If you value flexibility and freedom, you may have already dreamed about a life of freelance work. Perks like being your own boss or creating your own schedule are like catnip to those who feel boxed in or tied down by traditional jobs. What draws many to the world of freelance programming particularly though, are job opportunities and earning potential, both of which are favorable.
Laid off by a struggling company during the economic fallout after 9/11, computer programmer Christopher Hawkins took his career into his own hands. Although his intention was to freelance in the technology industry until he found a stable, full-time job, his contract projects became both frequent and lucrative. Without realizing it, Hawkins built a thriving freelance practice as a computer programmer that still continues fifteen years later.
Though it can be frightening for some to look away from the stable 9-5 employment sector (with all its benefits), freelance work can certainly make the transition worthwhile—if you do it right.
Why is freelance programming such an appealing gig?
Hawkins says he experienced real financial benefits when he built his career from the ground up. “The fact of the matter is that earning a good paycheck is a big draw to freelancing,” he says. Expertise in a niche area can compound earning potential. Generally speaking, the more specialized you are, the more earning potential you will have.
The average salary range for computer programmers in 2015 was $60,250 to $103,570, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS).* But keep in mind that in the freelance world, that range can vary by a much wider margin. It’s up to you to set competitive pricing for your services, and many freelancers can demand a higher price if they offer special expertise. Maybe, like Hawkins, you will find that freelancing offers a bigger payoff than working for a company.
For more good news, earnings and job opportunities in the tech industry are expected to continue growing as the industry does. Fortune Magazine recently reported that the average tech salary jumped more than 8 percent in 2015 and will continue increasing to keep up with the growth of the digital economy.
Of course, freelance programmers do have a bit of a learning curve, as they are responsible for building and maintaining their own clientele. With the right skills and values, though, the opportunities for freelance programmers are essentially limitless.
What does it take to become a freelance programmer?
So what exactly does it take to make it in the freelance programming industry, and how can you get there? Though competency and technical skills are obviously important to pursue a job in the technology field, Hawkins says soft skills and work ethic are equally significant.
Here are some important factors of being a freelance programmer:
Focus on relationships
As a freelancer, you can anticipate that a lot of your work will be solo and self-managed, but that doesn’t eradicate the need to stay focused on relationships, according to Hawkins. He says relationships should actually be a primary area of focus for all freelance programmers.
“The most important skill is the ability to get work—to form relationships with people who have the ability to hire and to communicate to them the value they'll receive from doing so,” Hawkins explains. He adds that it’s also imperative to keep an even temperament during any interaction with clients or team members.
For many freelancers, the most difficult part of the job is having to do the work of multiple roles at once. “I am a one-man band,” says Rob Boirun, a freelance developer and CEO of PopNet Media. “I have to be sales, customer service and the developer. Wearing all those hats can get burdensome if you let it.”
This is why staying organized is so critical. With a well-managed business and workflow, you’ll maintain a positive and professional relationship with your clients, increasing the likelihood for continued business and referrals. Boirun says building up reliable clientele is one of the best things you can do to make your freelance life a little easier.
Though it can be extremely satisfying, life as a freelance programmer requires a lot of motivation and focus. “I find the most rewarding part of freelance programming is that you can work when and where you want,” Boirun says. But that freedom can be dangerous if you have trouble staying motivated. Prioritize deadlines and set specific goals for attracting new clients so you don’t run out of work.
Boirun emphasizes that as a freelance programmer, you don’t necessarily call all the shots. You’ll still have a ‘boss’ in your customers and clients. It’s not a complete carte blanche on your work life. “But you still have a sense of freedom to work how you want,” he explains.
Be willing to market yourself
No matter how talented of a programmer you are, how can you get hired if no one knows what you have to offer? Especially in the early stages of your career, it’s crucial to build your clientele, which includes marketing your services.
Thankfully, the internet makes both self-promotion and job searching relatively easy. Freelance sites like Upwork, Freelancer, PeoplePerHour and Codeable (specifically for WordPress developers) are helpful platforms for programmers seeking work.
Stay in your lane
Your specialty will not only affect your rates, but will also determine how you market yourself and to whom you solicit your programming services.
“Don’t try to be a jack of all trades,” Boriun urges. “You need to know your area of expertise and focus on that. If you develop in Python then focus on the companies and industries where Python is used. Specialization is key.”
Are you up for the challenge?
The life of a freelance programmer is no walk in the park, but it can definitely have its perks for those who have what it takes. Can you relate to some of the qualities described above? If so, you may have the makings of a great freelance programmer.
While it’s true you can learn many programming skills on your own, a formal education will help you acquire a solid foundation of knowledge on which you can build your entire career. Learn more in our article, 6 Things Self-Taught Programmers Don’t Know They’re Missing.
*Salary data represents national, averaged earnings for the occupations listed and includes workers at all levels of education and experience. This data does not represent starting salaries and employment conditions in your area may vary.