Thinking about becoming a Freelance Developer? Freelancing can provide overall freedom for you to decide your working hours and salary. Let’s go over some common challenges, pros, cons and trade-offs you may encounter choosing this career path. Hopefully, my experience will help you make an informed decision.
Challenge #1: Steady Income
A strong point in favour of a regular job is a steady income. As a freelance developer, you have to face reality. While there is no real cap to how much you can make, there will be peaks and troughs in your monthly income.
High and low seasons won’t necessarily follow each other in fixed intervals. In other words, be prepared for long periods of low income especially during your first couple of years.
Aside from the services you may provide, do your best to generate passive residual income. Maybe consider an app that sells revenue, unobtrusive ads on your website or even a channel on a streaming website. There are many options to choose from nowadays.
Save as much as you can when you are in the high season! Conduct yourself in a frugal manner and eventually, you’ll figure out how much you can add in your expenses without dipping into your savings. You can always use an app to help you manage your finances!
If you still live with your parents, do not rush to move out. Save as much as you can (and make sure to help your parents with the bills). When your savings and your base income are healthy enough, then plan accordingly to find your own space. As a freelance developer, you’ll have steady expenses but not a steady income. Getting involved in the finances of your home will give you firsthand knowledge of how things work. Even if you are fortunate enough and there is no need for you to assist in the household expenses, still offer to handle some of the bills, as this will be part of your learning process.
Challenge #2: Time Management
It’s in the name, Free-lancing! You are your own boss and you have total control over your time. This is a huge pitfall when it comes to freelancing. Indeed you can start your workday after 10 am but watch out. You may not be as productive as you’re hoping to be. Unexpected things come up. Your computer may break, your internet service may stop working and a number of other things could go wrong.
As developers, we pretty much get paid to figure things out and make them simpler and more accessible to everyone else. There are times when no matter how much planning you put into it, the beautifully crafted algorithm will not work and it doesn’t have to be a syntax error. It might be something far more insidious than that. For instance, back in 2006, I was working on an HTML project and wanted to track the checkboxes that were not checked by the user once a form was sent. It took me days to realize that unchecked checkboxes are simply not posted when the form is submitted. As simple it may sound, this was one of those things that you learn from a painful and time-consuming experience.
Discipline is key for proper time management. Learn how to say “NO” when you have to. You love solving problems and helping people, I get that. However, don’t forget that your freelancing career is only as serious as you take it and your clients can sense that from a mile away.
Set a working schedule for yourself and stick to it. It might not be easy but it will be totally worth it. If you have a strong reason to miss work, at least make sure you have some wiggle room to make up for that time.
One tip to always keep in mind: Watch out for the holiday season. If you choose so, holidays may not limit your capacity to work but will probably limit your clients’ availability to answer your phone calls or emails, should you need anything from them.
*** Time Management is closely connected to productivity but we’ll cover that further in challenge #4
Challenge #3: Deliverables
Developers are responsible for solving problems. Many times very simple problems but others very complex ones. Your capacity to deliver such solutions will determine how successful you may be. Clients will do their best to communicate their needs to you. More often than not they will fail at getting their point across. Pay attention to every detail,- the context of the problem, the scope of the problem- and try to connect the dots between what they say, what they mean and what you understand.
Clients will do their best to communicate their needs to you. More often than not they will fail at getting their point across. Pay attention to every detail,- the context of the problem, the scope of the problem- and try to connect the dots between what they say, what they mean and what you understand.
Be honest with your clients. If you can’t deliver a solution, let them know. You are not required to know everything. Mutual trust is something built over time and if you feel that -while you are not an expert in a subject- you may conquer the learning curve to deliver the solution, communicate it to your clients.
Communication is key. If a client hasn’t heard from you in weeks they may think that you have abandoned them. You do not need to email or contact them every day, but often enough to keep them up to date with the ongoing process of the contracted work.
Challenge #4: Being Productive as a Freelance Developer
This happens to be one of the toughest things to keep up with as a Freelance Developer. It depends a lot on overcoming the previously mentioned challenges. Many times your productivity will peak when you need it the least (low season for example) and fail you when you need it the most.
In reality, this is a challenge for everyone, even people with steady full-time jobs. It puts extra weight and stress on a Freelance Developer because you’ll need to handle everything on your own, even more so at the beginning. You need to be your own boss, accountant, assistant, supervisor, public relations expert, customer support, and so many more. Say NO to yourself when you want to say YES, can be soul tempering as much as it can be disappointing, but it is critical.
The road to a productive day is an exploratory journey. Know yourself, balance how much you demand and how much you reward yourself, do your best to be the boss you wish you had but also the employee you wish to have. Don’t forget to exercise, eat well, sleep and keep an eye on your health as your body and mind are the most important tools for you to provide your services.
We tend to use our computers for everything we do: work, watch series and movies, play or stream games, catch up with friends and family, read and anything else possible., etc. I did it for a long time until I got my hands on an old console and noticed how much more productive I got. Separate these things. When your computer is your go-to for everything, you’ll want to play when it’s time to work and vice-versa. There’s nothing wrong with playing video games in an old console, reading an old book or switching to an old e-reader. Don’t let the trends make you waste money and time you don’t have. Every cent and every minute counts.
Challenge #5: Keeping up with the Industry
Desktop, Web or Mobile, each have their own set of programming languages, database choices, architectures, distribution systems, update cycles and so much more.
Choose a single target first and mature in it. Try to be a shark, a horse or an eagle, never a duck, yes the duck can fly, swim and run but never as good as the ones mentioned above. Master one domain before adding a second one. Trends can be very misleading, so be careful. Just because everyone loves or hates the “new” thing, that doesn’t mean you should do too.
Be critical, read, compare, test, research and make informed decisions – at the end of this article, you’ll find some indicative useful links of sites and tools for that. You’ll find an outstanding feeling of realization and meaning when you take your algorithms and carefully improve them, remember there’s nothing wrong with making mistakes. In reality, this is a core part of a healthy learning process. However small the step forward it may seem, it’s still a step forward. Code bases and apps are improved in tiny percentages in different areas which add up to a much larger percentage of improvement. 7% Faster on the client-side, 12% faster on the server-side, 16% faster and better-indexed queries switching png icons for SVG’s, removing unused assets and before you know it, your website, web-based or mobile app can be much faster and deliver a much better overall experience.
Conclusions from the Life of a Freelance Developer
As a freelance developer your path can be very rewarding and fulfilling as long as you always do your best. Even if getting the job done might not be enough sometimes, you will still have the certainty that you gave it your 100%. This will soon add up to your advantage.
The beautiful process of learning a new skill and putting it into practice, giving life to an idea, watching it unfold is pure science. This will provide you with a real and palpable sense of achievement and purpose. You start with a simple “hello world” in your first programming language and as you progress it gets more difficult but more interesting as well. Trial and error, you learn, you grow, you overcome or fail. Do it every day, code a little and become more competent.
The dynamics between the known, the unknown and the threshold you cross to narrow that gap is what’s so engaging about the freelance developer lifestyle. Conquer yourself as you conquer new skills.
Useful sites for reading and researching:
Useful sites and tools for testing & benchmarking:
Short Bio: Darwin Santos is a Web Developer from the Dominican Republic and has been a member of the Developer Economics Community since 2017. He specializes in web-based ERP/CRM hybrids and health care systems. He has been working with web technologies since the early 2000s. Several of his deployments have been running for years and are constantly improved and updated. He is also very experienced in database design, data normalization and data migration, with several successful migrations of 20+ years worth of data under his belt. He prefers functional and procedural programming over OOP.