Lessons Learned as a Freelance IT Professional

How to be successful, have confidence in yourself and have a great work-life balance

The scenario: If you could go back in time and meet your younger self just starting out, what pearls of wisdom would you impart? What do you know now that you wish you knew or had been told back then?

I developed a set of rules throughout my career as a freelance IT professional that helped guide me. They helped me find work, deal with difficult clients, gave me the ability to choose the contracts I undertook and allowed me to have a great work-life balance.

I have distilled these rules into a set of twelve lessons. I hope that they help you as much as they have helped me!

Lesson 1: The Safety Net

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The first lesson is the most important lesson of all and one that we will keep returning to throughout this article.

Everyone working for themselves needs a safety net: a pot of money that they can easily access when they are out-of-work. At the start of your career you may not have any savings so you will need to grow your safety net from nothing by working and saving.

The first step is to calculate the size of the safety net that you need. I would recommend that it covers your cost of living for at least 6-months.

  • Make a list of all your expenses in a typical month
  • List your rent or mortgage costs, local taxes, insurances, vehicle or transportation costs, subscriptions, food bills, credit card expenditure, phone and broadband costs
  • Add 10% for contingencies and anything you may of missed
  • Take this amount and multiply it by six to get your target 6-months safety net.

Once you have saved enough and reached your target safety net size you should continue to let it grow. Add any spare money to the safety net when you can afford it. It’s a great feeling to know that you can survive being out of work for 6-months, 9-months, a year, or two. It helps boost your confidence and ability to source work that interests you - more on that later.

Your safety net needs to be fairly liquid so you have easy access to the funds when needed but that doesn’t mean that the money can’t still be working for you. There are various investments that allow you to make money work for you while remaining liquid. For me my strategy was property. I would buy a house using an offset mortgage. This type of mortgage has a savings account attached and I would use that as my safety net. The money in the offset account would reduce the interest on my mortgage and yet remained easily accessible. The money it saved in terms of interest owed was far greater than any interest I could earn from money in a savings account. Plus it was helping me to become a home owner!

You must protect your safety net. Never put it in anything risky, or spend it all. For me, if the size of my offset mortgage savings pot started to equal the outstanding balance of my mortgage then when the two were equal the mortgage would be paid off, and I would own the house. This is great in one respect, but bad in another as it meant I would no longer have a safety net. So when this scenario was due to occur I would pause mortgage payments and eat the low interest payments while I started building a safety net elsewhere. Once I was back to having a 6-month safety net I would allow the mortgage to complete. That way I still continued to have a safety net, as well as a house!

So remember:

  • Grow a safety net to cover at least 6-months of being out of work
  • Let it grow!
  • Protect the safety net.

Lesson 2: Confidence

The second lesson is about having confidence in yourself. It sounds straightforward, but a lot of people have difficulty with this and the self-help industry makes a killing selling books and media on how to boost your confidence for this very reason.

The trick to having confidence in yourself and what you do is to be good at something and to know you are good at it, but to also know your limitations and not to hide them from clients. Always be open and honest.

For example I’ve been working as a QA Test Professional for over two decades and I’ve had the opportunity to test software, systems, hardware, processes, documentation, performance and security. I’ve worked way out of my comfort zone many times, reporting to CEOs and boards of directors. It’s rare that a client wants me to do something that I haven’t done a hundred times before. So I’m confident that I’ve got this, I can do this no problem. And that confidence shows and comes across in meetings.

That said, I know my limitations and although rare, on occasion a client may ask me to do something that I have not done before or that carries risks but that I can probably handle. In that situation I’ve known many professionals fake it. They say "Yeah I can do that, no problem." while internally they are thinking that they’ll figure out how to do it later, maybe get a book on it, watch a YouTube video etc. They just see the money being offered and will say anything to the client in order to secure the contract. What happens next is that the lack of experience in this area will impact their projection of confidence, even though they may not be aware of it. It can also lead to anxiety and stress as they have now inherited a risk even before they start the contract.

I believe in being honest with any potential client. I am 100% confident that I can provide the services that I offer. I know my skills and experience level. I know what I can do. If a client asks for something that I have not done before but is something that I can probably do, I’ll tell them. I’ll be open and honest. I’ll highlight any risks and suggest ways to limit them. I’ll also make sure that any risks are noted and agreed by both sides.

