Should I work as a freelance programmer?
August 4, 2010 8:28 AM   Subscribe

Very general question: Freelance programming - how/what/when/where?

I've heard a lot of people talk about working as a freelance programmer and based on that and some rather vague information, I think I might like to try to become one. However I don't have anyone close to me working as a freelancer so I was wondering if there might be fellow mefites willing to give me an insider's perspective?

Some info:
I'm 3rd year (undergraduate, going onto 4th year) in a US university pursuing a degree in a science field (not computer science), but have taken some intro to medium level computer programming classes. I would say I'm competent in Java, C, and Python. In terms of web programming languages, I know html, and have dabbled in php, mysql, and jquery. I wouldn't say I know a lot about programming but I find it very interesting and am definitely willing to learn more. I'm interested in programming probably as a part-time job.

I have some specific questions, but feel free to throw out anything you think I should know...
1) What skill level would you need to be to be a freelance programmer? Right now I don't really have a good grasp on how good a programmer I am. What should I be able to do? What projects should I have worked on?
2) What is the pay like, what is the work day like, and how would I go about finding clients?
3) What are some things that an outsider might not know about, or might not expect from working as a freelance programmer?

As you can probably tell I don't really know a lot. Thanks in advance for any information!
posted by oracle bone to Work & Money (6 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Advertise on Craigslist and browse the computer gigs section. It doesn't really matter your skill level, as long as you can complete the project for a reasonable amount of time.
posted by wongcorgi at 8:42 AM on August 4, 2010

Best answer: What skill level would you need to be to be a freelance programmer? Right now I don't really have a good grasp on how good a programmer I am. What should I be able to do? What projects should I have worked on?

You don't need to be any good at all to be a freelance programmer, but I think you'd derive more satisfaction if you gained some additional experience. I started out at a consultancy and worked there for seven years before going out on my own. Having been freelance for almost three years, I can say there are people at all quality levels working as freelance programmers. But they shouldn't.

If you're interested in programming as a "part-time job", don't do it this way. See if you can find a place that will take you on part-time. Craigslist and the various freelancer sites have plenty of ads from people looking for help. Working with other people will expose you to more projects, show you different ways to do things and provide the client with a safety net when the team reviews your code. A lot of the times when I take over a client from someone else, it's depressing. Depressing because someone billed a lot of time and spent a lot of effort doing things the hard way and leaving a mess behind that isn't easily fixed.

In short, lots of people know enough about cars to keep their own running, but (almost) none of them decide to start working as an independent mechanic. I suppose it's because your mistakes would be much more obvious to the client.

You're going to need to work at a lower rate than yo might like because the client or consultant taking you on is essentially investing in you, paying you to learn on the job.
posted by yerfatma at 8:56 AM on August 4, 2010

Best answer: Becoming a freelancer is essentially becoming a small business owner with all the benefits and hassles that come from a small business. In short you are going to have to deal with accounting and billing of your customers, advertising, taxes, feeling out new customers, dealing with any government red tape, etc. This is all stuff that is in addition to actually doing the work that you are getting paid for.

The hours for freelancers can be amazing. I've noticed that the top freelancers who have lots of high paying work can afford to set their own hours, take spur of the moment trips (imagine going skiing only when the best conditions are happening) or travel a lot. Lower tier and mid-tier freelancers don't have as much flexibility but they certainly have more flexibility than a normal corporate/office job.

One thing you should be aware of is if you are intending to do this part-time while you have a "real job" then you might have troubles. When you are working with customers they will almost certainly want to work with you during normal business hours i.e. when you are at your "real job".
posted by mmascolino at 10:29 AM on August 4, 2010

I would like to add to mmascolino's last paragraph.
Be sure that the freelance work you do does not interfere with the day job. Some employers are very picky about that and frown on a second job. Some employers require you to disclose any other employment you might have regardless of the type of work.
posted by Drasher at 11:34 AM on August 4, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks for your responses!

Another thing I'm wondering: is there such a thing as an 'established freelance programmer'? And if so, how long would you have to work to become one?
posted by oracle bone at 9:34 PM on August 4, 2010

Depends on how you define "established", but in either case I wouldn't say it's a length of time:

If you mean "established" in the eyes of others, I'd say that happens when you have a handful of clients who you can use as references and have worked with you multiple times.

If you mean "established" in the sense that you feel that way, it's when you have a sufficient income stream for the foreseeable future. And even then I don't feel all that "established".
posted by yerfatma at 12:15 PM on August 5, 2010

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