IR35, Here it Comes Again…

IR35, Here it Comes Again…

IR35, Here it Comes Again…

In 2021 the reform to IR35 Off-Payroll rules is to be rolled out to the private sector. As before the reform will only affect companies that do not meet the following attributes:

  • an annual turnover below £10m
  • fewer than 50 employees or
  • a balance sheet showing less than £5.1m in assets

Any company unable to meet these criteria will now be responsible for determining the IR35 status of its workers. This will also include the status of contractors already under contract before the introduction of the reform.

Whenever a contractor is deemed to be within IR35, through an assessment process or assistance from the official government CEST tool, the fee-payer will be expected to deduct tax and national insurance at source via PAYE. Any company engaging with contractors directly will be considered the fee-payer. Care should be given that the correct status is determined for each contractor on a case by case basis, as the fee-payer will be liable for the tax and National Insurance owed should HMRC disagree with a given status.

Should contractors want to retain their position, or take on a position that is deemed to be inside IR35, it could be a possibility that they will seek an increase in payment rates. This increase will allow them to continue taking home the same level of income as they did before the reform. However, you must also be prepared for some existing contractors to terminate their contracts to seek an outside IR35 contract elsewhere.

Alternatively, there is the option to obtain contractors through umbrella companies. By working in this way the responsibility of tax payments falls onto the shoulders of the umbrella company, as the contractor is employed by the umbrella for the duration of the contract.

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Picture this. One minute all is fine and dandy, you have access to all the resources you could possibly need, then bam an unexpected challenge arises. Suddenly you find yourself lacking the capacity to meet the new need. What are your options?

Typically when companies find themselves facing this conundrum, three possible options are laid out in front of them:

1) They can bolster the number of permanent internal staff

Certainly a viable solution where demand has increased and is not expected to diminish again for the foreseeable future. Yet, not so great a solution for handling short-term issues or seemingly random spikes in demand.

2) They can seek the expertise of independent contractors

A bit of a reverse to the permanent staff choice. A valuable option for a short-term solution to manage demand or bring in relevant expertise to solve a technical issue. Not as suitable for serious long-term demand, especially with the approaching presence of reforms to IR35 legislation.

3) They can outsource the responsibility of certain elements or projects to another company, either locally or offshore

This option seems to fit somewhere in the middle of the previous choices. A more than adequate solution to resolving short bursts of issues or demand, yet also capable of running long-term. Especially where the length of increased demand is uncertain or the idea of taking on more permanent staff is unappealing.

As things stand, there is an overwhelming consensus that localised outsourcing is still considered to be the least appealing for many organisations. While we can certainly understand where this opinion may have come from, as a trusted outsource partner for several large UK companies, we have some views on this topic and would like to try and counter some of the arguments we hear regularly against outsourcing.

Before we get down into it lets get the most anticipated and repeated argument out of the way. If you go by the headline day rate alone, outsourcing will definitely not come in first, but one should also stop to consider the potential ‘hidden’ costs associated with other options.

  • The initial recruitment costs required to add members of staff to your team
  • The ongoing cost of permanent employee payroll and miscellaneous benefits i.e. sick pay and pension contributions
  • The management overheads
  • The possibility of reworking low-quality code produced by offshore teams

When you take each of these points into account the cost differential begins to become less of a factor, but the frequently ignored additional benefits also remain.

In regards to contracting, a somewhat unexpected downside is that it is only a temporary measure. What seems like a big upside may actually turn out to be more of a negative than initially thought. When a contractor leaves they will be taking their knowledge with them. If not documented correctly it is all too easy for key knowledge to go missing. You are also faced with the fact that a contractor will not wait around until you require their services again. They have to keep earning a living after all so there is no guarantee that they will be available as and when you need them. Outsourcing to another company can essentially eliminate these risks. With ready access to a team of people, the capacity to share knowledge and train up other team members, should one engineer become unavailable there will already be another capable of filling this space.

In instances where there are concerns regarding intellectual property rights or other sensitive information, it is not uncommon for the preference to be on scaling internal resources. By keeping product development and maintenance within the company boundary, you will create a sense of security over the likes of IPR. However, a trustworthy outsourcing partner will understand and recognise that IPR will remain with the client. They will willingly hand over items such as source code, documentation etc. to the client upon completion.

As an overlooked additional benefit, outsourcing project work opens you up to the experiences and knowledge of every engineer employed by that company. You don’t limit yourself to just one person. Just because a particular individual hasn’t been offered as a resource for your project doesn’t mean that they will not offer their advice or insights to those who are.

Of course, before we bring this article to its conclusion, we cannot talk about outsourcing without at least mentioning IR35. Should you decide to head down the path of recruiting contractors you should be cautious of IR35, and the potential repercussions should you be found in breach of its terms. Should HMRC deem a contract to be in breach of this legislation, the employer is required to provide the employer contributions that would have arisen during a ‘contractors’ term of employment. They will subsequently be expected to continue making these contributions should the contractor turned employee remain with the company. In the lead up to the original 2020 reform deadline, many companies made the decision to place blanket bans on the recruitment of PSC’s. Though in some cases this decision has been revoked in the wake of the 2021 delay, the potential impact to contracting has yet to be fully realised. This now begs the question as to the impact IR35 could have regarding opinions on outsourcing? Maybe the once unpopular choice may gain some favour post IR35? Or maybe the recruitment of permanent staff will become the new norm? We shall just have to wait and see what the future brings.

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Another year has passed, and myself and a colleague have hosted a BSI auditor for our annual ISO9001/TickITplus check-up, and in fact this was more than the regular check, in that it was our 3-year re-certification audit, the biggie!

So why do we do it!? Why spend the time, effort and money on it? ‘Because it is what our customers expect’, true, but our processes and procedures go beyond what is required for the standard. The actual reason is simple, it makes us better, and has helped us improve as a business over the years and benefit from increased cost effectiveness by doing things right, first time.

In the beginning Zircon was process-less, but that was day one. Not long after that, Zircon underwent one of its first strategic initiatives, the creation and adaptation of a TickIT/ISO 9001 quality system. Our first Quality Manager achieved an amazing feat by getting this in place and accredited in less than a year! And this was not a system we bought in, this is one that was developed and tailor-made for the business. Over the years we have built on this, though our policy of continuous improvement and innovation in how we work, and it has continued to serve us well, but will never stop moving forwards. We were also one of the first companies to achieve accreditation for both ISO9001:2015 and TickITplus.

But quality, it is just ticking boxes, right?! Sadly, in our industry I have seen that a lot. Engineers jumping through hoops just to satisfy an auditor/approver. Often the organisations with this attitude are finishing the ‘work’ (and it has usually been a painful journey…), and then going back and ‘tidying up’! As a Quality Manager (and a director of the business), the idea of ‘tidying up’ is one that makes me angry! The systems and process are designed to be efficient and effective if they are followed in the defined order, often going back and fixing things leads to little benefit, other than pulling a fast one over the auditor. Doing it like this is also a sure way to make it feel like ticking boxes to all those involved. You also get the downsides of people reinventing the wheel all over the place, things being missed till much later in the process and the additional cost of people struggling with it.

Quality Systems are not a one-size fits all, they need to be developed and continuously evolved to meet the changing needs of the individual business and to be improved through learning and reflection on how to do things better. The Processes need to be efficient and effective and not be endless red-tape.

But how do you drive this improvement? There are two main ways, the first it to look at the things that go wrong. At Zircon we call them incidents, these can be quality deficiencies, complaints, or faults. When one of these occurs, we first look to correct the issue, but then we take a step back and identify the root cause. Doing this allows us to look for opportunities for improvement, we refer to this as preventative actions. The application of these is monitored over a period of time to ensure that we are achieving the benefits of the change.

The second source of improvement comes from the staff themselves. It is important that every member of staff is encouraged to carry out reflective practice, looking for ways we can do things better. In fact this is one of the core values of the company, innovation. They are best placed to eliminate waste, by identify the red-tape, and inefficiencies in the work they are doing and have the best to offer in terms of ways they can work better. This practice also helps to reinforce the importance of the processes, so you get a double whammy!

And then you have the external audits themselves, be it by accreditor or customer. These are great opportunities for someone outside the business to take a look at what you are doing and give feedback and a different perspective, and often details about how other organisations are doing things. I have never failed to learn something from an external audit.

So how did our audit go? Not bad at all, we had 4 minor non-conformities, all of which are very much ways for us to improve as a business! The identification of these makes it more than worth sitting through the audit! I look forward to more next year!

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The Hazards of Legacy Systems

Being the owner of a software system with a dedicated customer base sounds like the kind of position one would like to find themselves in. At least until it gets superseded and you have to face dealing with a legacy system.

Many developers have a strong dislike of legacy systems and consider them problematic for a variety of different reasons.

Reliance on Antiquated Hardware

Software running on antiquated hardware can rapidly become a heavy expense, potentially going so far as to outweigh the cost of replacing both of the software or hardware elements. If some form of emulation or backwards compatibility allows the use of new hardware, this cost can be minimised.