As an example, one client wished to hire me to test a new system. They also wanted me to develop a set of database update scripts. The thinking was that as I tested the system I would also learn the optimum settings for a particular configurable component, and based on my findings and recommendations they wanted me to write the scripts that would set the configuration to these optimum settings. The scripts that I developed would be run after each system update to ensure that the system remained configured to the optimum settings for them.

In this instance I agreed to undertake the work but I had them write an agreement that the development of these scripts was outside what I normally offered clients and that to mitigate any risks the client would accept all responsibility for the scripts and would provide members of staff to acceptance test the scripts and the changes they made to the system, and that once they are happy with the scripts that they would take full responsibility for them. That way they got what they wanted and there was no risk on me, which could lead to stress or anxiety on my part, impacting my level of confidence in being able to complete this contract.

Another example is one client hired me to do some QA work on the development of a new system and in a team meeting announced that I would also be the project’s DBA. This took me by surprise as I am not a DBA and at no point was this mentioned. I called a meetings straight after and the client became heated and angry that they were paying me what they were paying me and that I refused to take on additional work. I politely explained that I was not a DBA and that was not a service that I offered but he just kept getting angry. This was two days into a new contract. Not good. I remained calm and respectfully said that obviously there has been some miscommunication somewhere and that it appears that I am not the right fit for their needs and that I am happy to wave the contract notice period and that we can all part ways on good terms. His second-in-command asked me if I could step outside for a moment while they had a chat. A few minutes later he came back outside and asked me to stay with the project, performing the work originally agreed.

I later learned that they were on a tight budget and didn’t realise that they needed a DBA and figured they can pressure the external resource into doing the work. Worse case scenario for me was that I’m out of work for a bit but thanks to lesson one I would be fine.

So remember:

  • Have confidence in yourself
  • Only undertake work that you are confident that you can do
  • You are good at what you do because you have the skills and experience
  • Know your limitations
  • Be honest with clients about what you can do. If they want you to do something outside your comfort zone or area of expertise and you are happy to do it, make sure it is noted as a risk and agreed by all in writing.

Lesson 3: Looking for work

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As a freelancer I don’t like the word "interview". An interview is what a potential employee is subjected to by an employer. So I let the client or agent call them interviews but in my mind they are "meetings".

I go to meet a potential client to see if the work they are offering is interesting and a good match to my skill-set. I’ll ask them way more questions than they’ll ask me. I want to know about the project, the tools and processes they currently have in place. The deadlines, delivery schedule, any current plan or strategy, and the resources they have in place. I’m not going to ask them about hours, money, transportation etc. as I will have already done my due-diligence and learned the answer to these questions before I even agreed to take the meeting. I’m there purely to find out if I want to undertake the work or will I be bored out of my mind watching the clock. Remember lessons one and two. I’m confident in what I do and what I can offer clients. Worse case scenario is that I don’t take the gig and I’m back on my couch PlayStation controller in hand or binge-watching Netflix.

I’ve turned down work either because it just didn’t appeal or because it was too far outside my comfort zone. Despite the agent telling me I’m passing up on an amazing opportunity with a company going places I have learned to trust my gut. Having a safety net allows you to be picky!

The combination of having a safety net, confidence in yourself and seeing interviews as meetings is a powerful tool. It makes meeting new clients a lot less stressful and can even be fun! You also end up projecting an air of confidence. You are not worried about getting the job. You are not nervous worrying if they’ll like you, when will they let you know if you’ve got the job, or if they’ll call you back for a second interview. I don’t worry about any of that. I also don’t do second interviews. If they can’t decide that they need my services after one meeting then they don’t need me and I’m happy with that.

An agent called me once to tell me that he has a client that needs a "Tester" and that they’ve sent several candidates and all were rejected and that the same thing had happened to several other agencies. "I don’t think they really know what they want to be honest" he told me. Would I be willing to meet with them? Curious I said "Yes".

I went to the meeting and the first thing I asked was why they wanted a tester. They explained that they have this software system from a third-party supplier that runs everything but that over the years they had customised it to death. Every time they needed to patch it to the latest version it was a nightmare and there was a lot of downtime and even the supplier was tired of sending consultants to pick through the mess and told them to hire a tester. So they reached out to their preferred agencies asking to send them testers, which they did. Unfortunately what they sent were testers that are used to working for a test manager or senior resource that will tell them what to do, what tools to use, how to track bugs etc. What they needed was a test consultant.

I wasn’t interested in taking the gig but I felt their pain. So in that meeting I walked them through how to develop a test strategy. How to run user workshops with their internal departments to learn how they are using the system to develop an exhaustive regression test pack. How to document the processes, configurations and customisations in-place. How to perform future upgrades in a way that will identify issues and allow fast resolution minimising any downtime. They were scribbling notes like mad throughout the "meeting".

