The Way We Work

By: Esther Schindler

Perhaps you expected the layoff. Even so, your knees turned to water when your manager says, “Can you come in here… and close the door?” if the HR person (whom you haven’t seen since the day you started at the company) is in the room. But it’s not the layoff that’s the problem. It’s the great gaping hole in your life that starts right now, and the wail that begins with, “How am I going to earn a living?!”

Many people, especially software developers and other techies, automatically think, “I’m going to find myself another job.” A few consciously consider, “Maybe this is the time to go into business for myself; I’ve been thinking of it anyway.” More commonly, I suspect they take on freelance work to tide them over, only to discover that by the time another “regular job” comes along, they’re too busy, making too much money, and having too much fun to consider it. You can count me in the latter category… on multiple occasions.

Yet, making a transition to the freelance life isn’t as simple as ordering a set of business cards that say Your Name & Associates.

Here’s a few of the things I learned.

The hardest or at least the most obvious task is finding someone who’ll pay you to work for them. I hate to bring up the nasty word, but this means marketing. It is an absolute necessity that you learn the skill of tasteful and relentless self-promotion. You don’t have to have this skill, to begin with, but you must be willing to learn it. The notion of talking-oneself-up does not come easily to many techies, which is one reason that sites like oDesk are so useful. At least here, clients know that they need help and they are ready to pay something for it. Still, you need to convince the prospective client that your experience is a perfect match for their needs — which means communication skills.

The very first thing any would-be freelancer needs to do after a layoff is give herself 24 hours to grieve and deal with her emotions. In my case, however, I had three freelance assignments within 24 hours of my layoff because I did one very simple thing: I sent out an e-mail message to every single business contact (primarily through LinkedIn) saying that I was, ahem, newly available, and did they happen to know of anyone who might be interested in my writing, editing, or technology skills? It does help that I’m reasonably well known in my corner of the industry, and that I’ve invested time in helping other people when they needed it. But the key is that I wasn’t shy about asking for work. The karma payback was emotionally cheering, and the checks that arrived a month after those first assignments were even more cheering.

Please note that “marketing” does not mean, “Behaving like a boor.” It is simply the process of making others aware that you have useful skills for hire. The best way to go about that (for me — it might be different for you) is to demonstrate my knowledge, while quietly letting it be known that I do this stuff for a living. For example, I participated in an awful lot of online communities, helping other people figure out how to use their software and sharing my passion for the technology. People saw that I knew what I was talking about, so I never had to “market” to them to convince them of my skill. I know plenty of software developers who created consulting businesses by participating in open source projects and helping out in community technology efforts. Any of these community activities are worth doing in their own right, not merely as a stepping stone to a career… but they sure can help with your career.

However, plenty of would-be freelancers don’t make a mindset change from “I’m just here to follow orders” to “I am a consultant hired to solve a problem.” As Jerry Weinberg so eloquently explained in Secrets of Consulting: A Guide to Giving and Getting Advice Successfully (still my favorite book on the topic, after 25 years), clients think they brought you in to solve a technology problem, but it’s never a technology problem. As an employee, you can relentlessly pound on a user in your company until you can get him to explain what he really wants in the software you’re building for him (as opposed to what he thought he wanted, or what he asked for — which alas are far more common). Consulting clients usually are sure that they know what the problem is, and they called you in simply to plug a gap. Often they have unrealistic expectations because, after all, they don’t know the technology or problem domain so they have no way to estimate its effort or worth. I’ve found that the less they’re willing to pay, the less they trust you to know your knowledge domain and the more annoying they are. (There’s a whole website devoted to these clients from hell. That may be required reading before you take the plunge. Ask yourself, “What can I learn from this?” after you laugh or cry at every item.)

There is, however, a difference between a contractor and a consultant, and the wise freelancer figures out which role she wants to adopt (or at least which one this particular client will pay for). Contractors are indeed warm bodies brought in to plug a knowledge or technology gap (such as “meet this unreasonable deadline”). Such clients don’t need or want actual consulting (by which I mean, “Solve the real problem, not the apparent one”). Contracting is a lot like salaried employment, except that you don’t get medical benefits and nobody invites you to the holiday party. Also, there’s no promise of the job continuing past the contract date, but it’s not like you expected that from your “permanent” job anyhow. If you imagine that you’re supplying one kind of service (contracting, whether it’s for 40 lines of code or 40 weeks, versus the giving-advice-and-expertise that comprises true consulting), and the client expects another, both sides will be unhappy.

Contracting is a common transition for the recently-laid-off and it’s not a bad option; but please don’t imagine that it’s the same thing as being an independent consultant or freelancer. For example, a true freelancer must have (or acquire) the ability to switch from one project to another, because clients have an annoying habit of all wanting you to deliver on time. You must ensure that every single gig has an agreement in writing about what will be done, by whom, by what deadline (otherwise known as a contract — the source of most new-freelancer mistakes). You must take care of your own invoicing and accounting (and from the editor’s side of the desk, I can tell you how often freelancers are slow to send their invoices… it’s really astonishing). That includes setting aside money for insurance and taxes. Part of the frustration is an always-uneven cash flow; there will come a day, I assure you, when you are owed five-figures from clients who are good for the money, but you don’t have the cash in the bank to pay today’s bills.

FiredtoHiredFor some brand-new-freelancers, the hardest part of the transition is figuring out what your rates should be. It’s especially tough to do that right after a layoff, when your ego is as beat-up as the loser in a boxing match, and in your heart-of-hearts you’re sure that you aren’t worth anything. That’s understandable, but I urge you to seriously consider your value and “the going rate” before you answer anyone’s question of “What do you charge?” Raising rates is one of the hardest things anyone can do, and your self-confidence will return before long. It’s okay to take on a couple of short gigs at a low rate right after the layoff (particularly if a severance package is helping with the finances) but choose something easy that you know you can finish with no effort. You need to give yourself a personal victory; it helps to focus on something other than the layoff; and you’ll have evidence ready-made that you are, indeed, in business.

That’ll be your first business reference… but surely, it will not be your last.