How do I get software development projects?
July 21, 2008 6:31 PM   Subscribe

I'm a software developer who's tired of corporate 9-to-5 and wants to quit my job, and support myself by working on programming projects while focusing on building my dream business. But how do I get my foot in the door on (not "need a small website") software projects without really having a network of connections?

I've been working as a programmer/analyst at a large corporation for a few years now, and would consider myself pretty good (honestly ;-) ). However, over the last couple of years I've been getting more and more tired of the stuffy corporate atmosphere... and I have dreams of starting my own business.

I've had a few ideas, but what I found is I just don't have the time to concentrate on them properly... Doing software development after a 10 hour work day into the wee hours of the morning just doesn't work for me :-( So what I want to do is quit my corporate job, pick up freelance software dev projects, and work just enough to support myself - maybe 5 hours a day - while I concentrate on working on my dream.

The only problem is - it looks like it's very hard to get a foot in the door to get software dev projects. Sites like focus mostly on small websites - my experience is more with enterprise Java apps. So ideally, I'd like to get bigger projects, for either one person or a small team (I have a couple of friends who are in a similar position). But how do I get in the door without having connections?
posted by zavulon to Work & Money (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
One suggestion--if you're as good as you think you are at your job right now, have you ever considered talking to your company about giving you a four day week? I negotiated a four day week instead of a raise at a previous job, and it was a great thing that let me concentrate on other projects I wanted to do. Some other friends did it as well, and others negotiated for 4 10 hour days.

Personally, I think it's easier to get the kind of gig you want if the people hiring personally know and trust your output. Either that, or learn a specialty that everyone else either hates or isn't good at--then you'll be able to dictate your hours. I've worked with specialist consultants who would come in one day a week.

Or, if you price yourself high enough, maybe the company will ask you to only work "a couple of hours out of the day" ;)
posted by jsmith77 at 6:42 PM on July 21, 2008

I did it, but I had to a) sell the house and live on the proceeds for a year while I built up a client roster, and b) I took several clients with me from my previous employer (with their blessing- that's really important).

I'd suggest - before quitting- joining the local user groups, meeting the other nerds in your area, and making a significant effort to find local folks with interesting development projects in your area. It's imperative that you identify one or more clients before you quit the day job. The local nerd meetup, linux meetup, etc, will help you network. Check out for your area.

Also, you'll probably not be able to split your time that easily; project work comes in spurts, so you need to anticipate being extremely busy (sometimes) and extremely worried about the mortgage (pretty often).

The most important thing is to have plenty of cushion. Make sure you have cash on hand to survive for many months- I'd recommend 6, but 3 may work- without pay.
posted by jenkinsEar at 6:43 PM on July 21, 2008

My experience with this is that you might need some of those small projects to build your client base. If you do a good job on a small projects, they're more likely to call you back for help with a bigger project. I quit my corporate job to go back to grad school in another field, but for the last year two years have made money doing sporadic web projects from CSS/HTML to PHP/SQL to a custom e-commerce backend. I've found all my clients but one through word-of-mouth. The one not through word of mouth was through craigslist. Craigslist has been pretty good for me, though - I've had other offers I've had to turn down via craigslist and if other stuff hadn't come up, I'd have more than enough to do for a while just from answering craigslist ads. The catch is that most of these are small, but steady, meaning strings of small projects for the same clients. Like somebody needing help with their website for ten hours a week for a few months, or filling a position for the summer until they can hire an FTE. I'm also comfortable with sporadic work - I like to stay busy in the summer, but in the fall and spring when school is busy, I tend to lay off the freelance projects, or take on less time-sensitive projects. So, I guess my advice is that if you don't yet have the word-of-mouth network, it's going to be tough, but if you're reliable and diverse, meaning you aren't stuck on doing only Enterprise Java, I think you could make it work. It helps to have a lot of skills, especially when you're getting started - for me, at least, it is MUCH easier to find work doing CSS/HTML or PHP, which I know very well, even though I can do higher-level stuff at a higher rate. For me it's not about building my resume or getting rich - I'm just looking for work to pay my bills, which are much more modest since leaving my full time job. SO, you might want to stick it out where you are a bit longer and see if you can pick up more skills or land that first client. Most of my contracts come from former co-workers who have moved on or word of mouth from those folks, so maybe you need more time to network (as suggested above) but also to have a larger pool of colleagues to call upon. At points I've had way more work than I could do (and have passed on to other former colleagues) all from work contacts.
posted by drobot at 9:14 PM on July 21, 2008

IANAP but I would recommend that you (while you're still looking for clientele and whatnot) also start up some type of hands on freeware project to A) furthur your skillz and B) get a little more exposure.
posted by saxamo at 10:10 PM on July 21, 2008

Make sure you have a well-tended profile on sites like Linkedin is the professional side of facebook-type networking, and you should link with any recruiters that approach you on there, as well as all of the co-workers and ex-coworkers and friends you can find there. This is not the whole answer to your question, but IMHO it is an very important part of building up your network, and ways for people to contact you.
posted by Joh at 10:44 PM on July 21, 2008

In my own freelancing career I've found that a lot of companies like to outsource work to people in their local area with whom they can meet face-to-face. It's worth researching the businesses of all sizes within easy travelling distance that do the kind of work you'd be interested in pursuing. Call them for a chat if you can, and arrange to visit when they're not too busy. Explain that you can bring in additional expertise if necessary. A face-to-face meeting is your chance to impress these people with your professionalism. Leave them with a comprehensive resumé/CV and follow any meeting up with a call a week later. A lot of businesses seem very reluctant to farm out work to unknown individuals on the internet - that fear can be used to your advantage.

Smaller companies in particular often find that they have times when there's just too much work to handle internally, and they often like to have a reserve of expertise they can call up when things get busy.

And try to write up some case studies of the work you've done, and add to these as you finish new projects. Make sure you have a professional-looking web presence - not necessarily to bring in work, but to add to the overall appearance that you're a serious, professional freelancer/contractor.

And seconding most of the other advice too.
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 2:18 AM on July 22, 2008

posted by wile e at 5:23 AM on July 22, 2008

I feel like I point this out in nearly every one of these threads, and I suspect you already know it anyway -- but the briefest glance at the going rates on bottom-scraper sites like elance, rent-a-coder, etc should instantly confirm that they're a waste of your time. I have absolutely no idea why people keep suggesting them. There are much more reputable job boards out there if you wind up going that route (I should keep a list of urls handy, since I end up linking to them so often, but here's one at least.)

That said, the vast majority of my work still -- even a decade after I went freelance -- comes at least indirectly via people I worked with back when I worked in an office. This is by far your best bet, especially if you want to be working on larger projects than are commonly available on job boards.

I was lucky to be working in an industry (publishing) that routinely employs freelancers, but even if you don't it's probable that you have more of a built-in network than you think. My jumping-off point was to find a solid, long-term freelance job before quitting my day job; I'd strongly recommend you try that before diving in head first.

One note: I find that the larger projects tend to require more of a time commitment; it may be a struggle to hold them down to five hours a day. It might be better to plan your self-generated work to fit into the gaps between paying jobs rather than trying to do both simultaneously. Or, focus on lighter gigs even though they're not your core expertise yet; enterprise-level work tends to go more to contractor agencies than to lone freelancers. (And IMHO working for a contractor agency is not dissimilar from just working directly for the corporation.)
posted by ook at 9:56 AM on July 22, 2008

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