Across all sectors in 2013, requests from Executives Online clients for interim IT project and program managers have surged by more than 50% on last year. The recruitment trade press is presently rife with reports of salaries and day rates finally rising following a long period of stagnation. Interim PMs’ pay rates – which already can reach up to £1,500 (€1,800) per day, depending on the profile of the client and nature of the post – are likely to also rise, particularly in manufacturing, commercial property or retail, sectors where we’re seeing stronger client demand.

It is no surprise then that temporary IT professionals, including those with project management skills, express a keenness to develop their careers via interim assignments.

But computer freelancers wondering whether the interim market is right for them must consider several key differences between IT contract work and interim IT management, and assess the three challenges (spelled out below) that these differences pose. This process of consideration is particularly important if the interim IT role they would like carries more responsibility in line with the – generally – higher day rates, than if they opted to continue as a freelance contractor.

Delivering amid uncertainty; to an evolving brief, even if the project is failing?

Interim management is frequently a “crisis buy” for the client.  This can result in the brief being unclear. The context, therefore, for interim management assignments is different to that of  temporary IT contracts where it has always been the client’s plan – perhaps because a particular skill is only needed on one project – to resource the skill via a contractor.

Interim managers typically bridge gaps, for example, when an incumbent IT director is unexpectedly off on long-term illness leave. Or they bring in skills to complex projects with strategic importance to the company – integrating the IT systems of an acquired company, for example, or rationalising a team in advance of an outsourcing transition. Often, an interim IT manager is sought when other ways of resourcing the challenge (seconding someone or trying to hire permanently) have failed, or indeed when a key project itself is in danger of failing. 

As such, the definition of the role may not be as clear as in many IT contracting situations. The brief often evolves as the assignment unfolds. This relative uncertainty and lack of clarity may be uncomfortable for many IT contractors. Nevertheless, the interim manager must achieve measurable results almost immediately; he or she needs to “hit the ground running” and begin delivering, even amidst the uncertainty.

Sometimes, having an interim role which is the client’s guinea pig?

The interim is occasionally a substitute for a permanent hire or a way to “test the waters” prior to making a permanent hire. IT interim managers need to be comfortable with the idea that their contract might not get extended because a permanent hire is made.  According to our recent interim management research, slow permanent recruitment results in 15% of interim assignment briefs.

What happens here is that the client brings the interim manager in who does the work until the permanent hire is found.  Or, they think they might want to hire permanently but the business climate makes them nervous, so they engage an interim in order to establish that the value of the work exceeds the cost of a permanent hire and that they can incur the long-term commitment due an employee.

For many IT contractors, the idea that at contract renewal time they may be replaced by a "perm" hire may be unappealing.  However, considering the attractive day rates in question and the fact that the initial contract period averages 6-7 months, these "pre-permanent interim" roles are just as attractive as interim roles created for any other reason. It’s rarely a secret either – the client briefs the provider who in turn briefs the interim manager about why the assignment is necessary. In short, the statement “We’ve been trying to hire permanently but haven’t found the right person” is a perfectly acceptable reason to the interim IT professionals on our books.

Able to be pragmatic short-term, for potentially bigger rewards long-term?

Interim managers must sometimes consider the client’s interests and aims before their own. Interim management also makes for multi-dimensional responsibilities and relationships. Interim IT managers will be expected to slot into the existing management team and assume all the complex stakeholder relationships and obligations that go with that.

This also means that from time-to-time, the interim manager may need to be less self-interested than may be typical. Acting in alignment with the client; thinking of the client’s P&L, and performance, may mean that at contract renewal time, the discussion is more about a slight lowering of daily rate – for the interim manager and any agency that provided them. This lowering to the pay rate is normally accepted by both candidate and provider as their recognition of the longer assignment, rather than an opportunity to extract a higher price from a client now dependent on them.

It also can mean that a normal day in an interim contract is more hours than 9-to-5 and may involve travel (with no premiums). It follows that interim managers who watch the clock will find themselves not extended and with a poor reference. This trust and cooperation, of course, flows both ways. Clients engaging interim IT managers bring them into their confidence and share company information which would not normally be provided to the average IT contractor. It can even mean than an interim manager earns a bonus for above-and-beyond performance in the role.

Final thoughts …

Remember, interim management is not for everyone. On exploring the above differences between interim and contracting, and engaging in the necessary soul-searching required of any career change, many temporary computer professionals may decide it’s not for them.

IT contractors interested in taking on interim assignments should consider registering for a course, such as the “Introduction to Interim Management” workshop offered by the Interim Management Association (IMA). They can also register their interest with relevant/specialist providers and participate in LinkedIn groups about interim management.

For clients and customers, interim management offers them a way to access a seasoned individual’s specialist skills and experience via a professional services contract, bringing flexibility, results and performance to their organisation.

For practitioners, it offers a varied, demanding – and often lucrative – career. Interim managers get to engage deeply “with” the corporate organisation, probably more deeply than you did as a contractor, but they are not “of” it. So while being an interim IT professional typically opens up a pathway into corporate life, it remains one of the most vibrant and engaging sectors of the broader market of independent professionals who conduct their working lives outside the employment paradigm.

(A version of this article on the differences between IT contracting and interim first appeared under Anne's byline in ContractorUK, a site for successful IT contractors offering daily news and features, comment, articles, rates calculators and a very active forum.)

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