On Transitioning to a FIFO Contractor

By Anthony English

We have a treat for y’all today. One of our enthusiastic students of Double Your Freelancing Rate and former student success story, Anthony English has found a new way of positioning himself in the marketplace.

He’s a FIFO contractor.

Not sure what that is?

Read on to hear all of the details. 

Screenshot 2015-08-27 at 5.58.25 PM

What is a FIFO contractor?

In the mining industry in Australia a few years ago, it was common to get fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) contractors. They were brought into remote areas for a very specific job and were able to attract much higher rates than the longer term employees.

How does that apply in IT?

It seems to me that especially for project work, it pays to think of yourself as a FIFO contractor. I don’t mean necessarily flying in to a different location, but the principle is the same: you come in for a very short term project, achieve the result, then leave.

That minimizes the risk for the business and you can afford to charge more (provided you show your value for their business problem). It’s riskier in that you don’t have long-term work, but the word soon gets around that you’re a high-value technical specialist who is focused on the business.

So you do a lot of travelling?

It’s not so much about having to travel. It’s more about showing the stakeholders that they’re in safe hands.

“You have an attitude that you’re a high-value contributor focused on getting results quickly.”

Think of it like an IT taxi driver

In projects we like to speak of roadmaps. That’s simply the path to take that will get you from point A to point B; in other words to take you from where you are to where you want to be.

Now the problem I see so often is that no one has really any idea of where they are or where they’re headed. They don’t know what success ought to look like for their project. They hop on the horse and start riding off in all directions.

Think of hiring a cab in a city that you’re not familiar with. If you don’t know where you are, it’s certainly going to be a help if the cab driver does. Now if the passenger doesn’t know where he’s going, or what it’s going to look like when he gets there, the cab driver can add plenty of value by telling them all about the destination.

Then the road map becomes easy.

“Turn back! You are going the wrong way!”

Often enough, you’ll find that companies are headed down rabbit trails, thinking that X will solve their underlying problem. So it’s really valuable to have someone come in and tell them not to waste their time on X.

For instance, I know the owner of a small retail business who thought the way to rank high in Google was to logon to his own website every day, pretending to be a customer. I’m no SEO guru, but I suspect that’s not the secret sauce to Google ranking. 😉

“I think there’s a lot of value in being able to show people where not to waste their energy.”

If you’re able to explain to them why they’re barking up the wrong tree (without embarrassing them … especially if they’ve paid big bucks for the tree), you can show value really quickly.

So how has “cab driving” worked out for you?

Actually, I recently had a lucky break. Someone I’d never heard of contacted me over LinkedIn. They had a problem. A very specific problem, connecting a storage device to their IBM Power System (that’s my field – I’ve been working on IBM’s AIX operating system for over 20 years).

I had a pretty good idea of how I could help, but it was such a specific problem, and as far as I knew at the time, a one-off task, that I had no idea how to charge for. So I suggested an initial engagement of 10 hours at about $220/hr (in US dollars).

That worked for them and very soon I was on the phone and I was discovering that their little problem was actually part of a much bigger project. That initial engagement of 10 hours soon became 20, and then they offered me five day a week job for a few months.

And the project?

What was obvious to me was that as a technical team, we were able to offer value for specific technical problems, within extremely tight timeframes. A few times we put together an impromptu war room – maybe five people in a room focused on a specific problem that was a potential showstopper. It was urgent, it was exciting. We had a laser-focus on the problem and did some brainstorming.

Those war rooms were some of the most valuable parts of the project for me. Of course, you do all you can not to need the war rooms in the first place!

But when you’re up against the wall, who do you want in your war room? Who’s going to be the quick thinker, the person who comes out with a solution that wasn’t on anyone’s radar?

People want to feel safe. And they’re willing to pay for someone who’s seen a potential time bomb before and knows how to diffuse it (or knows it’s not a real bomb anyway). They need someone to tell them what they needn’t worry about and what they should worry about … and especially how to deal with it.

I’d say that feeling that you’re in safe hands is something IT people especially don’t emphasise, but it strikes me as even more important than the years of technical expertise.

How did DYFR help you position yourself?

Even though I was itching to do the technical deep dive when the problem first came to me, I really focused on why this technical problem was a problem for the business.

Once I understood the business driver behind the project, I felt, and they felt, that we were all working for the same goal. I made a point of focusing on the pain they were going through and how my assistance could help them out of that pain.

I didn’t sell myself. I just demonstrated by asking key questions about where they were (point A) and where they wanted to be (point B). I had already helped them in showing them A and B that it was easy for them to hire me as their driver.

But how much should I charge?

The situation put me in a strong negotiating position because:

  1. I already had other work, so I didn’t have to accept the work.
  2. It was a major project for a very large company, and I could tell they had budgeted for the project.
  3. They had a specific problem that had been a roadblock for three weeks. I was able to help and they knew it.

Having a highly-focused team with specific, concrete goals, pays off a hundredfold. It makes a lot of sense to get them on board, even if the rates are high, and even if it’s for a super-short engagement.

That’s the FIFO model, and I think it’s got a lot going for it. And if you’re getting paid double what you’d get if you were offering yourself as a cheap commodity resource, you can afford to be out of work half the time.

Anthony English headshotAnthony English has recently gone completely freelance, helping small businesses bridge the gap between business ideas and technology. He writes articles for magazines focusing on streamlining processes, especially for non-technical people. He has strong experience with large and small companies, building on his history working on IBM Power Systems. Anthony is based in Sydney and has a regular blog pitched at freelancers and small businesses. Follow along at: