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.

Improving your craftsmanship through conferences

In an upcoming TechBeacon article I recently wrapped up, I’m talking about how to create a team of test automation crafts(wo-)men. One of the tips I give is, as a manager looking to build such a team, to let your craftsmen attend conferences regularly. For me, attending conferences is one of the most important and influential ways to extend my craftsmanship.

As a delegate
As a conference delegate (visitor), there are several ways to benefit from the experience:

  • Get inspired by the talks and workshops. A good conference provides a mix of keynote talks from established craftsmen, as well as talks and experience reports from less experienced speakers. These are a good way to get some fresh views on your field of work or, in some cases, on life in general. What I also like in a conference is the offering of hands-on workshops. These are a good way of getting to know or of diving deeper into a tool that might just make your life a lot easier.
  • Interact with fellow craftsmen. Conferences are an excellent opportunity to get to know people in similar roles from other organizations, or even from another country. As with life in general: you never know who you’re going to meet, or what comes out of a seemingly random encounter at a conference. I’ve met people at conferences years ago that I’m still in touch with today. And since the conference attendee list often includes representatives from other organizations, you might even land your next job after an informal first encounter at a conference!
  • See what is available on the tools market. Larger conferences often include a sponsor exhibit, where tool vendors show the latest versions of their offerings. If you’re looking for a solution for a problem you have, most of these vendors are happy to talk to you and give you a demo of what they can do for you.

As a speaker
One step up from being a conference attendee is to start presenting at a conference (or two, or ten) yourself. Even if it might be a bit daunting at first, there’s much to gain from even a single public speaking performance.

  • Building your personal brand. Everybody has a personal brand. I didn’t realize this until fairly recently, but it is a fact. Delivering talks is a great way to show people what you know, what you stand for and what your ideas on your craft are, and in that way build your brand. And when people are looking for someone to work with or for them, a well-crafted personal branding will get you to the top of their wish list.
  • Make sure you understand what you’re doing. An often underrated aspect of presenting is that you have to make sure that you know what you’re talking about. As wise men have said before ‘you don’t truly understand a subject until you’re able to explain it to your mother’ (or something to that extent). Being able to give a clear, comprehensive and nicely flowing talk on a subject is probably the best proof that you truly know what it is you’re doing.

What I’ve been up to recently
After a fairly slow winter (at least in terms of conferences and presentations), the pace is slowly starting to pick up again. Last week, I delivered my new talk on trust in test automation for the first time, to a crowd of just over a hundred people at TestNet, the Dutch organization for professional testers. For a first time, I think it went pretty well, and I’m looking forward to delivering this talk more often in the months to come. I’ve submitted the same talk to a number of other conferences, and I’m very much looking forward to the response from the respective organizing committees.

It’s also less than two months until my workshop on REST Assured and WireMock at the Romanian Testing Conference. Another event that I’m very much looking forward to! It’ll be my second time speaking abroad (and the first time hosting a workshop abroad), and I’m sure it’ll be a fantastic experience after all the good things I heard from last year’s event. I was also pleasantly surprised to hear that the workshop is already sold out, so it’ll be a full house for me.

Finally, next to my blogging efforts on this site, I’ve been steadily publishing articles for TechBeacon (see my contributor profile here) and I’ve also recently published my second article on StickyMinds (see my user profile here). If you happen to have a few spare minutes and feel like reading my articles, I’d love to hear what you think of them!