I have known Jonathan for a number of years and always enjoy his company, despite his rather unfortunate passion for Nottingham Forest.
Jonathan is one of the most successful freelancers I know within the computer forensics space and in this blog post he provides a fascinating insight into the reality of his work.
Jonathan always has interesting opinions on all things computer forensics so I would certainly suggest you check out his new blog and, of course, follow him on twitter
A contractor's tale
I’ve been working in computer forensics for the past seven years, the last three of which have been as a contractor/freelancer. The decision to move from permanent employment to running my own affairs was a big one but one I’ve not regretted it all. In IT as whole the role of contactors is well established but in computer forensics for reasons unknown - which I touch on later - is quite unusual in that I’d estimate that there are fewer than thirty of us on the UK market.
The terms contractor and freelancer are interchangeable for me as I consider myself to have a foot in both camps. The difference for me is that a forensic freelancer works on individual projects directly for an end client (usually a law firm or a corporation) while a contractor works for longer periods on behalf of another forensic provider.
The advantages of working this way rather than being employed are many. Being independent is a big one; I decide my terms of business, the design of my website, what time of the day I start, how much to pay myself, whether I would rather spend the day in the park with my family than sit in front of monitor and so on; for me it’s a more ‘civilised’ way of earning a living than working to someone else’s rules. The money? Well, that obviously depends on how much work you get in but the scope is there to earn substantially more than any advertised forensic/e-discovery salary I’ve ever seen. If you’re employed by a corporate, you probably know your hourly/daily charge out rate; are you OK with the fact that you only ever see a fraction of that? I knew I wasn’t.
Unsurprisingly however, it’s not all milk and honey. The entry costs can be formidable – licenses for FTK, EnCase, X-Ways, and a myriad other tools. Then there’s your analysis computer, write blockers, laptop, cables and so on. Software licensing needs to be updated, and unless you’re going to sit on your laurels you need to factor in training and certification costs. When freelancing you’re a one man forensic department so you have to be able to turn your hand to almost any device or situation you may come across. Setting up a limited company and registering for VAT are a must which means you’ll need to pay for an accountant.
Contracting/freelancing isn’t for beginners, you’ll need several years of experience and to be somewhere near the top of your game as no clients will pay for you to learn on the job. You need to be confident in yourself and in your skill set, be able to talk prices, negotiate and bargain. Barren periods are inevitable; how are you fixed to cope financially with all your obligations if the phone doesn’t ring for a couple of months?
And then there’s the small matter of the work.
Once you’ve set yourself up, got yourself a memorable name and put up a nice web site… then what? Where’s the work going to come from? You can try marketing, pay per click advertising but they don’t come cheap .The bottom line is that the main source of work for freelance/contract forensic people is through word-of-mouth, which takes a lot of hard work and getting the right breaks to achieve.
So, it’s tough to get established and there’s an ever-present element of risk but for me the potential rewards and work-life balance have been worth it. As I touched on before, there are a very few people in forensics that have chosen to take this route, which goes against the grain of the IT industry as a whole. Using contractors has obvious advantages for companies; they are available from a few days upwards, they hit the ground running, companies don’t need to pay their National Insurance or give them any of the other rights associated with employing someone, they provide a high skill-set, they are out to impress (being eager for repeat work) and they come with their own software licenses and forensic hardware. A bargain!
It begs the question as to why the forensic market for contractors is so small. At first I thought it may be due to the security clearance issue, but there are plenty of contractors in other IT markets who require and are granted clearance. The only reason I could come up with is the ‘vicious circle’ effect; most forensic providers aren’t aware of the supply of contractors, so they don’t tend to use them, meaning that the low demand is matched by low supply. It’d be interesting to hear any other thoughts on this unusual state of affairs.
If anyone’s interested in the contracting or freelancing route I’d be happy to share my experience in the comments section below.