Why Top Software Engineers Work Freelance

Elijah Windsor, a Toptal Software Engineer, shares his take on the key benefits that convince top talent to freelance.
6 min read

I started my career as a freelancer straight out of college. I have ten years of direct experience with the ups and downs of good and bad clients. I’ve also founded a startup, worked as a web and mobile app developer for small companies, and recently made the decision to return full-time to freelancing.

Today, independent work is as much a lifestyle and career choice as it is a short-term vocation. According to a 2015 study by the Freelancers Union, half of all freelancers say they wouldn’t stop freelancing for any amount of money, and Accenture predicts that 43% of the U.S. workforce is expected to be independent by 2020.

In this article, we’ll explore the most common motivations for participating in the freelance economy, outlining four key benefits that influence top talent to follow an independent path instead of working as a traditional employee. Our view is that managers and executives with a deep understanding of the personal incentives powering the growth of the agile economy will be best equipped to attract and retain top independent talent.

1) Freelancing Boosts Productivity

One of the primary benefits of freelancing is the ability to design a physical and mental work environment that suits individual needs, instead of adapting to the norms represented by any particular company.

When producing quality code, a software developer’s mind resembles a house of cards. As they build a solution that addresses every project requirement, they slowly add cards to the structure. Even a brief distraction can cause the whole deck to fall; a ten second interruption can mean ten minutes of rebuilding. Being able to focus is as important as breathing when it comes to coding.

According to a public survey by Flexjobs, 76% of respondents said they avoid the office when they need to get important work done. For some professionals, the right environment is a home office, insulated from on-site distractions like conversing co-workers and company politics; others may prefer the white noise of a coffee shop as the surest way to get in the zone. Some developers produce amazing work in the middle of the night—but shoehorning them into a 9-5 schedule dramatically reduces their output. Independent workers place tremendous value on their flexibility to work in the way they prefer to work, so long as they get the job done.

In addition to the perks of a made-to-order work environment, freelancers often benefit from a less randomizing workflow. A traditional work environment tends to encourage more direct interaction between managers and employees. Of course, there are many benefits to close collaboration—but the downside from the employee’s point of view is a higher probability of context switching, getting looped into random projects or busywork, and micromanagement.

Because freelancers are paid on a variable rate, clients tend to be more deliberate about assigning us tasks, ensuring that our time is more likely to be spent efficiently on valuable work. In general, most independent workers don’t need or want frequent direction from their managers; they prefer to get the job done in their own way.

It can be intimidating to make the decision to work on your own, and freelancing isn’t right for everyone. With that said, in my experience, freelance assignments improve work outcomes by boosting focus and creativity, while furthering career development by incentivizing strong work habits and continual learning.

2) Freelancing Catalyzes Personal Development

Independent workers are often hired on a per-project basis, while employed workers have an average tenure measured in years and are assessed on the basis of an infrequent review cycle. As such, we experience a more direct correlation between performance and outcomes. In other words, if we fail to generate results for our teams, they won’t suffer our presence for long—and most of us like it that way. The shorter feedback cycle and results-oriented nature of independent work is a motivating factor for top talent who want to stretch their abilities.

Soft skills are also honed by agile work. Some customers like to be more hands-on, seeing how you’re doing things and asking questions about why you did things a certain way, while other clients like to delegate and give you full reign on decisions. In the process of building their business, independent workers become experts at accommodating different management styles. We value this exposure because the ability to thrive with a variety of clients and work styles is an essential tool for every member of the workforce, freelancer or otherwise.

Lastly, freelancing requires clear communication. I’ve found that the number one thing I can do to help make client lives easier—and ultimately my own—is understanding exactly what they want. A great product is the end result, but good communication is the underpinning that ensures the right product is developed.

3) Freelancing Accelerates Career Development

Earlier this year, University College London conducted a study that concluded humans are hardwired to take the path of least resistance, and this rule of behavior applies to our work habits as well. For technical talent, this tendency can manifest in an inclination to stick with known technologies and tools.

In my experience, employed workers tend to focus only on the tools the company uses to make products—even if they are outdated. Because the culture and incentives around them support sticking to the status quo, employees can end up with tunnel vision, prioritizing what’s practical at the moment at the expense of their long-term prospects.

Many freelancers, especially those operating in technical fields, choose independent work because freelancing provides the freedom and motivation to stay up-to-date on the latest technology. For an independent worker who needs to develop a strong and varied book of clients to stay afloat, keeping up with emerging paradigms and techniques is part of the job—embracing change is a freelancer’s path of least resistance. I regularly take a hard look at industry trends to determine if my tools are in demand and primed for the future, or if I need to shift gears and focus on something new. Freelancers can also help clients in this regard, presenting an informed perspective on the merits of various technologies for a particular project.

This mindset extends from development technologies to using the right tools. One team may lean heavily on a particular tool to communicate, while another may take a completely different approach. Because we work with many different teams in different cities and with different programming habits, independent workers can easily adapt to the latest and greatest tools.

Coasting on known tools and technologies can be detrimental to career progression—but the livelihood of an independent worker depends on both breadth and depth of knowledge, creating a powerful incentive to stay on top of trends and best practices in evolving fields.

4) Freelancing Encourages Choice and Creativity

One of the most compelling reasons to take on agile work is enjoying the freedom to work on the project of your choice. According to a 2016 study of independent workers by Field Nation, the “ability to choose work” and “control over my own destiny” were two out of the top three motivations for choosing to freelance. It’s no coincidence that 43% of freelance workers are millennials and a staggering 93% have some college education; more than ever before, participants in the agile economy are experienced and educated individuals who are motivated to do what they love.

The nature of freelance work also makes it easier for independent workers to engage with creative tasks. For example, if I’m in one place with the same people around me everyday, I feel limited by groupthink. Creative problem solving is difficult under these circumstances; even companies with strong cultures of dissent can develop and constrain themselves within certain methods of problem-solving.

But I’ve found many solutions to programming problems by sitting in a coffee shop and having that eureka moment while sipping on a latte. The wide latitude that freelancers enjoy is a major benefit when it comes to creativity—sometimes a change of scene, or exposure to a different work style, is all that it takes to approach a problem in a new way.

Conclusion: Freelancing Helps Us Work Better

In this article, I’ve tried to outline a few of the key reasons why freelancers forego the certainty of W-2 employment to work for themselves. It can be intimidating to make the decision to work on your own, and freelancing isn’t right for everyone. With that said, in my experience, freelance assignments improve work outcomes by boosting focus and creativity, while furthering career development by incentivizing strong work habits and continual learning.

My favorite clients understand and respect these motivations: they provide me with the flexibility to work in the environment that best fits my style, and encourage me to research and implement new technologies so long as they are the best fit for the project at hand. By using these insights into the freelance way of life as a guide for engagements with agile talent, organizations can ensure a win-win relationship—providing freelancers with the attributes we value, while reaping the benefit of hiring and retaining quality agile talent.

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Comments

wandesky brian
Greetings Elijah, I recently graduated with a degree in Applied Computer Science. While I was still in campus, I always fancied the idea of working as a freelancer. Your article has really helped to shed some light on the work-life of a freelance software developer. At the moment I am looking for an opportunity where I can get to work on a real project and get some experience. I look forward to your advice. Regards, Brian M. W. (Kenya)
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