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.

On finding my ideal ratio between consulting, teaching and writing

Those of you that have been reading my blog posts for a while know that I like to reflect on my own career from time to time. Since it’s been a while since I wrote such a blog post, I thought it would be a good idea to share with you what I’m up to at the moment.

Basically, my working time is still divided into three subjects: consulting, teaching and writing. I’m continuously trying to find out what is the ideal ratio between each of these activities, something that’s partly under my own control, yet also depends on the amount of work that’s coming my own. Or that I am able to steer my way, of course.

Here’s a quick recap of my activities in each of these three fields.

Consulting
On site consulting still makes up the major part of my working week. Not sure how the situation is in the rest of the world, but here in the Netherlands there’s plenty of work available for those who know a little about test automation and have some communication skills too, so getting projects isn’t too hard at the moment. I have to say ‘no’ more often than I can say ‘yes’!

That’s a very luxurious position to be in, I definitely realize that. And yet.. It’s safe, since I am guaranteed an income for at least 25-30 hours per week (it’s all billed by the hour), but I feel it does also make me complacent at times. This might sound strange (or spoiled), but I could actually do with a little less consulting work, but that would require having more work in the other two categories. Either that, or seeing a significant (but hopefully temporary) fall in my income, a prospect which I don’t particularly look forward to.

Teaching
It’s been too long, but I finally had (or created, depending on how you look at things) another opportunity to deliver on site training, this time with my former employer. I spent two evenings with around 10 students, teaching them about the concepts behind API testing and automation and introducing them to a range of tools (more on that training course and the approach I experimented with here). This reminded me how exciting and motivating it is to deliver training, and that it definitely is something I feel I should pursue harder. Ideally, I’d do at least two or three of these courses a month, but I’m nowhere near that frequency yet.

I have started working on a related project, though. It’ll be an online course around Selenium, which will hopefully see the light of day in the coming months.

Next to that, I’m actively working on finding more ways to deliver on site training, both at clients here in the Netherlands as well as at conferences. This is a slow process, but I’ve made some good connections in the past few months and I’m positive this effort will pay off soon enough.

And while we’re on the subject of conferences: I’ve got two talks coming up this month. First, I’ll be at the fall conference of the Dutch testers association TestNet (site in Dutch), and later this month it’s time for TestBash Manchester. Really looking forward to speaking at and being a part of both of these events!

Finally, I was a panelist at a webinar hosted by the people at Testim, where we talked about creating an automation strategy fit for CI/CD and the skills required to do so. For those of you that missed it, you can find a recording here.

Writing
This one I’ve actively put on the back burner for a while. In the past few months, I’ve written quite a few articles for TechBeacon, StickyMinds and some other one-off blog posts, next to my weekly blog post on this site, of course. That spread me a little thin so I decided to stick with my weekly OnTestAutomation blogs for a while.

I am currently working on something related to writing, though: I’m the technical editor for a book on test automation that’s to be released in the first half of next year. This is something I’ve never done before, but that’s only a good thing.

The gist of this is that I could do with a little more teaching and a little less consulting and that I’m actively working on making that happen. As ever, it’s an interesting journey.

How I continuously hone my skills and why you should too

As a consultant, and even more so as a freelance consultant, it is imperative to stay relevant and be able to land your next project every time. Or, and that’s the position I prefer to be in, have your next project(s) find you. I thought it would be a nice idea to share with you how I go about trying to keep up in the ever changing world of test automation and testing and software development in general.

Before I dive into the strategies I employ to remain relevant, though, I’d like to stress once more that test automation, like testing and software development, is a craft. I’ve said this so many times already, but I’ll just press ‘repeat’ and say it once more: being a good test automation crafts(wo)man requires specific skills that need to be constantly sharpened it you want to remain relevant. And I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I assume that you actually want to remain relevant.

Also, I’m writing this post partly as preparation for a potential mentee that contacted me with some questions regarding test automation career development. If this comes through it’ll be the first time for me in a mentor role, and that’s something I’m both very much looking forward to and scared as hell of..

So, what is it that I do to try and stay on the forefront of the test automation field as best as I can?

Discover your way to provide value
I’m no proponent of the ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, excuse me, ‘generalist’ approach to career development. I think in order to be truly valuable to any team or organization, it’s important to pick your superpower and grow it as best you can. For me, that’s helping organizations define and implement the best possible way for their test automation efforts. For others, that might be writing the best possible Selenium tests, or being the best possible software tester, or … It doesn’t matter WHAT your superpower is, as long as it provides value to the software development process you’re likely to remain relevant for the duration of your career. You will need to monitor whether or not you’re providing value constantly, though.