Afterwards, I walked back to the train station planning my evening in my head and not thinking about the contract at all. The agent called me before I reached the train station. I got the contract. Could I start Monday?

Of course finding work or getting agents to call you can be a major pain for any freelancer. I’ve consulted for several recruitment agencies and I’ve seen the game from their side of the fence. This has taught me how to be my own agent. To cut out the middleman.

The first step is to do some recon. Know your territory. Research all the companies that hire people like you in the areas that you are willing to work. Then network like crazy!

With each new contract you meet two kinds of people: managers that control budgets capable of hiring you back in the future, and team members that will let you know about future work in the planning stages, or like the seeds of a flower will eventually leave and move on to pastures new where they will hopefully tell their new employer about this great person they should hire - you. I’ve secured work by being hired back by managers that I’ve worked with before and by word-of-mouth recommendations.

I use LinkedIn as a virtual Rolodex. It’s a list of everyone that I’ve worked with before and have met at networking events or I have been introduced to. I like to keep in touch with each and every one of them. It’s not Facebook so I’m not going to chat about my guinea pigs but I like to catch up and check in on them every so often and maybe catch up over a drink sometime. I’m not looking for work, I’m just keeping in touch and maybe I can help them in some way. Your network can tell you a lot about what is going on. Who is hiring, who is gearing up for a big project. It may not be useful to you right now but maybe you can help recommend someone. Maybe they’ll remember that you did that and they’ll help you at a later date.

I have a love-hate relationship with agents. It has been my experience that many of them will take shortcuts and rather than built a quality network of their own they’ll just try to tap into yours. You’ll receive a connection request and once you’ve connected to them you’ll hear nothing. When I get a request from an agent I’ll read their profile to see if they work with people with my skill-set. If yes, I’ll connect otherwise I’ll dismiss. Once connected a clock starts ticking. They have a week max to reach out and tell me why they connected to me. If I hear nothing I drop them. This is not Facebook. I don’t know this person and they are obviously just farming contacts so I feel nothing in dropping them and you shouldn’t either. It’s nothing personal. Chances are they have set their connections as not shareable anyway so it’s a one-way benefit - to them.

I can count the number of agents that I’ve had a good experience with throughout my career on one hand. I don’t take it personally. If anything the experience has made me better at being my own agent. The majority of my contracts have been direct. I’ve sourced the client myself, set up the meeting and won the contract. Creating your own time-sheet and invoice templates is easy and not having to give a cut of the money to someone else is a bonus.

Understanding the recruitment process is essential. I don’t use job sites. In my experience if a job has made it to one of these sites then the agent has failed to find anyone in their internal database that can do the job and it’s now out there on the internet casting a wider net meaning you will be competing with many applicants.

The trick is finding out about potential work before the market does. You do that either through your network or by picking a handful of agents known for recruiting in your sector and by keeping in regular contact with them. Connect to them and message them once a week letting them know that you are still available. The aim is that when a client of theirs says they need a new resource with your skill-set that your name is the first one to come to mind.

So remember:

  • They are meetings not interviews
  • Be your own agent, know your territory and understand the recruitment process
  • Network like crazy, especially when you are not looking for work
  • Build your network so that it is there for when you need it
  • Use LinkedIn as a virtual Rolodex. It’s not Facebook!

Lesson 4: ROI

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Lesson four is all about understanding Return on Investment (ROI) and knowing what you are worth.

Pricing yourself can be difficult at the start. You need a baseline to start from. You could ask people working similar roles with a similar level of experience, or look at job sites and see what the going rate tends to be in your area. In time you’ll get a feel for the market and what fees you can charge.

Some worry that they are charging too much and can’t fathom why a particular client would pay a certain amount for them. This is due to a lack of understanding about ROI. As an example, early on in my career I worked a contract where the client assembled a team of six to work for six months to build a software system that they could sell to their clients. The budget was around £1M. This seemed crazy and the rates we were being paid was amazing. When the work was completed to the required level of quality within the set time-frame the client sold the service for ten times the budget. To them this was a good ROI. They were happy to pay above the going rate in order to ensure that they got the right people for the job that could complete it on time allowing them to sell it at a large profit.

So knowing what you are worth is all about understanding what your clients are getting out of the deal. See things from their perspective. By paying a higher fee for you they are getting more experience, a wider skill-set. and all the extras that you offer.

