On why and how I became a freelancer

Every now and then I get an email or a LinkedIn message from someone asking me for advice on how to become a freelancer in the test automation space. Since I’m a lazy guy, I prefer to not do the same thing too often, and that’s why I’m writing this blog post. In the future, it’ll save me some time, hopefully, since I can simply answer similar questions by sending this link. Also, I think it might give you, my readers, some insights into how I work and what I do.

My career so far
I’ve been in the test automation field for about 11 years when I’m writing this. After getting a master’s degree in Computer Science from Twente University and a 1,5 year stint in a job unrelated to testing, I started my test automation career as a young professional with Sogeti. Three years into that, I felt like I hit a ceiling and moved to Oelan, a smaller consultancy firm. This being a much smaller organization allowed me to make myself much more visible and work on much more interesting projects.

I had a great time there, with awesome coworkers and a relatively large amount of freedom. Next to being an automation engineer, this is also where I took my first steps as a trainer, providing tool-specific automation training to clients around the country. Lastly, in the final years of my time at Oelan, I also started this blog, which celebrates its fourth birthday next month.

So, why did I become a freelancer then?
Even though I was quite happy with my job, the idea of working as a freelancer started to nestle itself inside my head ever firmer in the last years. The idea of being

  • 100% free to decide which projects to say ‘yes’ to, and which to respectfully decline,
  • 100% free to decide how I fill my working days, instead of having to work with the target billable hours of an employer, and
  • 100% responsible for all decisions I make with regards to the way my career develops

was something that I’d at least wanted to try once.

Note that money was not a primary factor for me in the decision to start freelancing. It is true that my income has seen a decent rise since I quit being an employee, but with that comes responsibility. More on that later.

How did I start out?
The final trigger to make the jump towards freelancing came when I was invited for a chat by someone from The Future Group, a Dutch collective of freelance IT specialists. I joined them as a freelancer in November 2014, and in return for a part of my hourly fee, they arranged meetings, sales and administrative support and some other useful things. For all tax and legal purposes, I was a freelancer, but with a safety net.

After just under three years of working with The Future Group, I felt that I was ready to go fully solo, and as of September 1st of this year I’ve been working under the flag of On Test Automation. I couldn’t be more content. And a little proud as well (though that’s still hard to admit to myself..).

Now I really want to be a freelancer too! What I do need to take care of?
For me, the feeling of being a freelancer can be summarized in two words: freedom and responsibility.

  • I’ve got the freedom to decide what I want to do, when I want to do it. Sure, I need to keep my clients happy, but that still leaves a lot of room for freedom. Freedom to take a day off to spend it with my sons instead of going to work. Freedom to say ‘yes’ to an invitation for lunch with a prospective client or partner. Freedom to, in short, do what I want, not what somebody else think I should do. All without having to deal with a maximum amount of annual leave, billable hour targets, or anything else.
  • On the other hand, my levels of responsibility have increased vastly as well. I can’t rely on a steady paycheck from an employer anymore, yet I still have a family, a mortgage and other things to provide for. I have no automatic pension plan, yet I want to be able to retire comfortably at some point in time. I have no employer that takes care of insurance, yet I still run the risk of breaking stuff or becoming ill.

Some tips to deal with this: reserve time for business and personal development, take care of insurances, think about a pension plan, get a reliable accountant. And enjoy the ride! Even if you someday go back to being an employee, at least you’ve tried. That’s more than a lot of other people can say. There’s nothing wrong with being an employee, but there is no point in saying ‘I wish I did so or so’ when it’s too late.

So how do you get projects?
I’m the first to admit I’m in a luxury position. I’ve got decent automation skills, I have decent communication skills, and that’s more than enough to pretty much get work thrown at you at the moment. At least here in the Netherlands, I can’t speak for other countries.

There’s one thing I do religiously to make it as likely as possible that I remain in this position, though, and that’s investing in myself. This manifests itself in different forms:

  • I take time to talk to potential clients and partners and see if I can help them, even if this cuts into my billable hours.
  • I take time to learn and study, even if this cuts into my billable hours.
  • I take time to work on my personal brand (through writing or speaking), even if this cuts into my billable hours.

I sometimes get asked why it is that projects come to me. This is why. I invest heavily in myself and my network. In return, people call me when they need someone.

I haven’t had to actively look for a new project for a while and I’d like that to remain the same for the foreseeable future. I wouldn’t like to be one of the many fighting to be hired for available projects if the market gets worse.

