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Freelance Programming Is Great — but Is It for You?

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Asking the real question

The phrase “freelance programmer” is often associated with an image of a happy person laying on a beach, laptop next to them. Indeed, some freelance professionals do enjoy a life like this — but it’s an oversimplification to say that freelance programming is the ultimate path to happiness.

In reality, freelance programming offers both positive and negative sides. Some people do manage to organize their freelance careers in an efficient manner, bootstrapping their professional growth and becoming more satisfied with their personal lives. However, many other people end up disillusioned with the freelance lifestyle.

As stated in the article title, freelance programming is great — but you need to consider its limitations, caveats, and downsides. Becoming a freelancer isn’t simply a matter of “working from home” — it’s a new work paradigm that can really test your discipline and dedication. Our experience working with freelance web developers is what makes these articles possible. 🙂

Benefits & Advantages

There are currently millions and millions of freelance professionals who work remotely; each and every one of them has a unique story behind their career. All in all, there are various reasons for starting to work as a freelancer; some of them include:

  • Trying to escape from a toxic work environment;
  • Beginning a new career and trying to find some projects/contracts;
  • Aiming to build a personal brand to become an independent marketable professional;
  • Tending to family members (e.g. stay-at-home moms and dads);
  • And more…
artwork depicting stylized job postings for freelance programmers

Which one will you choose?

Naturally, there are quite a few benefits that make programmers choose freelance work. When the chips are down, these factors can keep the freelancer motivated and driven to go on. Some of them include:

Work freedom: This advantage is heavily linked to the ability to choose your own projects. On the one hand, in-house developers are assigned projects — even if their company may be solving serious and interesting problems, there are always mundane and boring tasks that need to be taken care of.

On the other hand, freelance programmers are free to only choose those projects that they find interesting. More importantly, they can also choose projects that put them outside their comfort zone and facilitate their professional growth — in this regard, it’s not uncommon for in-house developers to become boxed in and lose track of the bigger picture.

Work flexibility: Freelance programmers have the ultimate freedom of choosing their employees. Toxic work environment, therefore, is a much lesser problem for a freelance developer — both they and their employer know one simple truth: when push comes to shove, freelancers would typically prefer to abandon the contract rather than put up with a problematic employer. This may sound like a dream scenario, but as we’ll learn in the “Reasons against choosing freelance” section, this type of freedom also entails certain problems.

Geographical freedom: This advantage, of course, is tied to those “happy freelancer on a beach” stock photos. Still, it does hold some weight because freelance programmers (who also prefer to call themselves “digital nomads”) have the luxury of working from any geographical location.

As freelancing is often intersected with remote work, geographical freedom becomes a major force that can retain the freelancer’s motivation. In this regard, the best thing about working remotely isn’t working on a beach per se; rather, it’s the ability to choose your own work environment

Do You Need a Freelance Developer Portfolio?

artwork depicting a stylized web developer portfolio

Hm… maybe this could work as a real portfolio?

As a freelance programmer, your portfolio is an essential component of the job search process — a well-implemented project that you can show off speaks volumes about your skills. Most importantly, it’s a much better alternative to a short CV with claims like “I’m an experienced developer, trust me!” (especially when you don’t have any projects to back these claims).

In this regard, freelance programmers aren’t different from their in-house colleagues as both of these groups need to stay marketable. Good thing that we have an article showcasing 15 awesome examples of developer portfolios! In it, we delve deeper into the reasons why you need a portfolio website in the first place — let’s reiterate this info in a brief way:

  • Acquiring hands-on experience: Building a personal website is one of the most popular “pet projects” for web developers; the great thing about it is the fact that creating a portfolio website will be an interesting task for any programmer — while junior devs will learn the basics of how web works, their senior colleagues will get the chance to implement some complex features.
  • Proving your competence: By extension, each website you create stands testament to your competence as a web developer. It’s not uncommon for clients to request that the developer signs an NDA, effectively hiding their hard work. Your portfolio website, on the other hand, will always be a great advertisement of your skillset.
  • Creating a fine-tuned browsing experience for your users: You have complete control over the end product, so it’s up to you to decide which features to implement and showcase.
  • Utilizing marketing opportunities: Last but not least, your online portfolio can be used as an effective marketing channel: you can check our SEO tips for web developers out to learn more.

Reasons against choosing freelance

artwork depicting stylized error messages

Errors and problems of freelance programming

Conversely, there are quite a few reasons for not choosing to work as a freelance programmer. Many people perceive freelancing as “easy mode of working” and think that there are no fundamental differences between this work style and being employed by a company. However, there are major differences and caveats that make freelancing quite challenging.

Personal professional growth: At some point in time, a beginner developer needs to start learning teamwork; that is, the art of working on a product with their colleagues. We use the word “art” because it’s a critical skill which involves balancing your own opinion with opinions of others — and some developers don’t really acquire it throughout their careers.

Working in a team, however, grants you the opportunity to learn from your teammates — this way, you start to appreciate the bigger picture and various details that go into the making of the product you’re working on. A striking example is how front- and back-end developers collaborate to create a web app: the front-end programmer fully understand the app’s business logic; his counterpart has problems understanding the product’s design system, but they educate each other in these respective areas through constant communication.

The scenario we’ve outlined above works well in a team — a group of professionals who gathered to organize their workflows around each other. Freelance programmers, however, are often unable to become a true part of the employer’s team. Even if Freelancer A. and Company B. collaborate on a regular basis, the freelancer would still be considered an “outsider”.

This may seem like a minor detail, but many freelancers actually complain about this “loneliness” and it’s easy to see why: with ~40 hours being spent on work every week, you’d want a certain circle of people to communicate with. Perhaps this doesn’t apply to you and working alone doesn’t affect your performance; for the majority, however, it can become a serious complication.

Motivation and burnout: The freedoms we outlined in the “Benefits & Advantages” section are quite enticing — but they can also introduce problems. The “freedom to work” can essentially mean “freedom to not work” when the amount of potential projects, contracts, and employers starts to seem overwhelming. The endless cycle of “Look for a contract → Make an attempt → Fail → Repeat until successful → Repeat the cycle once the contract is finished” causes a lot of stress and anxiety for the freelancer, potentially leading to burnout.

(We should also note, however, that freelance programmers working via hiring platforms like ours don’t typically experience such problems with motivation or burnout as they work on long-term projects exclusively).

Job security and health security: In-house developers are well-protected by the labor law norms of their respective legal systems. The problem with laws, however, is their pace: it may take years (if not decades) before a change in society finally gets reflected in the legal system. Freelance programming is a relatively new phenomenon that only emerged in the last 20 years, so the lawmakers are still finding it hard to agree whether freelance programmers (which are legally almost equal to independent contractors) should be treated as real employees.

Conclusion

All in all, freelance programming isn’t the silver bullet — it can not solve all problems like job dissatisfaction or motivation issues. It does require a hefty amount of discipline and dedication on the developer’s part, but if you decide to approach it seriously, its benefits will be totally worth the effort.

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