A good tip is to never discuss your rate with anyone. No one knows your current rate except you and the client paying your invoices. Clients are not allowed to share that information with each other. If you want to increase your fees with the next client it’s best to start with a figure higher than what you are asking so that you can be negotiated down to what you want and so both sides feel like they are getting a deal.

When using agents you most likely won’t know what the end client is paying for your services as the agent will take a cut so your negotiations will be with the agent. In my experience agents can take anywhere from 10% to 30%. It takes time and practice but you can usually work out what the agent’s cut is. The skill is in being able to squeeze that down as low as possible.

A good tip when negotiating a new contract is to not play clients off against each other. It’s considered bad practice and leaves a bad taste in a client’s mouth. They have long memories and they’ll remember how you played them the next time you come looking for work.

When thinking about your fees it’s worth remembering the effort it took to acquire those skills and experience. The education, qualifications, training and on-the-job experience.

A good example I like to use to help explain ROI is the story of the guy with the piece of chalk:

A factory owner experiences a fault on a production line halting all production. He’s losing money each hour of downtime. He calls in an expert who walks around the factory floor and places a chalk X mark against the side of a machine saying replace the main circuit board in here and your problem will be fixed. The circuit board is replaced and production resumes. A week later the business owner receives an invoice for £10,000. He immediately phones the expert demanding a breakdown of his invoice as he was only there ten minutes! He receives the following:

Piece of chalk: 50p
Knowing where to place chalk mark: £9,999.50

Lesson 5: Everything is negotiable

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Everything is negotiable. Remember that. I’ve never signed a boilerplate contract yet. Clients will present their "standard" contract document that all contractors must sign and expect you to just sign it. I never do. They’ll tell you that their legal team have been through it with a fine tooth-comb and everyone else just signs it.

I read through every contract in detail and see if it matches up to what I’ve agreed to do for them. Does it adequately outline the services I will be providing? Am I covered for any unforeseen circumstances? You’ll be amazed how many clauses say something along the lines of you having to return to fix anything they have any issue with. When? What is the criteria for these issues? Everything must be clearly stated and limited to the duration of the contract. There’s no coming back later as you will of moved on to another client by then and won’t be available.

You should always be clear about the services you offer as part of the negotiations. Make it clear what it is that you are offering based on the fees and timescales involved and ensure that it is agreed and written down in the contract’s schedule of services. This avoids any scope-creep later. If the client tries to make you do additional work that has not been agreed upfront then you can refer to the signed contract and negotiate any additional work.

When negotiating a new contract and the client’s business is sensitive or has secrets that they wish to protect then I usually insist on a Non-Disclosure Agreement (NDA) as this protects both sides.

Yet, despite all the work you have done negotiating the terms and sorting the wording of the contract, some clients still won’t honour the contract. I’ve had clients terminate giving no required notice because their client has stopped paying them expecting me to take the hit. Others have ignored the schedule and insisted I do whatever they say. In the first instance I’ll probably just walk away as I know I can easily find work elsewhere ensuring that I’m paid often to minimise any large potential loses. In the second instance I’ll politely refuse and offer to renegotiate if additional work is required. The trick is remaining polite and professional even if your client does not.

Lesson 6: It pays to be flexible

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When it comes to freelance work everything is negotiable. It amazes me when I see fellow freelancers who only look for work that is 9 to 5 Monday to Friday for 3, 6, 9-months or a year in duration, and nothing else. They won’t consider a day’s worth of consulting, part-time or working for multiple clients at the same time. They are very inflexible.

One particular client said that he couldn’t afford me because he didn’t have enough work to keep me occupied 5-days a week for 3-months. I asked why he felt he needed to do that. The answer was because in his experience all previous contractors that he had dealt with worked that way and wouldn’t consider working for him for less than 3-months full-time.

I like to remain flexible. In my experience it has opened many doors and brought interesting opportunities. By flexible I mean the following:

Availability: Providing a few hours consulting, a day here or there, a week, month or several months, or the usual 3, 6, 9 or 12-month longer contracts. Being available on-call or short notice and working weekends and evenings on occasion.

Payment model: Being happy to be paid by the hour or day, or on a project basis, usually split with payments at certain stages followed by a final payment on completion.

Services: Supplying a wide range of services. Charging more for some than others. Based on what the client needs, any deadlines, length of contract etc. determines the fees involved.