Personally, I prefer working with consultancy firms instead of freelancers. Since I’ve been in the field for a while, and since the field over here isn’t that huge, my network is quite substantial, also within these consultancy firms. Some of them do work with freelancers in case they haven’t got anyone available themselves who’d be a good fit for their clients.

The big advantage they have over working with most recruitments firms is that they work directly with their clients, and as such know exactly what their clients need and if I’d be a good fit. This works well for everybody. There’s one recruitment agency in the Netherlands that I do like to work with, since they specialize in testing and automation and I know them quite well.

Other than that, I almost exclusively work through consultancy firms (it’s still quite hard to get a foot in the door with a client directly as a freelancer).

What does my future look like?
I’d love to do less ‘billed-by-the-hour’ projects and more training, writing and speaking in the future. I gave a talk at a Dutch testing conference last week, and I’ll be speaking at TestBash Manchester next week, so that’s a good start, but I’d love to become even better at public speaking. I’m working on it, though! I’ll also be delivering a couple of training courses (in various forms) in the coming months, so that’s improving too, but there’s room for more. Here, again, it comes down to investing time in selling myself and making others aware that this is something I have to offer.

In the end, I hope to be able to experience this freedom for a long time to come. I know that in order to do so, I’ll have to keep investing in myself, so I will do that. There’s a lot at stake, and I really don’t want to be an employee anymore! At least, that’s how I feel now. People change, and so may I, but for now, I’m quite the unemployable..

I hope this information has given you some insight in why and how I became a freelancer and what I think it takes to become a successful one. As always, feel free to comment or send me an email if you’d like to react or want to know more.

8 thoughts on “On why and how I became a freelancer

  1. I guess you missed it because of modesty, but another reason for your success, is because you are extremely smart and practical. I am sure future holds great stuff for you, pal. Good luck. And great post.

  2. While freedom is a common reason for many of us, you mostly provided the bright side of things:). I think it’s worth saying that freelancing is not for everyone and requires a specific set of skills. And the only way to know if you posses the skills is to go freelancing 🙂

    Negotiation skills for rates, changing contexts very often, the pressure of people heavily rely on you, new and old contracts etc. etc.

    • Hey Andrei,

      that’s a great point you’re making there. Freelancing is definitely not for everybody and I didn’t want to sound as if I think it’s the ‘right’ thing to do. It definitely was for me, it might be for others as well, but I know many testers (and other people too) that are very happy working for an employer. I can only applaud them. What I wanted to do is give some insight into the thought process, the rationale but also the gut feeling behind my choice of becoming a freelancer. As I said at the beginning of this post, I regularly get questions on how to become a freelancer and I wanted to give some insight into how and why I did what I did (and do).

      There’s a lot I didn’t cover, as you rightly pointed out. Let me touch on them quickly.

      Knowing what’s a decent rate for your skills and then getting it is hard indeed. One tip: working with consultancy companies instead of recruiters definitely helps in this respect. In general, a consultancy agency’s main interest is in making their client happy, not in getting as big a share of your rate as possible. This is broadly generalizing, but I found it to be true. Combine that with the fact that they generally know better what their client needs and you know why I prefer to work in this way. Again, there are exceptions in both camps.

      Changing context very often? Depends on how you define ‘often’. I haven’t been working on the same project two days in a row for the last couple of months. Other freelancers work on the same project for six months or more. It’s all about what you’re comfortable with. As a freelancer, you’re the designer of your own work week. By the way, I’m planning to have to switch context less often starting 2018. This is a bit too much for me as well. But I would never have known that had I not tried.

      Pressure of people heavily relying on you? Professionally, I don’t feel that’s different from any other person, freelancer or not. Privately (as in: I need to provide for my family) that’s very true and also why I touched upon that in my post. I need to make sure I’ve got enough work lined up to be able to provide for food and shelter (and some more). That’s why I don’t fixate on short term maximization of billable hours, but invest in networking, ‘personal branding’ and developing my own skills as well. That’s the only way to be able to keep the projects pipeline filled, in my opinion.

      New and old contracts? Not sure what you mean by that, but one thing I could focus on some more is getting more repeat work from existing clients instead of having to find new ones every so often (even though at the moment, most of the work is coming my way, as I said). I’m getting better at that, though. Having something to sell (training in my case) is a good foot in the door.

      Hope that clarifies some of the points you mentioned. We’ll be in touch 😉

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