The end, myths and tips
Here’s my story of becoming a tech contractor in London, followed by myths/truths I found along the way. Your circumstances are different to mine, so your mileage may vary.
I want to put the end at the beginning. I only became a tech contractor because it was the first grift I found where the numbers finally added up.
All my life I’d been contemplating dream jobs based on a few factors, such as: how much I like it, how much I need to train to get a starting salary for it and how good I need to be to get a big salary for it. Until recently all the jobs I’d liked enough to care about failed on one of these factors. Either they were paid very poorly (writing/journalism), or if not require unlikely levels of excellence to be paid well (photography).
But at the age of 29, I contemplated front end web development. Front end web development was something that I liked well enough, was easy to train in, was well paid from the start and due to supply and demand, did not require any excellence to command top salaries. Contracting offered far better salaries than a traditional job, it was more flexible but it also (apparently) had higher risk. The risk/reward ratio was so favourable however that it was a no-brainer for me.
(One week of salary was equivalent to 3 month’s rent & bills)
With numbers like that, I was going to do whatever it took to become one. You should consider whether you feel this way.
Are you kidding yourself
Most people dream of being a contractor the way everyone thinks they want to write a book: it’s not something they’ll ever actually do.
They say that “if only” whatever obstacle wasn’t in their way, then they would be able to do it.
If they actually tried to write a book they would quickly realise they can’t write one. They never will try to write one, because that’s not the point of this dream. The point is to have a fantasy where their lives and themselves are different and better.
Such a fantasy needs some plausible excuses as to why the person isn’t acting to fulfil their dream right now, so the person makes some up. Not enough time, got to pay the mortgage and so on and so on. This excuse shields them from the reality that they could never write a book, because the reality is that being different and better takes a lot of hard work. Much easier to just fantasise.
So too with freelancing. I have heard every excuse under the sun for not yet being a freelancer: lack of experience, mortgage, kids, sick mother, everything. And I have also met successful freelancers with every single one of these burdens that other people use as an excuse. This tendency to make excuses is often a sign that being a freelancer is actually an escape fantasy.
Are you doing that?
If you think maybe you are, congratulations on your self-reflection! You can probably stop reading and maybe enhance your non-contracting life now that you know you’ll never really be one.
If you’re still reading… I’m sure you want to know the details of how to make a go of contracting life. Well I can only tell you what worked for me and it won’t translate to many other kinds of circumstance, but maybe I can help you think about it differently.
Everything you know is wrong
Let’s start big and abstract: everything you think you know about freelancing is wrong.
I’m sure you think your fears, which I have just labelled “excuses” are legitimate worries, but they are the product of a mindset that is ill-matched to the task at hand.
They are ill-matched because you’ve been trained by the “perm” (permanent) world to be fearful about what gets you jobs, because fearful employees are easier to keep in line. You’ve also been dazzled by meaningless rubbish to keep you in your current job, because it’s good to keep a healthy dose of carrot mixed in with the stick.
But that’s what all your knowledge about jobs is: it’s a never-quite-reachable carrot-on-a-stick that is an illusion to keep you under the thumb. None of it is relevant to finding your own work over and over again.
If everything you know about freelancing is wrong, then the details of your fears are wrong too. You should stop worrying about those. You should be way more worried about other things, things you don’t even know yet.
Let’s look at some things you’ve got wrong, and unseat them.
Myth: “I don’t have enough experience”
Most people think that technical skill level is the biggest factor in becoming a freelancer. Most people think you need lots of experience (coincidentally, it is often about a year more than the person currently has, no matter how long they’ve been a dev or what experience they have).
This is absolutely wrong. You don’t need any experience, and as a freelancer it is by far the smallest factor in becoming successful.
On my journey, I spent 2hrs/day for 1 week on codecademy learning CSS, with my friend answering my questions. Then I spent 4 hrs / day for a second week constructing a website from scratch. It was one that I found that I liked the look of. I built it with almost no peeking, and my friend was still there answering my questions.
On week 3, I was working on my first job as a developer. My friend took the work on and handed it to me so that I could get some experience. I did most of the work, and he checked it over. We split his fee 50/50. The client was Adidas.
I had two weeks of informal part time experience and then I worked for Adidas. Experience is not what matters.
Myth: “Permanent jobs have a lengthy interview process, contracting interviews must be even worse.”
