When I left university, I wanted to work in banking. I wasn't one of these developers who tries their luck with tech firms and only ends up working for a bank by default. My university had strong links to banks. I interned with one and I worked in a front office development role with a major U.S. bank for a few years after leaving. Now, though, I'm moving on: I'm going into software contracting and I'm going to make a lot more money.
The problem with banking is that when you go in as a graduate technologist, you don't really get paid. You might imagine you're going to be on six figures after a few years, but you won't. The people who get that kind of money are the front office people - not the technologists. And certainly not the technologists like me in a 'cost effective' site outside London. After three years, I was still earning well below £40k ($67k).
There's a saying among developers in banks: that you need to quit and go work somewhere else if you want a pay rise. In my case, this has been totally true. By leaving the bank and contracting I've more than tripled my take home pay. Even better, I now have time to work on my start-up too.
I'm not saying that working for the bank was bad. It was all very pleasant, and despite what people say the work life balance was good. Maybe that's because I wasn't in London, or because my manager was a good person but either way I have no regrets. I wasn't even planning on leaving - until someone came along with a contract offer I couldn't refuse. And while getting a pay increase in banking tech is like getting blood of out a stone because you're seen as a cost centre, it's generally possible to negotiate good rate increases as a contractor when your contract comes up for renewal (as long as you're not contracting in finance).
Contracting isn't just about the money. There's also sense in which it's better for your career. Instead of sitting in a bank working on tedious legacy systems, you're out there at the cutting edge of industries like energy and health services. For this reason, it can also be hard work: there's no spoon feeding; they're hiring you at a top rate because they expect you to be up and running immediately. You're hired as a specialist and you need to make sure your technical skills are impeccable.
Despite this, I've found that I have a better lifestyle as a contractor. I only invoice for the hours between 9am and 5pm and this means that I leave at 5pm on the dot every day without fail. At the bank, I'd work until 5.45pm or 6pm. That extra time makes a huge difference. I'm also free in the sense that I can take holiday whenever I want. I have freedom and flexibility.
Of course, there are also downsides. If I don't work, I don't get paid. I don't have the senior mentors I had in banking and the people I'm working with now seem less intelligent than the bright and talented people I was with in the bank. When I was in banking, I was involved in graduate recruitment, so I knew the standard of people the bank hired. Here, there are a lot of people of far lower calibre who lack fundamental knowledge of computer science. Also, for all the complaints about tech projects in banks, the work I was doing in banking was more challenging and intense than the work I'm doing as a contractor.
Ultimately, I suspect I'll go back into banking tech. I already miss it and I miss my smart, funny, colleagues. When I go back though, I plan to earn more. After two to three years' contracting, I expect to rejoin the bank as a VP. As I said, I only had a positive experience there. It's a shame they paid so little.
Jia Zhelan is a pseudonym.
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Photo credit: i love watching you walk away from me by Nhi (Lynn) Nguyen is licensed under CC BY 2.0.