Five years of contracting

April 1st saw me celebrate five years of working as an in independent contractor. This also means I’ve now spent two years in London and it’s been four years since I last worked in Northern Ireland. It’s scary how fast time flies.

Changes and not

My second contract here required the use of a limited company so it meant finally waving goodbye to the simplicities of being a sole trader. I’d originally set up NullTheory Ltd for my very first contract but was advised to go down the sole-trader route so it had been lying dormant for some time. Working through that and later needing professional indemnity and public liability insurance has meant things have seemed a bit more adult and at times daunting but ultimately this has just boiled down to just the logistics of carrying out my day-to-day work.

Most of the contracts themselves I’ve found to be quite similar but I guess that’s the downside to selling what amounts to a commodity skill. I think I’ve seen every possible way of combining Ruby and Rails by now.

In terms of client work the last few months have been particularly challenge free which has seen me refocus on bodybuilding, for better or worse.

The one consistent challenge there has been though is that of pushing up the daily rate…

My first contract in Belfast paid double my last permanent salary and working in Dublin was a nice bump up from there but London has been something else entirely. My current daily rate is more than double my first and it’s tragic how quickly each increase in income has went from making me feel rich to making me want more.

Financial independence

The dream of financial independence has been the thing that’s driven me since 2008 when I was working in the back office of a monstrous US investment bank as the Global Financial Crisis hit. This was definitely amongst the most stressful periods of my life and the only way out seemed to be to have enough money not to have to work ever again. So I started saving as hard as I could and learning what I needed as I went along.

What seemed a lifetime away is now within sight and it has only been possible through working for myself. Each year I’ve maxed out my Stocks & Shares ISA contributions, any profit liable to higher-rate income tax I’ve put into a Self-Invested Personal Pension and just before Christmas I diversified a bit and bought a house back in Belfast.

Money can still be one of those taboo subjects but I’d like to write about it more, I had started developing an information product in the form of a while back but didn’t get far. Perhaps when I finally withdraw myself from the workforce I’ll feel more motivated to write about how it was done.

The future

The dream so many contractors I’ve spoken with mention is to only work for a number of months of the year and to then take the rest of the time off. I still don’t know wether or not I have the nerve to step away from full-time work. Getting trapped in “just one more year” could happen too easily and after so many years of spending so much of my time working the question arises of what do I do with myself.

Since graduating without the Master’s degree I originally started studying for I’ve thought about returning to University to snag that and maybe even go further and work towards a PhD if I found the ability was there. Other bucket-list items I’ve tossed around in my head are learning a martial art and a new spoken language along with publishing a book.

Realistically though, until the new year I’ll be keeping my head down and managing my investments, after which a decent chunk of time away from the grind will be in order. From there, who knows.

Contracting in London

Since I last wrote about my experience working outside of Northern Ireland I’ve returned to the UK, turned down prospects of contract work in Belfast and have set up shop in London.


A good while back Rob and myself had discussed the possibility of London. He’d been working remotely with a company based here and due to changes in his circumstances leaving N. Ireland was a valid option.

Lines of communication between the two of us dropped off for a while as a result of travel, work and such like and when I finally got caught up with him I discovered he’d already bitten the bullet and was moving over. Further conversation uncovered that the house he was going to be sharing in Ealing had a box room going spare which I was welcome to make use of for a month. Wheels were set in motion.

The Search For Work

With my mind made up about London I started keeping my eye out for contract work. Apart from the usual job sites I focussed my efforts on the LRUG mailing list as many companies will directly post job ads there and going direct with the client is very often the preference with contracting.

A week or so before I was due to fly back to Ireland positions with two companies were posted to the list, I responded and eventually interviews via Skype were arranged. These both went well and next steps were organised.

>30 hours travelling had me back in my home county of Fermanagh. I rested, caught up with my family and returned to Belfast long enough to pack a carry-on case and head to London for the joys of face-to-face interviews.

Song and Dance

The first interview was on a Thursday, the next on the Friday and the first offer was in my inbox on the Monday. Not bad at all and very indicative of the state of supply and demand for technical talent here in London specifically and across the industry in general.

Unfortunately the first offer turned out to be unable to match the rate I was on during my last contract. Adding to the displeasure was me having effectively done a morning of unbilled work as part of the process along with having to suffer the song and dance of a competency based interview. Such is life, the world doesn’t owe anyone a living.

The other offer when it arrived didn’t involve a drop in rate and looked to have the opportunity to get my hands dirty with a bunch of interesting technology. From a business point of view this seemed to be the one to take so I went for it.

The Road Ahead

As has happened before in my career, the job I was sold and the job I ended up getting didn’t quite match up. I did my three months, put myself forward for a handful of contracts, did a couple of technical tests and one face-to-face interview and I’m now with another client and things are better.

Before coming to London I only knew a little about the place. One area was more or less interchangable with any other area. I soon discovered that the majority of the contract Ruby work going is focussed in Central and East London and being out West in Ealing for a lot longer than originally planned has meant a great deal of commuting and a general feeling of being disconnected from the hustle and bustle of the technology world here.

The solution to this has been to move closer to the trendy part of town and within a few weeks we’ll have transplanted everyone across to the other side of town and into a converted warehouse near Whitechapel.

I still have my flat in Belfast, have started investigating parts of the world with even lower costs of living and have only the vaguest idea of what the future might hold but can’t see myself working anywhere other than in London over the next few years.

