What is it like to be a freelance web developer?

I want to take a moment away from my usual howtos and commentary to offer some encouragement and etiquette tips for my fellow web developers, especially the ladies starting out.

Doing freelance work with the occasional longer contract is difficult to break into, requires a thick skin, and demands careful reputation-gardening. Before I reached the point where I was getting contract requests and recruiter emails on a daily basis, work was thin on the ground. I did IC (individual contributor) work, and it’s taken a lot of time and effort to reach the systems architect and senior management positions for which I am now being recruited.

I maintained three principles which I use every day, especially when I have to deal with aggressive recruiters, tight-lipped company reps, and the inevitable professional relationship snafus.

(1) Say something nice about someone every day.

In late 2009, I had a tough personal situation to deal
with, and after it was over, I knew I could react one of two ways. I could be angry and sour to anyone who asked, with the excuse that I was having a tough time, or I could find a way to turn the situation into personal development. I started looking over my friends list on Facebook, and made a point to say something nice about a friend every day. It got me back in contact with people I hadn’t talked to in quite a while, provided encouragement, and sparked memories. Likewise, when I’m dealing with professional issues, I write recommendations for my colleagues on LinkedIn. Many people I know work extremely hard without a great deal of positive reinforcement or top-down encouragement due to the nature of contracting and freelancing. No one ever tells them that they have serious skills, that they’re a pleasure to work with, and that you’re glad to have them on your IM contacts list for sticky coding questions. Nearly every company has a policy of never giving any feedback whatsoever on performance to anyone
who’s not an FTE–this is to avoid legal issues. That’s good for the legal department, but doesn’t provide much in the way of constructive criticism for personal growth and improvement in skills. This is my way of helping others with this problem. Say nice things about your colleagues and professional contacts; it draws you together and provides opportunities to turn sometimes difficult situations into networking goldmines.

(2) Be courteous to recruiters, but do not let them run your life.

I am deluged with emails from recruiters on a daily basis. This is the very definition of a high-class problem; I am quite aware. Still, imagine getting a variant on this email about five times a day:

“Hi! My name is XXXX, and I am from XXXX Consulting, Inc. I came across your resume, and believe that you may be absolutely perfect for this (.NET, C#, Java, OSS, MS, frontend, backend, lead/IC/senior/junior, DBA, FTE/Contract) development position I have. Please send me an updated copy of your
resume as well as current contact information, salary requirements, availability and geographical location, and a point-by-point answer to each of the ten questions below which will determine your suitability for this position.”

Now, these people are overworked, underpaid, and are dealing with a paradox whereby the people most likely to respond to them are not currently employed at high-paying and prestigious positions. However, almost all of my best contracts have come from recruiters. This means that I absolutely do want to talk to them, if they have something I need to know–but answering them all in detail would be more than 10% of my day.

I’ve come up with the perfect solution. I send a Gmail canned response to all recruiters thanking them for their interest in me, giving them a quick rundown on the positions I will accept, my base salary/equity/wage/benefit requirements, a link to my website where my resumes live in pdf and txt format (the pretty version and the text-searchable version),
and my geographical location. I ask them to please send me the job description, geographical location down to the city block of the company for which they’re attempting to recruit (often they cannot give out the name of the company, but I need to know what transportation/commute will be like), and the salary.I let them know (as courteously as possible) that I will not respond to any reply that does not contain that information.

So far, it’s worked like a charm without sucking my time the way recruiting emails used to do.

(3) Maintain your relationships with the people with whom you have worked.

Facebook your friends, and LinkedIn your colleagues. Every nerd hates to hear it, but the people you know and with whom you collaborate are the best resource for gigs, recommendations, inside news, and a heads-up when you need it. THANK THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE HELPED YOU. When people point me to gigs, recommend me, help me out, and provide me with information, I thank them
thoroughly and in written/gift form. Get a case of decent wine and send a bottle and a thank you card to the people who have helped you professionally. This isn’t because you want something from them; it is because you are grateful for their help without expecting that they’ll do so again. I mean it; sincere gratitude is important for its own sake.

Those three principles help me out when I am in contracts and looking for new ones, as well as closing down old contracts. Probably the biggest piece of advice I can give is this: take the time to be courteous to those who are helping you and supporting you, whether you know them or not.

How to become a web developer.

Just do it.

I’ve been running a web development and consulting company, Red Queen Technologies, for 9 years. I have come from doing page templates to being called in to demonstrate agile development techniques for mid-size companies and running full multi-tiered architectural and systemic designs for sites.

I get questions all the time from friends and colleagues on how to start a web development company. The first thing I tell them is that you have to know how to code. I tell them to buy the HTML/XHTML/CSS for Dummies book, and jump in. If they’re too afraid to try to do the job that they want to manage others doing, they’re not suited to running their own dev company.

Just do it.

The
other day, I was in a boutique, chatting with two lovely friends of mine. These ladies are a bit older than me, by about 15 years. We all share an interest in haute couture; we were talking about Prada purses, I believe. These ladies are intelligent, beautiful, and entrepreneurial; one runs a successful clothing store, and the other is in real estate. When they asked me what I did and I told them, the realtor said “I could never do that. You are so much smarter than me.” This made me quite angry, honestly. There is a self-defeating voice inside many women that tells them that only very smart women can run their own tech companies, and since they’re not smart, they can’t do it. This woman was excusing herself from trying technology out of fear.

Just do it.

Get some server space, view page source for any web page, paste it into a text document, name it iwannacode.html, and upload it to your server
space. View it in your browser. Start fixing things. Learn.

Just do it.