Deterioration of Retained Knowledge

As staff rotate through, it can become increasingly difficult to maintain and expand from a lack of understanding of the system. Staff who were considered experts have retired or moved on. New staff entering the field since the transition to legacy won’t get to experience it in the first place. Documentation will, of course, assist in filling the gaps, but even the most detailed documents will not quite make up for the first-hand experience.

Holes in Security

There are a lot of vulnerabilities that can arise from legacy systems. Older operating systems and applications can suffer from a lack of security patches as support eases. Production configurations of these operating systems can also contribute to security concerns. Both of these factors and more have a hand in putting legacy systems at risk of being compromised.

When New Meets Old

You have to consider the issue of integration. Integrating with other systems is part and parcel of software development, but ensuring successful communication between older and newer technologies can be incredibly difficult.

Fixing Bugs Can Cause More Problems

The biggest concern for many developers is the greatly increased risk of introducing more problems during the process of bug fixing or making enhancements. In many cases, problems will manifest themselves in areas outside of where changes have been made and can be easy to overlook.

As part of our experience as a company, we know first hand just how troublesome having to deal with a legacy system can be. However, we also know that it isn’t impossible as the guide below will demonstrate.

Updating A Legacy System Guide to Avoid Disaster

1. Impact analysis – what else could be affected? Are the possible consequences worth the advantages of the change?

2. Test the system before you do anything – make sure that you completely know the behaviour of the current system before you do anything. That way you avoid chasing your tail looking for a problem that you think you’ve introduced but is in fact a feature of the system.

3. Source control – make sure you have everything saved that will enable you to return to the current build should a disaster occur.

4. Review the proposed changes – walk through the changes before doing anything. Two heads are better than one, especially one that has been bashed against a wall of old, poorly documented code!

5. Change carefully – make sure that you are not overwriting data areas, mark all changes, check uniqueness of new variable names, understand inputs and outputs.

6. Test the change thoroughly – make sure the change is robust and provides the required functionality.

7. Regression test – make sure that the old functionality still works correctly. This is tedious and may have been done several times over the lifetime of the system. Automation will help.

8. Document – you’re not writing an essay, just some notes to help the next person that will have to change things. It may well be you! Write down what you were trying to do, what you actually did, was the existing documentation any good and what you managed to find out. Eventually, these notes will be better than the original document

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In many of our previous articles, we have expressed the importance of achieving a high standard of testing. Potentially blocking this achievement, several factors can come together to affect the quality of your testing, factors that include your test environment.

As the virtual office that forms an essential part of any testers working day, a well-built test environment will allow a developer to simulate the conditions that a system will, and could, experience once moved into operation. However, it is not unusual for a developer to be without access to their test environment.

It may sound bizarre, but there are a great many reasons as to why access to a test environment may be limited or not feasible, for example:

  • The required hardware is still in development alongside the software, and as such is not ready for testing.
  • Due to their tendency to be expensive, it may not be feasible to provide every team member with a development prototype.
  • The hardware involved is simply too large, either physically or in terms of quantity to fit into an office space.
  • Physically large – a train and/or carriage
  • Large in quantity – a train CCTV system comprising of a multitude of cameras
  • Certain industries and systems will have security restrictions in place that could form a barrier to the test environment.
  • Where working as one of many subcontractors, an agreed interface may be used until subsystems are brought together towards the end of the project
  • In addition to all the issues associated with lack of access, sometimes it can be easier to test elements of an embedded system within a non-target environment, such as the PC based testing within the development environment.

So what happens if a tester were to find themselves without ready access to this space?

Mock Environments

Looking at a dictionary definition of the word mock (noun) you should expect to see something along the lines of ‘something made as an imitation’ or ‘not real but appearing or pretending to be exactly like something’.

In the case of mocking, you are attempting to create an object or unit, that imitates the behaviour of a real object or unit. To put it simply, if your software has a dependency on other pieces of software, you can mock those interactions to establish if your code is reacting as expected to both valid and invalid inputs. This last point is important to highlight here as it shows one of the major advantages of mocking. When it comes to testing in the real world, with the actual hardware or 3rd party software, it can be difficult to create invalid conditions, but by using mocking you are able to ensure that these situations are dealt with gracefully.

In regards to the focus of this article, primarily used in unit testing, mocking can provide an interim means to exercise code within a development environment. After all, it shouldn’t matter if behaviours are being faked, code should react the same way to faked/mocked inputs as it would to those that are real. Catching bugs and issues during Unit testing also saves time later in the project as debugging issues at the system level can be more time consuming.