No choice but to continue to making it up as I go along then :D

Two years of working away from home

I’m currently sitting in Melbourne enjoying the Australian summer and a well deserved break from work. I can barely remember the northern hemisphere winter I left behind a few weeks ago.

I’ve only briefly mentioned working away from home before but January past marked two years since I last worked in Belfast. The pace has been hectic at times and I’ve spent more nights in hotels than I care to recall but from my first contract in Dublin to my last in the south of England I’ve found a consistant theme: being treated with more respect, working on more interesting problems and for higher pay. Not a bad combination!

RubyConf Australia

Coinciding with my trip to Melbourne was the first ever RubyConf Australia where I was able to shake hands and speak with some of the known names in the Ruby world. I’ve also been able to attend a Ruby Australia meetup and a Travis CI coffee morning so there’s been plenty of opportunities to geek it up along with soaking up the sun.


In recent times I’ve done more and more travelling with the last 12 months seeing me in Dublin, London, Amsterdam, Barcelona and now Melbourne. My taste for adventure has grown, I’ve a hunger to be where the action is and a part of the world where people are arguing over a flag is just not where it’s happening.

There’s no contract market for Ruby in Belfast though so in order to continue contracting, working with Ruby and living in Belfast the first flight out of town on a Monday morning seems unavoidable.

Where to next?

There’s no two ways about it, living out of a suitcase sucks. The alternatives seem to be to leave Belfast, start up my own product company or take on a remote working permanent position. Needless to say there’s drawbacks to all of these and most of the time it’s seems best to just suck up the drawbacks of working away from home.

Considering the strength of the contract market in London I’ve often thought I’d end up there for a stint and after a recent conversation with Tim I’m also quite interested about contracting in Berlin.

The day I booked my flight to Oz was the final day of my last contract and I’d chosen not to put any effort into lining up the next piece of work. Within a fortnight I’ll be back in the UK and dealing with jetlag. Will something turn up by then? If if does where will it be, what will it be doing and how much will it pay? The usual uncertainties associated with contracting.

Whatever happens, the next few weeks should be interesting!

6 months of Rehab

I find it hard to believe, but I crossed the 6 month milestone at Rehab this week.

The time has went in quickly, with a fast-pace and quick turnaround times being the norm. The vibe in the office has been great, with a decent soundsystem pumping out dance music all day and my producer Gary, aka DJ Gary Quinn, dropping in a few choice chunes.

The guys here have a real passion for the web and enjoy a good laugh, for instance, this week we had a challenge to wear a different hat each day. Here’s Iain and Jurgen in their full cowboy glory:

I spend most of my days wrangling CakePHP, the PHP framework I started developing with nearly 3 years ago now. I also do most of the administration of the Linux boxes used to host the client sites and automate as much as I can with handy bash scripts, all from the comfort of this shiny iMac:

On the downside the standard working hours are 9 to 6, which is longer than I’m accustomed to. You can’t have it all ;)

A developer again I am

Monday was my first day as a developer with Creative Online Media and I must say it’s great to be wearing my coding hat again.

The culture-shock has been enormous: I’m not flooded with emails and phone calls all day, nor battling with bureaucracy and the people are really chilled-out. I don’t know myself!

The adjustment period will end and no doubt I’ll be required to produce product but I think this gig has potential :)

Ticket to ride – a break from the rat-race in Fermanagh

Ulsterbus bus ticket

I’m spending a few days down the country before I start my new my job catching up with my family, tinkering on some personal projects and just generally “getting my head showered.”

I’m enjoying the break from the daily grind with my only real task being to steel myself for the upcoming change to my 9-5 existence. I find myself so resistant to change: my levels of Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt seem to automatically soar at the prospect of anything out of the ordinary, but I’m presented with a great opportunity to sharpen my development skills within a lower-pressure environment. Score!

Expect details of my new gig soon.

Bye bye $BIG_COMPANY – Steve leaves the enterprise

I’m preparing myself for my last cycle home from $BIG_COMPANY.

On the whole the experience has been, well, experience: neither good nor bad but worthwhile all the same. I do have gray hairs now though.

Soon, process monitoring, environment management, receiving 700 emails a day and being on-call will be a distant memory. Along with my nemesis of the past 9.5 months, the Tibco TIC.

And yes, before you ask, I have my name barrel in my pannier bag ;)

$BIG_CORP rides the snake – my first Python script

In between support tasks at $BIG_CORP I’ve been slowly reading through O’Reilly’s Learning Python and trying a few things out with the command-line interpreter.

The first script I’ve written that actually does something useful is

#!/usr/bin/env python
# countdown to 5pm
# 2008 SJW
import datetime
now =
home = datetime.datetime(now.year, now.month,, 17, 0, 0, 0)
total_secs = (home - now).seconds
hours = total_secs / (60 * 60)
minutes = (total_secs - (hours * 60 * 60)) / 60
print hours, " hours and ", minutes, " minutes until 5pm"

Very simple I know but I just had to share it ;)

Thanks to Clinton for the GeSHi WordPress plugin.

6 months at $BIG_CORP

I can hardly believe it, today I'm 6 calendar months into my position as Analyst Programmer at $BIG_CORP.

How time has flown. More surprisingly, I almost seem to have grown accustomed to the stress of working with mission-critical systems and getting called-out in the wee hours of the night.