This is wrong. The opposite is true. Hiring managers bizarrely just assume that the recruiter has done a thorough interview process and so they don’t need to. After all, that’s why they’re paying through the nose for a recruiter!
This seems strange at first, because recruiters do not carry out technical interviews with you – they can’t! But they have done something much better.
They have transmitted to you a sense of what all their clients want to see on the cvs of contractors, then you have brushed up and put that very particular thing on your CV, and then they have sent you out to do a quick interpersonal interview to a bunch of clients. Eventually, one of them likes you (often for no good reason) and you’ve been accepted at your first contract.
When your first placement is a week or two in, they sought feedback from the client. Obviously, the client won’t mind trashing a contractor they thought was shit. In fact, they’ll be very honest.
If you don’t get trashed, clearly you have the technical skills! They’ll also hear all about your “fit” in the team as well. Your social skills. So the recruiter listens to all this and sends you in to another client and repeats the process. If you keep getting ok reviews, they’ll keep sending you to places.
This method for placing people in jobs is actually far better than technical interviews, and subconsciously, everyone involved knows it.
Myth: “How much you charge relates to you technical skill level.”
This is wrong. How much you charge relates to how badly the market needs your skills. These are 50% technical and 50% social. Maybe even 40 / 60.
Myth: “The more you charge, the more you are screened in the interview process.”
This is wrong. The opposite is true. The more you charge, the more respect you get and the less they put you through humiliating coding tests and interviews. This is so laughable, but it’s true.
My friend who charges £800/day hasn’t done an interview for years. He also has a great story from back in the days when he was cheaper. He refused to do a coding interview unless they paid him for his time. At first they said that wasn’t possible, and sent him the code test. He never did the test and didn’t send them anything back. A week later they phoned him to offer him the job.
People assume you’re the real thing if you charge high because it’s actually not a bad heuristic. Fakers get found out quite fast and so in fact the people who charge more do send out a true signal that they take themselves seriously, and therefore so do their employers.
It’s perm people who are the chumps that can’t be trusted without interviewing them first.
Ok, enough myths. I think I made a few wrong turns in those early days, so I’m going to switch to “tips” to highlight what I think is important and what retrospectively I think worked.
The biggest factor in becoming a freelancer is not any of the myths above, it is having the balls to do what it takes.
You have to take risks. There are some ways to give yourself courage when dealing with risk. As I mentioned above, I simply did some math. I worked out that for just one week of freelance work could pay my rent for 3 months, if I could keep my costs low enough.
With that kind of math, there was no way I would do anything else but whatever it took. Every time I wobbled and got worried I just remembered the math. I remembered that one hour of looking for freelance work was worth two weeks in a coffee shop job.
I think having a sense of bloody mindedness about the whole thing is important, and I’m not sure taking a frightened, softly softly approach will get you anywhere. At some point you have to go all for it. It’s an emotional commitment. You have to be happy to take the risk, and be able to deal with it.
See the world as it is
An important factor in my story is about noticing imbalances in supply and demand and cost of living versus wages. It’s costly to live in London, but if you win the income game, you can win big. So I pretty much blindly moved to London knowing that anything I did would have a good chance of advancing myself upwards economically.
I fairly quickly realised that basic web development skills can command a salary much higher than other basic skills (admin, coffee making etc) This is simply because the skill is in demand. It is not because the skill is difficult.
Noticing this requires seeing the world in a certain way, in particular understanding how market economics really work. Most people assume “harder” work is better paid, but if you’ve ever been in a caring profession you will know that is not the case.This is true in the reverse direction – well paid work isn’t necessarily hard.
Tech work also has a mystique of “rocket science” around it, implying that the skills are difficult. This is also not true, and I’m not sure how you’d know that was not true. I noticed that the job specifications did NOT always require a computer science degree, so that’s one way.
People often think that they need to be as good as other developers out in the market. This is not the way the world is, the truth is you have to be a better developer than an empty chair. Which is what the company looking to hire currently has available to get their web development work done.
I think you should lie.
I got a friend to give me a client and the way I presented it, it seemed like they were my client and I had done all the work for it. I knew I had done a significant portion of the work (with help) so I felt ok about it, and I banked on no-one checking too closely or caring that much, and it worked.
