In 2020, where everything’s been disrupted, more and more people have found themselves at home for their working day. A lifestyle change, combined with a volatile job market, has caused many people to rethink their careers - and more people than ever are thinking about freelance programming.
It’s a growing trend: freelancers now make up over a third of the US workforce, and the web development field specifically continues to grow. Tech companies have never been busier, and never more in demand of individuals that they pay well for coding jobs instead of having in-house teams - and that’s where a freelancer steps in.
It’s easy to see why freelancing life appeals, too: the ability to set our hours and choose our clients, be our own bosses, avoid long commutes on grubby trains, and make excellent money? Makes sense to us.
But successful freelance programming doesn’t come overnight - and although there are plenty of sites out there promising instant success, it’s a process that takes development, whether the goal is short-term or long-term, part-time or full-time. In our guide, we’ll talk through the fundamentals of freelance programming, how to get started, and some top tips.
What Is Freelance Programming?
Freelance programmers are software professionals that are employed by companies independently on different projects as a third-party. A freelancer can work with just one company, or with several at once, for as short or as long a time as is useful for both.
Freelance programmers are self-employed, meaning they set their hours, do all their marketing, admin, and payment. They generally advertise their services with a portfolio and set their rates or payment. They also decide how much they want to work - a freelancer can either go full-time and make it their whole source of income or just do a little on the side of other regular work.
How Do I Become A Freelance Programmer?
To appeal as a freelance programmer, there are some essential skills - and of course, being able to work with programming languages is top of the list.
Learn The Language
There are several essential programming languages to learn and become well-versed in to maximize employability.
Python, on the other hand, is the fastest-growing language and plays a vital role in big data and consumer understanding. Python’s numerical packages - which include NumPy and MySQL - make it very attractive in data science-related projects.
Swift (used by Apple for iOS app development) and Java (for Android app development) are also highly prized in the modern tech landscape. We recommend getting a good working knowledge of as many as possible to increase employability.
Pick Your Path
There are several routes to go down to becoming a freelancer and learning programming languages, and none of them are set in stone - all freelancers have different paths.
Doing It Yourself
The first and probably quickest way to get going is to crack those knuckles, get on a search engine, and start learning programming languages straight away. There are thousands of useful resources online to help get started, and a lot of good-quality ones are low-cost or free.
Getting hold of an ebook, signing up for an online course, or just getting started on smaller projects is a great way to get things going. For online resources or informative courses, places like Coursera, Udemy, Codeacademy, are all great places to begin.
For more rigor, a boot camp is a fantastic way to start with a bang. Good online boot camps for coding are easy to find generally last between a few weeks and several months and offer an all-in, concentrated approach to learning programming.
This type of process naturally takes more commitment than reading an ebook, but as boot camps are designed to help generate knowledge fast and effectively, it might be worth it in the long run.
Boot camps are also useful if the goal is to learn a new programming language and to build on top of former knowledge.
Get A Degree
If going into programming feels like more of a significant focus in life plans, then it might be worth thinking about studying in earnest. A university degree can help put programmers ahead of the pack and offer a comprehensive knowledge of coding.
Due to their all-encompassing nature, university degrees are particularly attractive for the higher-end companies hiring today - although they’re by no means a pre-requisite, as any freelancer with a solid track record and a good portfolio is viable.
Full Time Or Part Time?
It’s tempting to go in straight off the bat, quit the day job, and instantly rebrand as a full-time freelance coder. Great! Now, where are all those clients?
Remember that any career is a process and time - and freelancing is no different. Freelancers need to build up their client base and their brand and network - as well as constantly improving their skills. And this time needs to be balanced with other considerations.
Being a full-time freelance programmer is a fantastic career choice, but be aware that making the switch requires thinking in the long term. Make sure there’s enough flexibility to do so when it’s time, that any life obligations (like family or finances) are considered and covered, and that there are sufficient emergency funds available to cover any shortfalls.
The nature of full-time freelancing is that the income can fluctuate, so be ready for that. If leaving a permanent job to embark on full-time freelance programming, make sure any move makes sense financially and for a chosen lifestyle. And be aware, too, of the responsibility to cover all obligations like pensions, holiday, and sick pay.
Part-time programming, on the other hand, offers flexibility and a little extra income on the side of another job. Going part-time first can help build knowledge and a gradual customer base to work with, while still maintaining another source of income or providing one while studying.
