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Is life as a freelance software developer for you?

Succeeding as a freelance developer requires much more than waiting for clients to contact you. Explore how to boost your skill set and land freelance gigs.

A freelance software developer is a programmer who works on an ad hoc basis, rather than as a full-time employee exclusively bound to a single company. Freelance developers often work for multiple clients at once, but some might choose to work with one company at a time on a contractual basis. Most freelancers are hired to complete specialty application projects that require unique, higher-level coding skills. However, it's not uncommon for developers to provide a company basic application support on a regular basis.

Freelance development is a career path that offers a lot of time flexibility, independence and room for self-driven professional growth. However, there is a flipside, and it comes in the form of uncertainty, financial vulnerability and a ton of hard work. In this article, we'll take a closer look at these two sides of the freelance software developer's job, and the factors you must consider if you're looking to pursue a career like this.

Advantages of freelance software development

The main advantage of working as a freelance software developer is the flexibility that comes with the role: You get to decide when you work, what jobs you want to take and how you get those jobs done. Unless a contract specifically dictates working a certain number of hours, or at a specific location, freelance coders likely won't need to sit in an office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Another thing to note is that freelancers are under no obligation to take on the entire extent of a software project's workload. They often have the freedom to choose the particular projects they are most comfortable with or interested in, rather than being told exactly what code to write.

Sometimes, working freelance can even make it easier to find work. Landing a permanent, full-time position at a company can be difficult, especially for programmers who are just starting their careers and lack a considerable spread of real-world coding experience. Finding a company that is willing to commit to a part-time freelance project can often be less of an ordeal. What's more: That project could be a steppingstone to a full-time role, either with the same company or with another one attracted by your freelance portfolio.

Downsides of becoming a freelance developer

In other ways, working as a freelance software developer is not always ideal. You must constantly be on the lookout for new projects to take on when your current contracts expire. Sometimes, contracts can also terminate for any number of unforeseen reasons, making it essential to have a backup plan. This requires you to be adept not only at coding, but also at branding yourself, marketing your expertise and making business connections.

Another issue is that freelance developers must essentially know how to run their own business. While full-time employees typically enjoy the support of human resources and finance departments, freelancers will need to manage their own self-employment taxes, oversee the process of invoicing clients, and chase down those who don't pay. Cash management can be particularly challenging when freelancing: Unlike the stability of receiving a regular paycheck, your earnings will depend entirely on the projects you are working on at any given time.

Should you become a freelance software developer?

If you think you have the organizational skills and know-how to confidently work as a freelance developer, there are a few steps to take before getting started. Unlike a traditional, full-time position, there are some interesting pain points that freelance developer face. Essentially, overcoming these challenges requires paying attention to the skills you cultivate and the way you spend your precious time.

Here are a few strategies to consider out of the starting block.

Specialize your language skills

Specializing in a specific type of programming, such as web development or database development, will make it much easier to advertise your services and land a freelance position. Try learning one or two niche languages that you can demonstrate proficiency in when marketing yourself. It also allows you to establish yourself as an expert in certain fields, which will make it easier to land additional work.

For instance, few companies struggle to hire full-time developers who can code in languages like Python, Java and C. However, companies often need help working with more obscure languages like Erlang and COBOL. If you know one of these languages, you'll be in a stronger position to find freelance work. Not only will you face less competition from other candidates, but companies are often desperate for programmers with these specialized programming skills.

Understand development trends

Investing yourself in an up-and-coming field like blockchain or AI is another way to set yourself apart from the pack. Companies are hesitant to invest in full-time roles for development fields that may, or may not, turn out to be fads.

For instance, if you knew how to program blockchain mechanisms circa 2016, when the blockchain bubble was filling up, you would have had an incredibly easy time selling yourself to many companies. Today, AI developers seem to be in high demand -- although it's unclear exactly how long that will remain true.

Whether through peers or larger community groups, follow the conversations happening in the IT universe closely. Strive to identify what the next big thing is in the world of development, and adjust your skill set accordingly.

Contribute to open source

If you're looking to build a name for yourself and establish a portfolio that shows off your coding skills, contributing to open source projects -- or creating an open source tool of your own -- is a great way to do so.

For the best results, contribute to open source within the specific niche or ecosystem you want to work in. For instance, if you're trying to land a freelance gig working with applications that are deployed on Kubernetes, contribute projects to the open source community surrounding Kubernetes. This will help you build your personal brand within that niche.

Go beyond code

Some companies -- especially ones that don't have a large in-house development staff -- are looking to recruit developers that do more than just write code. Whether they explicitly state it or not, they may also want help designing applications, planning software management strategies or concepting features that will keep end users happy.

Toward that end, it might be helpful to market yourself not just as a developer, but as a technology consultant. If you're up to it, make it clear that you offer big-picture guidance in addition to your development and coding services.

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