Simulators

Returning to the dictionary once again, a simulator is defined as ‘a piece of equipment that is designed to represent real conditions’. In the real world, pilots have simulators to mimic the experience of flying without the risk of damage from a crash. In software, most commonly in system testing, simulators will act like the various subsystems that your software will have to communicate with.

Designed to supply a realistic interface, a simulator will mimic the various interfaces in such a way that your software will not know it is talking to a simulator. As far as it is aware the software is in a live environment, and as such is receiving real messages.

For example, for a train control system (TCS), if your code were to send out a request to increase motors to x%, you would expect two things to happen. One, the simulator returns a realistic response to the request that is either positive or negative. Two, that your code responds appropriately to the simulators response or, in the worst case scenario, that it fails safely. Of course, this is an oversimplification of a very complex system, only focusing on one specific interaction between two interfaces. In reality, a simulator for a TCS would have to replicate a multitude of subsystems to ensure a realistic environment.

Mocking and simulators are cost-effective solutions to the issue of test environment access, however they will not totally replace testing on real hardware, or interfacing with real systems and users. They have a time and a place all throughout the life of a project, and even into the operational maintenance carried our post delivery, but there is still a need for testing in the actual environment. It is also worth considering the added bonus that simulators can double up as training tools to be used as part of training environment set up.

Lets Talk Software Testing

Looking for support with testing requirements, particularly in regards to the development of mock software and simulators? Get in contact with our team here at Zircon, and it would be our pleasure to see how we can assist you.

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Anyone experienced in product design will understand just how valuable a facilitated workshop can be. Bringing together a project’s key stakeholders into a single space allows for the exploration of diverse opinions and ideas, while simultaneously striving to achieve “consensual validation”.

Software systems are typically built with support from a large network of stakeholders. You have your product owners, multifaceted development teams, service providers such as Zircon and of course your end-users. By bringing these groups together, you will be bringing together people with differing opinions, interests and agendas. Taking this into account, it is hardly surprising that the facilitated workshop can be a powerful asset in the development process.

Here at Zircon, we have utilised workshops on a number of our projects to gain a clear understanding of expectations for the system under development. For example, as part of a project to develop an Android application, we implemented a series of workshops with the end-user to establish the suitability of our mocked up prototypes. For another project to capture the requirements of a new rail signalling product, our team facilitated several workshops to understand stakeholder expectations for the system and how it would be used and its integration with the client’s wider system (or portfolio of products).

A successful and productive workshop can be both fun and energising. However, when a workshop is poorly planned or badly run it can be incredibly damaging. The “best” worst-case scenario is an unnecessary waste of precious time and resources, however, the results can be as extreme as damaging vital relationships or project derailment as political agendas play out. So to help you ensure that your next workshop will be a resounding success, we have outlined some pointers to guide you in the right direction.

Determine and define the purpose of the workshop

If you are considering the implementation of a workshop, you must have some idea of a goal that you would like to achieve. Before you approach a potential audience, you need to define what that goal is, as it is impossible to reach an agreed endpoint if you haven’t taken the time to define what that endpoint is.

Start with a few sentences to explain your reasons for hosting the workshop, almost as if you are sending out a calendar invite.  You can then expand on this to articulate what you are attempting to achieve, and how the world will be a better place after the completion of the workshop. Try to articulate your concrete aims for the outcome in the form of actions. For example:

  • Identify and agree on the safety hazards of the level crossing CCTV system
  • review the proposed mobile app user interface prototypes
  • agree the elements to be incorporated in the final prototype

When you finally do decide to reach out to your attendees, you should explain why they are being invited and what you will expect them to contribute during the workshop.  If you are expecting them to prepare ahead of time, i.e. read any documents relevant to the outcome of the workshop or be prepared to make a short presentation, you should also make this clear to them.

Choose a healthy mix of attendees

Your audience will have a direct impact on the quality of your workshop. Unfortunately, you can’t just invite the individuals that you know will play nice and make life easier, the need for their involvement will single-handedly depend on their ability to contribute to your workshops outcomes. Take the time to look over the purpose that you have outlined, this will define which stakeholders are key and those that will have no valuable input and simply increase the risk of derailment and distraction.

As an additional note, ensuring that attendees are empowered to make decisions regarding the objectives of the workshop will help ensure that progress is made, and avoid the creation of an echo-chamber in which ideas are bounced around but a lack of approval prevents progress on those ideas.