Whatever you do it pays to not take offence or to get angry. Some clients may try it on. Others might say something like they don’t pay that much for someone like you or the service you supply. In that case just thank them for their time and move on. Don’t dwell on it or give them a second thought. They can’t afford you so move on to the next client.

Another tip is to prepare for the unexpected as nothing is guaranteed. You know what they say about plans: as soon as you have created one it’s out-of-date. Priorities change, budgets dry-up or grow, clients change their minds, etc. Whatever the reason prepare for the unexpected. The contract may end prematurely or you may be asked to take on more work.

Lesson 7: Never say no to clients

Clients don’t like hearing the word "No". So I try to never use that word with a client. I’m not saying always say yes. What I am saying is just don’t say no. If the client asks if you can do something that sounds absolutely stupid or unreasonable to you, try saying sure, but point out what it will cost in terms of time, resources and money. Chances are they haven’t thought it through themselves and they are using you as a sounding board to work out if it’s both reasonable and achievable. Maybe steer them in a different direction or point out an alternative solution. By not saying no immediately but instead making them see sense and hashing out the underlying problem you will gain a better reputation than the guy that just says no. People hate negativity so always try to be positive. Trust me, they’ll remember it.

I’ve found that it pays to be a beacon of positivity. It can be hard sometimes. Especially when the project isn't going to plan, or you are working with difficult people or you find yourself in a toxic workplace. Emotions and tempers can run hot so it pays to keep your cool and to be the positive person in the room.

A good tip is to avoid negative people. They are easy to identify. Nothing is going right for them and everything around them is negative from their perspective. Avoid at all costs if you can. You'll thank me later.

Sometimes you’ll be offered work that is outside your comfort zone but may sound really interesting. In these cases I like to say yes but I mitigate any risks. I’ll be open and honest about my skills and experience and what I can do and I’ll list any risks. Once documented, agreed and approved these jobs can prove to be both interesting and lucrative. Don’t be afraid to say yes to something new on occasion, but mitigate any risks!

It takes practice to be positive all the time and to be a can-do person but I swear it can be rewarding. If however you find yourself working on something that you are just not enjoying, maybe in a toxic workplace, then be kind to yourself and your mental well-being and find a way to exit the contract without burning any bridges.

Lesson 8: Don’t just work for money

Early on in my career I was working for a large corporation and when the project ended they didn’t want to let me go. In order to keep me around they loaned me out to another team with the original team paying my invoices. The problem was that the new team didn’t really have any work for me so they asked me to develop a Test Strategy document for an upcoming project.

At the end of the first week I had a draft of the strategy and it was reviewed by the project manager. He suggested some changes and said we can meet again in a week for a further review. The changes only took an hour to complete. This went on for some time. The new team had no work for me and went through the rigmarole of leaving me to my own devices, checking in with me once a week to review this one document.

It was a charade and got silly at one point when the project manager started reviewing the fonts and justification used in the document. This piece of "work" lasted 6-months. The only reason I hung around was because I was waiting for the next project to start with my original team, which promised to be interesting. And for the money of course.

Those six long months taught me that I never wanted to work a job again just for money. It was excruciatingly boring. Life is far too short to work a job just for money (when you don’t have to) where you are watching the clock as soon as you arrive at your desk.

Realising that they had no intention of letting me go, rather than sit at my desk all day I started going for walks around campus. I would go to the on-site cafe, library or communal areas and I’d meet people and chat. Adhering to the security rules of course! This is when I learned the power of networking.

When you get up on a morning to get ready for work and you suddenly realise it’s the weekend, if your first thought is one of sadness at realising there is no work today then you know you have found a job that you enjoy. That’s what I look for in every new contract I consider. Something that sounds fun and interesting. If you are also working with great people then even better.

Long ago during my school and university years I was part of the Amiga demo scene. One of my fondest memories is how my folks would go away occasionally on a weekend and leave me with the house and the guys would come over and set up all their computers in the living room and over the weekend we would code, create graphics, music and assemble a working piece of software that we would release. It was a lot of fun. We would drink beer, eat pizza and watch anime while creating throughout the night. Some might see it as work but for us it was fun. That’s what I look for in every job offer that comes my way. Something that is going to be fun to work on.

So remember:

  • Don’t just work for money
  • Your safety net will allow you to be choosy
  • Look for work that will be fun and interesting. It will do wonders for your mental health trust me
  • If you find yourself in a job that you hate and you are clock watching, then never be afraid to just walk away. Just do it professionally without burning any bridges. Even if you have no intention of ever going back to work for that company, always leave on good terms.

