Back in the days when a cheesecloth shirt and a stripy tank tap was a valid fashion statement, I remember a group of young, long haired miscreants sitting around a large flashing behemoth called an IBM 360/40. Those lads all had ideas and dreams for their futures but one thing was constant in all their thoughts; to be out of computing by the Year 2000.

 

In the 1970’s, the problems thrown up by the magic combination of the two zero digits were seen to be almost insurmountable. Even the advent of the Personal Computer in the 1980’s brought it’s own set of problems – as anyone replacing a system battery in an old PC would testify. Most of these problems were a mystery to anyone not directly involved in computing but, by the middle of the nineties, nearly everyone in the civilised world was aware of the dangers.

 

Now if this article had been written last year it might have been filled with all types of portents of doom. As we now all know however, thanks to the efforts of the major software and hardware developers, governments, programmers and copious amounts of overtime by IT staff, it all went off with barely a whimper. So for me, one of those aforementioned lads who never actually managed to get out of IT by Y2K, the 21st Century should have been a time for celebration. Instead, I’ve found the first year of the new century to be ridden with a new and worrying set of bugs.

 

I approached the first quarter of the year with IR35 as my main problem. Letters to Freelance Informer, agents, MP’s and the IR had only caused more confusion and worries. Trying to elicit help from accountants and lawyers had only served to muddy the water. I wondered if anything could take my mind off of the problems that were due to start in April. I was soon to discover when, at the end of March; my five-year contract finished with the disbandment of the Y2K run-off team. I couldn’t complain. My rate was high and I’d moved around a lot in the company before ending up back in PC support via project management, team leader and roll-outs. I had initially joined the company as a PC Support Analyst in 1997 so I felt I had gone full circle. I left expecting to find a contract quickly. I had been a contractor for 12 years and never had a day of unemployment and I saw no reason for that to change.

 

One of the first difficulties I found was the change in agency contact. A colleague had recommended me to my last contract so it had been about seven years since I had last actively sought employment. Now though, I could no longer ring Bob or Jason and say I was looking for work. Instead I was one among a few hundred CV’s arriving in an agent’s inbox via the Internet. Undeterred and preferring a personal touch, I decided to visit the agencies anyway and found I was about as welcome as Dawn Primarolo at a contractors birthday party. More disappointingly was the attitude of the agency that had taken a fair slice of the vast amount that I had accrued over the previous five years. From the end of March to the end of Y2K I haven’t heard a word from them. This, remember, despite the fact that they hadn’t found me the job in the first place but the client had insisted I had an agent. I had chosen them!

 

I spent nearly two months chasing CV’s through email barely getting a reply to most enquiries or getting good leads lost in some type of agency black hole, before I eventually landed a role in a local company. Having worked in a big city environment previously, I immediately found the pressure of working to a smaller budget as I was set to work getting a failed Y2K 386 PC running on a network. All this for nearly £12 an hour less than I was working for a year previously because, as I discovered, one of the major changes was the astonishing drop in support rates. It now wasn’t unusual to offer £15-£20 an hour and expect a CNE carrying response. This was worrying indeed. It would be virtually impossible to run my business on a turnover of less than £30,000. But what were the options? Permanent roles were a possibility but I would need to enter a company in a senior position to earn a reasonable income.

 

Still, difficult tasks were all part of a Support analyst role and I tried to adapt as best I could to the demands. What I wasn’t expecting though was something more insidious and disturbing. Slowly, I found myself being ostracised from those I was working with. One individual was spreading malicious gossip about me and I found myself being asked about comments I had supposedly made to other members of the staff. I was sent on jobs without all the information needed to complete the task then ridiculed for needing to ring the office to ask for assistance. One staff member took me aside and warned me; "Watch your self - they did this to me when I first started too". I was sent to Coventry and, for the first time in my working life, felt physically sick whenever I contemplated a workday. I thought of walking out but professionalism and my worries about the state of the market held me back. It did me no good though. The end when it came was inevitable but the shock of getting a phone call from my agent telling me to pick up my things, get my time-sheet signed and get out as quick as I could is still something that rankles. ‘The most appalling reason for a termination she had ever come across’ was her comment – but that was small recompense.

 

Another period of inactivity was followed by a welcome call from an ex-colleague. She had a minor role on a help desk would I be interested? I jumped at the chance although working my bits off for £20 an hour less than my ‘asking’ rate was hard to swallow. Second or third line support enables you to charm the user. On the front line you just get the flack. I went home after eight hours of ear bending abuse with a headache from the users allied to one gained from wearing a headset all day. Still, at least I was able to charge the company as a direct client.

 

About a month later, I got another call from an ex-colleague. They were looking for someone to join their support team for large office relocation – could I do it? The rate was £10 an hour more so I bade my headphones farewell and moved back to the City. This time I was asked to provide my own contract so I simply contacted the company who had drawn my ‘IR35 friendly’ contract at the abortive local job. The role was virtually identical so I asked if I could have a similar contract. ‘No’ was the answer. The work you are undertaking is, in our view, certain to fall within IR35. I was even told at one stage that my rolling contract was a ‘pointer to employment’! "Why?" I asked. I’m no lawyer but it seems fairly obvious to me that the man advising me of this was in full employment but I’m sure he wasn’t re-hired every month! I was incensed by their attitude and chased it all the way back to the senior partner. The feeling that this legal association was happy to support a large cash-laden agency but not want to back a lone contractor seemed, eventually, to be fairly persuasive. They agreed to write me a contract but mule-like as ever, I decided I didn’t want to back their dubious dealings with my cash. I based a contract on the PCG model and everyone seemed happy.

 

So, as the Christmas lights go up in Oxford Street, I can at least view the end of Y2K with some assurance? Well, no actually, because, while delivering a box of software to a local Post Office last week, I fell down the kerb and broke my ankle. I’m currently plastered from knee to toe income due only from an insurance policy that will barely cover a third of my mortgage with the strong possibility that my contract will be terminated due to my temporary disability. Rest assured if someone from the Revenue comes knocking on my door next April and tells me I am an employee of my client then I will be testing the strength of my ankle on someone’s backside.

 

Still, I hope I’m able to get up onto my feet by New Year’s Eve. This is one year I will certainly want to bid a fond farewell too!

Y2K Blues

 Published in December 2000 - the story of the real Millennium Bug!

Millennium Bug