You also need to be aware that most of the attendees invited to the workshop will be keen to promote their agendas and ideas. In being aware that certain participants will attend with preconceived attitudes to the problem, and maybe even other attendees, you can address them early on in the workshop plan.

Be cautious of the size of the group

While you will want to achieve diversity in your attendee list, you want to avoid going too crazy with theinvites to the point that you have a town hall meeting on your hands rather than a workshop. Considering that the purpose of the workshop is to achieve a mutual agreement, you don’t want to put yourself in a position that could jeopardise that goal. However, there is no clear cut answer as to the ideal number of invitees, as this will depend he avily on the purpose of your meeting. If you are finding that you are bringing too many people to the table, you need to consider modifying the purpose rather than downsizing the numbers.

As a general rule of thumb, the bigger the discussion group, the harder it will be to reach a unanimous decision. That being said, several workshop management techniques can be employed when dealing with larger groups. These techniques can be demanding and take a lot of work but it can be done if the workshop requires it.

Outline some ground rules

To help ensure smooth sailing, you should be applying a set of principles for the duration of your workshop, for example:

  • One person talking at a time.  No having multiple conversations while the workshop is in session.
  • No mobile phones.  Breaks will be offered for you to catch up on emails and calls.
  • Respect one another.
  • This will be a ‘safe’ environment and there will be no such thing as a bad or silly idea or comment, all input will be valued.
  • The facilitator apologises in advance for cutting off speakers and stopping discussions mid-flow.  We appreciate that this may appear rude, but it is the facilitator’s job to keep the workshop on schedule.

These principles will help to maintain acceptable behaviour, promote the overall goal of the workshop as well as serve as a process guide.

Work with your group to establish and agree upon principles that are clearly defined and acceptable to all participants. As the facilitator, you are first and foremost responsible for monitoring the adherence to these principles.

Carefully manage the characters

Once the workshop is underway, one of the facilitator’s many roles is to ensure that each participant is offered the chance to have their voice heard. There is a careful balancing act between gently subduing strong characters who push their agenda and trying to engage those who are more passive and hold back on putting their ideas across.

There will be times where a facilitator will have to employ techniques, or exercises, that will help prevent the conversation from stalling. Whether this is to pull more introverted members into a discussion or to ensure that the thread of discussion stays on track.  For example, to try and engage those who may be nervous or reluctant to speak you may benefit from running a warm-up exercise when all attendees have gathered. Examples of particularly useful exercises include:

  • Leave-your-baggage at the door
  • Share one positive and one negative
  • Change up the style of voting/option ranking

If you feel a conversation beginning to enter that never-ending circle, it is the role of the facilitator to break the cycle and refocus the group on the workshop’s goal.  You need to try and get those in the debate to articulate the areas where they agree and recognise exactly where they disagree.  For example, the facilitator could say something along the lines of “so I hear you, person A, saying this …, and I hear you, person B, saying this ….  You both seem to be agreeing on this point … but are disagreeing on this point …, how could we bridge this gap?”

Take Frequent Breaks

It may not always seem like an intensive experience, but a workshop demands a lot of focus from its attendees. Considering the limited time frame and availability of the individuals involved, you may not want to risk taking time out of your allotted schedule but to maintain productivity and focus brief regular breaks are beneficial. These breaks can also be more than simply for comfort, i.e. topping up drinks or making visits to the bathroom, they can be offered as an opportunity for busy attendees to check on their emails or make a call. If you provide these opportunities, you will simultaneously build a better connection with your attendees and minimise their distraction during the focused sections of the workshop.

The workshop doesn’t end at the door

Once all the discussions are over, you need to remember that even though the meeting may be over, the workshop doesn’t end once everyone is out of the room. Writing up and publishing the notes generated during the workshop, so that participants have the means to remember what was discussed and agreed upon. You should also make sure to accompany these notes with a list of actions and next steps that make it clear who owns each task and the date for completion.

By having a common point of information for all participants to refresh their memories, you remove the risk of conflicting accounts and improve productivity through task ownership.

So to quickly summarise, your workshop should have a clear objective and you should have invited the right participants who are empowered to make the necessary decisions. Your invite should be clear and ensures that invitees know what the workshop is for, why they are being invited and what their role is. Your workshop should be designed to address anticipated sticking points, overcome obstacles and move towards achieving the objective. And finally, you should utilise good workshop facilitation to keep the session moving, to build collaboration and consensus between participants, keeping the workshop to schedule and achieving its objectives. Put yourself in a strong position where your preparation and processes will allow participants to be active, engaged and committed to completing the task.

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