IT contractor Sam Bailey was a psychiatric nurse by profession, and then a healthcare manager, before embarking on a career in IT. Since becoming an IT contractor, he has straddled the clinical and IT contracting worlds, and seen an increasing number of commercial IT contractors do the same.
“My break into the IT profession came through being seconded to the IT department of a large private hospital to work on a major change project,” explains Sam. “That role became permanent, moving me from being a nurse manager to IT specialist.”
It took a role in a private sector software development house to give Sam the confidence to make the leap into contracting. Since then, he has worked on nine IT contracts and renewals within the NHS, where he has seen the barriers to hiring contractors with private sector backgrounds increasingly disappear.
The original transition: from nurse to manager to developer
“Although I chose nursing as my first career,” continues Sam, “I’ve always had strong programming skills as a result of spending far too much of my spare time in front of my computer than was probably healthy when I was younger.”
After qualifying as a psychiatric nurse, Sam spent many years in practice before moving into management as a care home manager. His move into IT arose when working for a private hospital that embarked on a programme to go paperless, turning admin and patient records electronic.
Sam explains: “This was a huge cultural change for the hospital and required very close working between the clinical and IT functions. The project needed someone who could act as a bridge between these two worlds, so I was seconded to the IT department.
“It turned out that I had an aptitude for the technical side of things as well as the clinical, so my secondment turned into a full-time permanent IT role.”
Houses of healing to software house
After eight years as a development analyst for the private hospital and then divisional information manager and data warehouse developer for NHS Trusts, Sam decided it was time for a change.
“Even after eight years in IT, I always had a nagging doubt that I’m a nurse who happens to do a bit of IT,” he admits. “But when I went to work in a software house and discovered my skills were on a par with the other developers, I began to think that contracting might be an option.
The greatest challenge to overcome when considering the leap into contracting is the decision itself. Once you've made up your mind, there is so much support out there
“I also discovered that clinical practice had taught me many very transferable soft skills that were more of an asset than you might think when entering an environment full of people who live to code.”
Returning to the fold – as an IT contractor
After only 12 months at the software house, Sam was confident that he had the skills and, most importantly, the mindset to go contracting: “The greatest challenge to overcome when considering the leap into contracting is the decision itself. Once you’ve made up your mind, there is so much support out there.”
Unusually for IT contracting, when literally nine times out of ten contractors win assignments via agencies, Sam won his first contract direct with the client. This, he believes, is down to his network.
“I always tend to source contracts direct and will network to achieve that. Fortunately, my unusual background means I have met and been talking to a lot of people over the years about different NHS projects.”
Making the transition from private sector IT to the NHS
Sam admits that he went through the learning curve of the NHS long before he became an IT contractor: “I’d always previously worked in the private healthcare system, which is very different from the NHS. Not surprisingly, in the private sector there is a more commercial approach and things are done faster.
“When you come into the NHS for the first time, you have to be prepared for the long game. As long as you are cool with that and can work within extended timeframes, then you’ll be OK.
“The bureaucracy can also take getting used to, as can the politics. And one other thing you find working in the NHS is that there are lots of barriers,” he adds.
Have you got what it takes to go contacting in the NHS?
As a senior and experienced IT contractor, Sam is often called on to assist permanent IT manager colleagues with recruiting other contractors. He’s learnt that there are some particular traits that an IT contractor needs to get the best out of NHS contracting.
“Of course we look for the technical skills first, but we also look at the ‘person fit’. You need a ‘can do’ attitude and to be tenacious, with a willingness to overcome the barriers and the patience to play the long game. Not all commercial IT contractors find this easy.”
In return, Sam highlights that the NHS is going through a period of huge changes and as a result there are some very exiting projects, many of which are IT led: “The NHS remains largely Microsoft focused, so there’s not much scope to move outside that arena.
“But a lot of what is happening now is moving local systems onto central systems. The new clinical commissioning groups are driving this centralisation to gain economies of scale.”
How to win NHS contracts
Sam’s advice to contractors looking for work in the NHS is similar to finding any contract: “I have good contacts, but most contractors will need to sign up with an agency on the NHS roster, such as max20.
“Having signed up with the agency, the process is much the same as in the private sector. Focus on your CV and interview skills. For the right people with the right skills, good rates are on offer.”
Sam concludes: “The need for good interim staff has never been higher in the NHS and I think that it will continue. As a result, good contractors will do well.”