Broadly speaking I’ve seen most of my work fall into these categories:
a) Help we need someone competent to aid us in a murky project
b) We are a dysfunctional organisation, who require transient developers to put up with their modus operandi.
c) We need your experience and expertise for a gap in our project
I’ve found (c) is best but (b) pays best though it can be stressful if your passionate about quality, engineering practices or process and (a) is often relatively short term but can garner kudos and create better opportunities.
Most companies don’t hire contractors because they’re doing swimmingly. Often it’s because they have some degree of dysfunction. For example large institutions in the City regularly operate as a parody of the Mythical Man Month. Expect Waterfall, PMO, silos of BA, Dev, QA; UAT (manual), Cookie Cutter templates to everything. Expect most “business” interaction to be via a PM and scrums to be lengthy tortious ordeals. (This is why companies like Thought Works do so well and why I expect some serious disruption in the coming years from Startup targeting City companies).
Expect people to ask you your advice and for you to mentor less experienced developers. Do not expect your advice to be implemented, or rather expect it to be watered down with compromise by non-technical councils.
I really like contracting. I enjoy the flexibility, variety and the challenges. I enjoy the people and skills I learn and now my network has expanded and I have earned a reasonable reputation I enjoy the better projects.
I second the sentiment about going IPSE and of hiring a decent accountancy. Don't worry about their portals or how shabby a website may look, pick them based on their competency.
Bite the bullet. Go for it!
You have to be an expert in the required area. Example: you have to be a Java Developer. If you are a software engineer that uses Java as one of your tools, it's not gonna fly, because god forbid you won't know by heart some java specific library/method/quirk/etc during your interview - this will be immediately filed under as a "NO" under "can hit the ground running" section, no matter how good you are at software engineering as a whole. In the end you will work with handful of "proven" (read "old, outdated") tools and become an expert of handling all kinds of legacy mess.
The requirement of any contractor (or consultant) is to convey a sense of competency / trustworthiness that allows the interviewer to believe you either fit the exact requirements or provide enough additional value (in my case 20 odd years of battle wounds and stories of utter disasters) that you are the person who will add the most value....
Nah. I'm by no means an expert in anything - you just have to be good enough to justify the daily rate (mine is low* for this reason.)
* but still a lot more than I'd get being permanent, obv.