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I am a professional software developer with 6+ years of full-time experience, full degree, co-op program, currently employed at a programming desk job. I would call my self at the intermediate level.

I read about the many programmers at the higher level making $100k+ a year with jobs lined up to hire them. Or high level contractors with more clients than time. Or people who work remotely earning comfortable 1st world wages and living in some cheap developing countries.

From my understanding (and definitely tell me if I am wrong), those people getting to those position not because of skill. Programming language change all the time. Skill set become obsolete.

I guess what I am asking is, how do I make that jump? How many years of experience is required? How do I get started? Is it just the age thing?

I tried getting some contracts, and I have a hard time finding time on craiglist by just posting my resume. How do I become a contractor and still make full-time wages?

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    I'm not sure these folks are hired based on good looks. Contractors making 6 figures most likely bring something really valuable to the table. Most likely, they either keep up with the cutting edge in their specialty or specialize in something that isn't cool anymore but is still in demand. At any rate, this is a good question, and I've tweeted it to my followers using the share links to get it more attention. Hope this helps! :) – jmort253 Oct 28 '13 at 3:18
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The obvious answer: Quit your job and don't apply to other jobs.

I was in the same boat as you [literally: 6 years, degree, co-op] and have only been freelancing for a short period of time. I quit my job and moved to a new location due to other circumstances. I was initially looking for remote jobs since it was possible that I could be moving again shortly. None of the remote jobs actually worked out for me. In the meantime, I posted ads in classifieds stating my services are available, and I am now working with a few clients.

To answer your other questions:

How many years of experience is required?

I think anyone could start freelancing at any experience level.

How do I get started?

Let people know you are available. Look in your local classifieds for work. Have a strong social network presence (LinkedIn). (and of-course, quit your current job)

Is it just the age thing?

Nope.

I tried getting some contracts, and I have a hard time finding time on craiglist by just posting my resume. How do I become a contractor and still make full-time wages?

It's definitely not easy at first but it is definitely possible. I recommend starting by showing people your skills, having recommendations. I thought the biggest barrier was not having a portfolio, but there are people out there that are willing to take risks and will value that you took a risk in quitting your job.

Good Luck!

The main reason for saying 'quit your job' is that, if this is something you want to do, you have to just do it. The motivation and learning will come. If you are already in a nice cushy job, you definitely won't be making the jump.

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    Hi Johny, I really like your answer because it actually answer the question. Skill of course can always be improved, but you answer the important question of "HOW" to make the jump. I just want to ask you to add one more piece of info. How much should someone of my skill level ask for? Now I currently live near the Mississauga/Ontario region in Canada. Not sure where you live. But in your experience, what is the hourly rate that would be acceptable? – Bill Nov 2 '13 at 4:19
  • I found that I did reduce my rate from what I was making at my full time job but definitely don't go too low. Here are some links to salary ranges: livingin-canada.com/salaries-for-software-engineer-canada.html glassdoor.com/Salaries/… payscale.com/research/CA/Job=Software_Developer/Salary Try and put yourself between the middle and the high end. If you try and go too low, you're just selling yourself short and you won't be motivated and excited to work. – Johny Freedland Nov 2 '13 at 17:22
  • Well that's kind of interesting. I totally thought the rate would increase, not decrease. And the salary range are all different on those websites. Seem like mid-range software developer command about $60k ~ $70k per year in the Toronto area. – Bill Nov 4 '13 at 15:19
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The truly high-level freelancers you describe bring several things to the table.

  • Excellent technical skills - both deep and wide
  • Excellent communication skills
  • An ability be forward thinking - see more than just the problem at hand but also where the custom will be in the future and how the freelancer can help to get them there
  • A willingness to move away from thinking about and selling themselves as a commodity. When you are a commodity, people don't see a difference between hiring you and hiring another freelancer, except for price. You don't become a high-level freelancer by competing on price (or looking for jobs on Craigslist.)
  • An ability to demonstrate your value to clients and prospects. Your value is more than just the software you build if you are a programmer. Your value is in asking smart questions not just about the software, but the business model. Your value is making recommendations that will make or save your clients money.

How do you get these things? Some things are learned or acquired through experience. Others may be more difficult to obtain, or may require you to shift your thinking.

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    Great answer. I'd also add that leadership is an important skill. Contractors are the experts, so oftentimes it's the company that's looking for direction from the contractor. Asking questions about the problem, as you mentioned, is a huge part of that leadership. :D – jmort253 Oct 30 '13 at 1:11
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When I first made the jump from permanent to contract, it was more by accident than by design. I had been made redundant (again) and the next role that I got was offered as a contract-to-perm gig. It had a good day rate with the option of going permanent at the end of the 3 months on an average senior developer salary. Having made the jump it was a no brainer to stick with the contracting and see where it would take me.