Get information and notice patterns. It’s important to find all the sources of jobs and test out which ones work well for contracting and which ones don’t. Recruitment fairs are bad for contract jobs. Meetups on technical subjects are also bad, although they are good for feeling part of the “scene”. Some websites like o-desk are bad. One website called Work In Startups was ok and I found my very first jobs there.
Ultimately, I found that recruiters are good for contract jobs. Recruiters are a valuable source of information when you are getting started and you are valuable income for them, so it’s mutual, but only if they can place you. Recruiters will ask you a bunch of questions about your experience, address, day rate etc. Don’t be intimidated, recruiters have to deal with people like me who have been in the game for years, we’re fussy and charge a lot. Then there’s newbies with no clue. They need to figure out what kind of person you are and believe me they are good at it. They don’t care which you are, they just need to know so that they can try to place you. So that’s the source of all their questions.
If you talk to enough recruiters they’ll end up asking you for the same things on your CV, and if you don’t have it, you should try to realise what it is they want that’s missing, and get it (or lie about it).
If you notice the patterns, and of course you can just outright ask them, recruiters can tell you how busy/empty the market is, the going rate for each tech skill, the job title the employers are asking for, the location of the jobs and the skills they expect to see on a CV or portfolio. I noticed that everyone was asking for HTML, CSS and JS. I hated JS, found it too hard, and couldn’t do it. But I realised that if I didn’t put it on my CV, no-one would hire me. So I lied and put it on there. I soon started getting interviews (and most of the time I didn’t need js anyway! It was just jargon).
This won’t be the same for other tech stacks. But the technique is the same. I noticed that when my friend who is a Swift developer was on the phone to recruiters they always asked him if he had an app on the App Store. He didn’t, so they were hesitant to offer out his CV to their clients. He needs to work somewhere that has an app on the app store, so he can put it on his CV (or make his own) (or lie).
Don’t Think Like a Perm
A word of warning: my friend above is in a perm job now. Originally it was to get experience on a live app in the app store, but six months in he began gunning for a Senior Developer title. Recently I asked him “why?” He gave me vague answers that involved the words “roadmap” and “experience managing people”. Is this what his contract recruiter kept asking him for? No!
Titles like “senior” are to keep permanent people enthralled, to keep them working in the company. It’s an illusion of advancement that is meaningless. Companies hint that these titles will get you a raise, but believe me it would be a far smaller raise than if you switched jobs to work elsewhere.
It’s far less common to see titles like “Senior” for contractor roles, because the day rate is the true indicator of someone’s skill level. Always be laser focussed on what recruiters/the market really want (or are saying they want).
Make People Love you
If you find people offering work, you have to be attractive to them. Find out what they like.
I get my work through contract recruiters. Recruiters love two things: LinkedIn and Being On The Phone.
They are sales people, they need to make quick deals (especially short term contract work) with reliable people. Always, always, always answer your phone. I hate talking on the phone, but I learned that I had to do what it takes, and using the phone is what gets me jobs.
They also need to “sell” you to their idiot clients. They need a flashy portfolio, a filled out LinkedIn and a buzz-word heavy CV to send to their clients. The hiring manager and the recruiter themselves are unlikely to be techy, so just fill in all the words and wait until the interview to see if the job really needs the skills they say it does.
At the interview, there is almost nothing you can do to make people love you. It will be pure chance at first. Since it is pure chance, you simply need volume. Be persistent. Keeping going to recruiters. Keep going to interviews. I’m pretty sure I got my first ever contract that was through a recruiter because in the interview the lead designer saw I had hairy legs and felt I was a kindred spirit. You never know what’s going to finally crack the nut, so just keep hammering it.
One Last Story
One last story about figuring out what you really need to do, rather than what you assume you need to do:
My website was hand-coded (and designed) by me when I first started out. Years later, I looked through my bank statements one day and I noticed a trend. Lots of small amounts were going out, nothing going in. The occasional £500 for some pitiful two days of work at a shitty startup.
Then a small fee for “theme forest” went out (a website that sells pre-designed and coded website templates). I had bought an attractive theme for my website that I didn’t code myself.
The very next entries were a series of £1,500 being paid in. Loads of them. That theme helped me to get a long contract with a real company.
I call this “Chefs don’t cook at home” – you don’t have to code your own website. You DO have to look good to a non-technical person.
Everything’s Going To Be Ok
So stop whining and just do it.