Part-time programming can also be a route into a more full-time set-up - and by beginning with smaller jobs, an idea of how freelancing works can help decide whether a move into full-time is on the horizon.
How Much Money Can A Freelance Programmer Make?
The average freelance web developer salary is not too bad at all: in the US the median salary is $75,217 per year - and of course, freelancers make more than that the more experienced they get.
Bear in mind that this is a full-time figure, though, and that most freelancers work by individual projects. Most freelancers tend to charge between $60-100 per hour for projects, with more detailed work being able to command a higher fee. Building up a regular client base at this average price can generate a healthy income.
As a freelancer, the rate is self-set - so how much a freelancer decides to charge is totally up to them. And while there are a lot of freelance programmers out there, the demand only continues to grow - so set rates at what the work is worth.
Where Do I Find Programming Jobs?
If just starting, the job market for freelance work can seem pretty daunting. And while freelance job sites are typically not the end-game for freelance programmers, it can take time to build up a client base - and sometimes, these client bases can begin with the odd job here and there.
It’s also important to remember that although a lot of guides point freelancers in this direction, there’s a reason for it: around a fifth of Fortune 500 companies are on Upwork, and 73% of freelancers use online job marketplaces. These sites are a valuable source of work and income. So, check them out, even if just to get feet wet.
The big daddy of freelance sites, Upwork has thousands of jobs posted every day - with the size and length of them varying enormously. For total beginners, it’s a great place to get the first few small jobs and learn the ropes and start building a portfolio to take to other employers.
Guru is aimed more towards the higher-end of freelancers - and as such, if a little more into a freelancing career, it’s an excellent place to find new clients. It’s possible to sift through their job postings without making an account, so it’s always worth a look.
Toptal is the gold standard of freelance sites for programmers and coders. Known for just accepting the ‘top 3% of talent’, this site is great for freelancers in the long run - and can help build longstanding connections with clients that may take work forward. It’s competitive to get signed up - but there’s no harm in applying early on in a freelance career, even if just to get a sense of what it might take.
Taking It Forward
While these sites are great to get a feel for freelancing, if going full-time eventually it’s important to move services away from them and build up a sense of business and identity. A lot of jobs here are one-off and don’t necessarily lead to repeated work.
This can be done in many ways and the list of how to gain clients is long - but cold-emailing desired clients with a strong portfolio and networking through both existing clients and contacts will help build regular work and a word-of-mouth reputation.
The Top Tips To Becoming A Successful Freelance Programmer
So, the time has almost come to take the plunge. Before doing so, a few final words of wisdom:
Build Your Brand And Your Clients
It’s important to remember that as a freelancer, you are the brand. So what’s your USP? What are you selling? And what’s your deal? While freelancers are hired on their skills, creating a marketable and approachable personal brand will help to build trust and rapport with clients.
On that note - keep your client relationships alive. Nurture them. Regularly check-in, even while seeking new clients. Good business relationships are built to last and benefit both parties hugely in the long run. So stay communicative with the people that supply work - with a good job, they’re likely to again.
Think About Your Niche
Although this isn’t a pre-requisite of being a freelancer, having an idea of a niche to operate in can help focus on clients to work with and builds trust that a premium, specialized service is being offered.
Specializing in app development or a specific programming language like PHP can help separate freelancers from the pack, and means that eventually, clients will seek services directly. It’s important to have a comprehensive understanding of different aspects of programming, of course - but know the niche, nurture it, and sell it.
Keep Your Work/Life Balance
Sure, being a freelancer is great - but with the ability to choose work hours whenever suit, it can sometimes be hard to switch off. It makes sense: when income relies directly on how much work is put in, it can be tempting to just work that extra few hours, or answer that email at midnight from a different time zone.
It’s important, though, to know when to stop - and to draw a clear line between work and life. Remember that, although work is a passion, it also serves a purpose: to let us enjoy life a little better. So, set strict working hours, and shut the laptop at the end of the day.
The Bottom Line
Becoming a freelance programmer is a realistic and lucrative step for many people out there - and with the freelance market only growing, there’s never been a better time to hop on board.
It’s important to go into it prepared, though - so make sure to read up before leaping into freelance life. We’ll see you there!