The thing about being a contractor rather than a permanent employee, is that you are being hired to perform a specific service for a client. It's often programming-related if you're going for a developer position, but with the caveat that you are expected to be able to hit the ground running and get up to speed very quickly. Your rate is much higher than a permanent employee, so if it takes 2 months to get your feet under the table then you are going to struggle to get repeat contracts. The key is adaptability and willingness to keep abreast of changes in technology trends, most often by self-training. Whenever I look for a new contract, I ensure that it will provide me with something that would benefit future clients (on-the-job training) as much as considering what value I can provide to the client.

It all comes down to confidence and self belief, in that if you believe in your ability to deliver whatever needs a client may have and are willing to put the work in to understand whichever technologies to need to at any given time, then you have the aptitude to succeed as a contractor.

The trickiest aspect to contracting that I have seen, from discussions with other contractors and permies who are considering contracting, is making that initial jump. As to whether you are ready, if you ever work with another contractor and think "I can do what they do" or "I'm as good as they are" then you're ready to go contracting. It's then a matter of taking the step.

If you can put some money aside to live on for 2 or 3 months in the event that you don't find something immediately, then you can go for it. The problem is that you usually have a notice period to work that is significantly longer than clients would wait for a contractor. It's not uncommon for clients to bring a contractor on board within a few days of identifying the resource need. You may have to hand in your notice with nothing to go to and see what comes.

In the UK the contracting market is very buoyant so there are a lot of gigs available through recruitment agencies. Getting a large LinkedIn network can help as well. My first line of attack is usually to ping a mail to all of the contacts within organisations that I might like to work with, and if that yields nothing, to turn to the recruitment agencies that I am connected with.

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    You mentioned 2-3 months safe period which is not a completely correct. All experts suggest 12 months of safe period. And I think this would be more realistic for a freelancer to develop his business and starts getting good incomes. – Peter MV Oct 28 '13 at 10:01
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    That's not very practical though. If I had decided to wait until I had saved an entire year's salary before going contracting, I never would have done it. Obviously, the more money you can put aside, the longer you can afford to hold out for a contract before having to take a permanent role again. It did, however, take about 12 months before I was able to rebalance the books and replenish those savings to the same level. – levelnis Oct 28 '13 at 10:28
  • Say that I make $60k right now. If I was going to jump to contracting, how much should I ask for? When you say "significant more", is that like 50% more, 100% or 20% more? – Bill Oct 28 '13 at 15:50
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    I only know the UK market and don't know how it works in the US, but in the UK it varies by industry and skills. For C# developers in banking you could reasonably expect a day rate of £500. Within media that is more likely to be £350-£400, but it depends very much on the client's budget. – levelnis Oct 28 '13 at 16:34
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    @jmort253 Yes, that's what I said on the first place that I saw it on the TV and read on the net. It's really for everyone and a freelancer should wisely stick to it. Since once you start freelancing is as same as got fired - you keep looking for job(s) but still have to feed yourself and your family. – Peter MV Oct 30 '13 at 7:35
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Here's what I tell others in my industry - design - which may be related.

In general, age never matters to any real degree. Most of my clients have no clue how old I may be - and they don't care.

Experience matters. The more years of experience you have the better off you are in terms of marketing yourself. However, high-end, visible experience will outweigh years of non-visible experience (example: developed some well known iOS apps but only have 3 years experience as opposed to 10 years experience working for "johns programming" where nothing is publicly known).

I don't know your market, but in mine.. Craigslist is about as far away as you can get from finding good clients. You need to network and find clients via word of mouth or referrals. Join the Chamber of Commerce, seek local social groups dedicated to your field. Tell people you know (not other employees) that you want to start finding jobs you can complete in your spare time. Look at the dedicated employment web sites - NOT craigslist. The employment sites (in my experience) aren't great for maintaining a freelance career (in my field) - they make you work way too hard and rarely have repeat clients for you - but they are a way to get your foot in the door.