Get hired for the role you want to grow into
This applies especially to freelance consultants. Teams and organizations that hire you tend to do that because you know how to do something well, simply because you’ve done it before. That’s all fine and dandy in the short term, of course (there’s always the next mortgage installment or child care bill that needs to be paid), but there’s a real risk of becoming a one trick pony in the longer term. Personally, I’m always evaluating a project offer for things I can learn myself and whether those are things that I actually want to learn, i.e., whether the things I’ll be learning will contribute to me being a slightly better consultant or trainer after the project has come to an end. I tend to get bored on projects quite easily, and that’s especially the case when I’m repeating the same stuff over and over for a couple of months. And that doesn’t help me nor my client.

For all of you that are employees, it might be a little easier, simply because organizations are often willing to invest in your professional and personal development. Still, I’d advise you to always ask as many questions on possibilities to grow and explore new things when in an interview. Being in a job that allows you to explore, learn and grow is much, much more important than an extra couple of hundreds bucks every month. Really, it is. Also, grow as a crafts(wo)man and that pay rise will come, if not at your current employer, then in the form of an offer from another one. At which point you’re advised to look for the professional and personal development options THEY provide, of course.

Honing your skills

Attend and speak at conferences
Next to my day to day work, I find that one of the best ways to grow as a consultant is by attending and contributing to conferences. And the talks and workshops offered by the organizational committee are but one of the ways you can learn and benefit from being at a conference. For me, meeting peers, discussing the craft with them, as well as some good old fashioned networking often proves to be even more valuable in the longer term.

And attending is just one side of the whole conference thing: actually speaking at one might be an even better way to improve your craftsmanship. Yes, preparing a talk takes a lot of time, but it is an excellent way to organize your thoughts and experiences and to ‘find your voice’. And yes, going up on stage is nerve-wracking, but remember: that’s what every speaker feels, even those that are way more experienced. Not convinced? Just read up on the #SpeakerConfessions hashtag on Twitter to see what I mean.

Reading blogs and listening to podcasts
There’s a wider testing and automation world out there, outside of the confines of your office (or wherever you do your work). I’ve been gaining access to the thoughts, experiences, successes and failures of fellow automation engineers and consultants for a couple of years now, simply by reading their blogs, learning from them and applying what I’ve learned in my own work.

Instead of singling out individual blogs that I read (which is quite a long list anyway), I’ll mention two of the greatest starting points for blog reading here: the Testing Curator Blog by Matt Hutchison and the Ministry of Testing blog feed. Both are excellent sources for all things testing and automation to read for your pleasure and learning.

Another way to learn from others is by listening to testing and automation podcasts. Since I spend a significant amount of time in the car (it’s been getting less and less, though, since I started reshaping my career, which is something I do like), I like to spend that time in a useful way, and one of the best is by listening to podcasts. There’s a large amount of software testing podcasts out there, so I’d suggest you to do a search on iTunes and find something you like. As for me, I almost never miss an episode of Joe Colantonio’s TestTalks or Keith Klain’s Quality Remarks podcast. There are some other podcasts that I listen to on and off again as well.

Writing your own blog
There’s no learning from other people’s experiences through blog posts without there being people that actually write those blog posts, obviously. I’d recommend you considering to start your own. To me, there’s no better way to organize my thoughts and express how I feel about certain topics than writing a blog post (or a series of blog posts) on those topics. They’re also a great way to showcase your projects, thoughts, insights and experiences to the wider world, although it must be said that writing a blog post or two and expecting the work and the world to come to you might lead to a little bit of disappointment. Instead, you should remember that you’re writing for yourself in the first place, anyone else reading or reacting on your posts is a bonus. Having said that, when you’re consistently (and consistency IS key) putting out decent content and showing it to the outside world, the interaction and feedback will come.

It’s just not going to happen overnight. As an example: it took me three years to get that little bit of traction I’m having at the moment. I’m very glad I stuck with it, though, because so much good has come out of it! Being given the opportunity to write and publish an ebook, being offered speaking opportunities abroad, writing articles for industry websites, none of it wouldn’t have happened (or at least it would have taken me a lot longer) without this blog. I’m grateful for that every day, and apart from the interaction with readers, it’s one of the main reasons I keep at it.

Wrapping this up, I’d like to repeat that continuously honing your skills as a testing or automation engineer, consultant or whatever it is that you’re doing is imperative to remaining relevant and staying ahead in the competitive business we’re in. Hopefully the above has given you some motivation or pointers to start being an even better crafts(wo)man than the one you already are. Again, I’d love to hear your thoughts and feedback.