related to the pandemic.

GF: The next question is around IT graduates. We don’t see (anecdotally) a lot of IT graduates entering the contract space initially. This year, we’re going to see a lot of resilient IT graduates, because of the way they’ve had to learn and how they’ve had to stay at home, and graduate remotely. Their generation is more nomadic, they probably will want more contract roles than permanent.  Do you see a market for IT graduates in contract work?

DS: It’s difficult. Typically when a company comes to market looking for a contractor, they need something done and they need someone to hit the ground running. It’s task orientated, it’s project orientated. What I think is that IT professionals who don’t have at least three years’ experience in their given field, it is going to be difficult for them. Sometimes it works and sometimes you will get low level, entry level roles that come in as a contract with a view to permanency. Those opportunities are definitely there but in general, the whole graduate recruitment is more geared towards the permanent side. So I think the opportunities may be there ad-hoc but mostly you’ll see graduate recruitment on the permanent side.

GF:  Final question! Tech stack aside, what do you look for in a contractor?

DS: I mentioned a whole list of soft skills earlier. Typically when you’re dealing with a contractor, first of all you need to know why they’re contracting and you need to know what they offer in terms of skills. Technical skills, soft skills and availability are the three key areas.

At Brightwater, we’ve been operating in the contracting IT side for over 20 years, we know most of the contractors on the market and anybody who’s new to contracting, we can normally talk them through the process and get them into contracting quickly and easily and support them along the way. Really what I look for is attitude. Your technical skills are important and we’re lucky in Brightwater that we can test for skills. Attitude is the next thing and all those soft skills that I mentioned earlier are important particularly this year are really key. Attitude comes across in people. If you put someone in a role who has the technical requirement and they have  really good attitude, they will always do well so attitude is important.

GF: Thank you so much and for any contractors in the market, do contact Derek

DS: Absolutely, and even those who haven’t contracted before and are curious, get in touch. It’s a really good opportunity, not just to earn money as the rates can be strong but also to go in and get experience different projects, different ways of working, different clients, different tech-stacks, it can be a really good way of developing yourself and your skillsets and make money doing it.

GF: Brilliant advice there, Derek. Thank you so much for joining me today.

DS: Thank you very much!