My general seven steps to preparing to freelance full time

  1. First, figure out your rates. Know the minimum you need to charge if you were working freelance. Once you know the minimum, add 20-50% to it. This will provide some profit margin. I won't go into calculating your rates, but there is an excellent answer over at GraphicDesign.StackExchange.com regarding this. It would apply to any freelancer.
  2. Second, figure out what unique tools, skills, knowledge you bring to clients as opposed to your competition. Look at your skill set from an outside perspective and be honest with yourself regarding your skills. Are you exceptionally skilled in a specific area? Are you grossly under skilled in a commonly needed area? Think about an "elevator pitch" for clients - a short 30 second to 1 minute paragraph which defines why you would be valuable to them were they to work with you. You should be able to recite this off the top of your head - not in an "I practiced this" manner, but you should be able to clearly explain your value.
  3. Third, use the above two items and work in your spare time. Dedicate a couple hours in the evening each day and time on the weekends to work freelance projects. This will build a stable of clients while you still have the security of employment. This will help you learn the ins and outs of client-based work. It's much different than being employed. You need to be far more diplomatic, less willing to complain, and always willing to smile. It also takes practice to learn to say "NO" to a someone willing to pay you. This "spare time" work will be invaluable in learning how to deal with clients and the job you have will provide a safety net while you stumble through it at first - like we all have.
  4. Fourth, while working this part time freelancing, pass on the smaller inconsequential projects. Remember, you're looking to build relationships with high-end, repeat client. You don't want to waste time on the small one-off, no repeat, down-and-dirty, projects. You want clients that appreciate and respect your work. Don't bid/quote on anything which is not "shooting for the stars" for you. Go after those high-end projects. After all, if you don't get them you still have your job and that paycheck. So, aim high.
  5. Fifth, save money. While enjoying the regular paycheck tuck part of it away. As much as you can. Before even considering freelancing full time you need to have a minimum of 6 months to live off of. More is always better. If you have a family or large debts, you may want to consider a minimum of one year salary before considering full time freelancing. Remember to factor in things your employer is currently paying for - healthcare, 401k, dentists, etc. These expenses will be yours if you are self-employed. Figure out your "cushion" - that is how long you could go without any income and still be okay. If it's under 6 months (or preferably a year) you aren't ready financially to make the move to full time freelancing.
  6. Sixth, pay down debts. Try to eliminate any ongoing debts you may have. Pay down credit cards, get rid of store credit cards, pay off a debt such as a car if possible. Basically, you want to get your monthly debt to income ratio down to as little as possible. The goal is to have as much money coming in as possible while needing to pay out the smallest possible amount each month.

Repeat all the above regularly. Keep working towards these six items until you think you have them down solid.

  1. -Evaluate- Evaluate yourself honestly every couple months. And I do mean honestly.
    • Are you maintaining the part-time freelance clients?
    • Are you always looking for work?
    • Are you struggling financially?
    • Are you missing freelance deadlines?
    • Are you finding your freelance clients are often upset or dissatisfied?
    • Are you turning away projects due to your own lack of knowledge/experience?
    • Are you not following through with freelance opportunities when the present themselves?

      If the answer to any of this is "yes" you aren't ready and you need to focus on the areas you aren't meeting. These are very important when freelancing. You need to be dependable in addition to having a dependable income stream.

When to jump.....

When you have a stable of repeat clients that keep you working most of the time (during your designated freelance hours) without any great need to go find new projects, you have that 6 months/1 year of saved income, aren't currently struggling to make financial ends meet, and you are bringing in enough freelance money to sustain 3/4 of your debt each month.... you are probably ready to make the leap to full time freelancing.

In my experience, having a stable of good clients, even if they are merely part-time clients before you quit regular employment is critical. Don't even consider freelancing full time if you have no repeat freelance clients.


Then of course there is option 2.....

Just quit and start doing it. Be prepared to bomb and need to frantically find a new employment position if things fail. And be prepared to struggle if you can't find that new employment. Some people thrive in chaos and it motivates them. I would not recommend this method, but to each his own.


In either situation there is risk. If you are the type of person who is risk-adverse then you need to ensure the seven steps above are taken care of completely. Yes it can be scary.

After you make the leap... give it 90 days. If after 90 days of full-time freelancing you aren't facing any any major concerns in terms of finances or workload, you'll most likely be fine and things will only improve. If after 90 days you aren't bring in enough money or aren't finding any work then you may want to start looking for other employment. However, thanks to the cushion in #5 above, it won't be a frantic rush to "save the house".

Remember to always keep that "cushion". Freelance income is feast or famine - you may do great one month then not so great the next. So, during good months don't go rushing out to buy new equipment or something. Remember lean times will come so be prepared for them.

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    Wow, thanks for the informative answer. Very well written and informative. Worth a read. – Bill Oct 2 '14 at 20:31

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