Lesson 9: Variety is the spice of life

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It used to be that you would leave education and go work for one company throughout your working life until retirement. Those days are long gone and both freelancers and employees today will probably work for more than five companies over the course of their career.

Working for different companies is a great way of gaining experience and seeing what works and what doesn’t. You will learn something from each role, good or bad. You will see how a particular company is trying to solve a problem, what works and what doesn’t. As you move to each new company you may see the same problems being attacked from different angles. You may even be able to help after seeing what has worked or failed at previous companies.

Variety is the spice of life and moving around working for different companies in different sectors and industries can be both fun and informative. It rounds-out your experience level and can even provide unique experiences. In one case I ended up working for a client again in the same office that I worked in before but the end client was different, the project manager and team were all different, the only constant was me. In another case at a client meeting I said if I got the contract I will have worked on every floor in this building. There were 5 floors and I had worked on the other 4 for past clients.

Say yes to new opportunities and don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone on occasion, but manage any risks!

With each new company I work for I inevitably come across an employee or two that will tell me that they love the idea of freelancing but think it’s too risky. Even after explaining how to mitigate the risks they tell me that they prefer job security. In one instance I was in the canteen with two managers and the conversation was as above so I asked them what they meant by "job security".

"We are both managers here so the company has to give us 3-months notice" they replied.
"So you are saying that you have 3-months job security?" I asked.
"Yes" they replied.
"Well I’ve just signed a 1-year contract with your employer where neither side can terminate. So going by your definition, I have more job security than you" I said.

That got them thinking.

A long contract with no termination clause is unusual, I’ve only had two in my career. They are usually given when the client needs you to complete the work and wants to lock you in so that you can’t leave until the work is complete.

To me job security is a myth. It’s a term invented by employers to keep key employees around. In my experience a company is loyal to it’s shareholders and profits. If you have no skin in the game then you are expendable. Look around you. Companies are being sold or are letting loyal staff go to increase profit margins. Your job is to earn money for you and your family. That’s where your loyalty lies.

Lesson 10: Never stop learning

One time I was asked to take a junior tester under my wing and show him the ropes. One day he says to me "It must be hard for you to learn new things at your age". He wasn’t being funny or anything. He genuinely believed that the older you get the harder it is for you to learn new things. I corrected him on that.

This thinking is supported in our culture. We’ve all heard people say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, or that it’s better to learn a new language at a young age. I’ve thought about this a lot and my thinking is this: that you can learn something new at any age, but as you get older you become more stubborn and resistant to learning something unless you absolutely need to know it or you find it interesting.

As I write this and look over at my bookshelf I see books on accounting and finance that I’ve been reading recently as I’ve been fascinated by how the world of money works. And because I’m interested in this subject I’ve been devouring books and other media on the subject and I now know a lot more about finance than I did before.

You will also find that on occasion a client will ask you to learn or master a new tool or technique in order to be able to complete the work for them. Not learning in this scenario can cost you both money and reputation. I’ve met people who will say things like "I’m a tester I don’t write code". What they really mean is that they are afraid to try. Don’t be afraid to leave your comfort zone but manage any risks!

Never stop learning. Whether it’s new tools and techniques being developed for your profession or subjects you are interested in like finance, business, the economy, coaching or consulting. We should all never stop learning!

A good tip I’ve learned is to never be the smartest person in a room or on a team. It might boost your ego but that’s the only thing that will grow. Everyone else will have you to learn from but you won’t have anyone. I like to work with smart people so I can learn something from them.

So remember:

  • You can teach an old dog new tricks!
  • Don't be the smartest person in the room, understand your client's business, and learn from other people’s mistakes (it’s cheaper).

Lesson 11: Create your own niche

Photo by carolyn christine on Unsplash

People like labels. We like to know what something is by giving it a name. The same applies to job roles. We like to put a person in a pigeon-hole and say "John is a project manager" or "Emily is a developer". In my experience you can be more than one thing. You can have more than one skill-set. I’ve completed contracts only for the client to try and replace me with an employee and found that they needed more than one person to fill my role. Why? Because I wasn’t just a test consultant. I did more than one role for them under the umbrella of providing services as a test consultant.

You don’t have to be just one thing. You can be a project manager and a developer. Or you can be a developer that is also a systems architect. Just do the work and figure out what to call it later. Don't try to make the work you do fit a job spec. You will build a skill-set unique to you. Don’t try and fit what you do into an existing mould. You may actually find that there’s a demand for your particular set of skills.

Lesson 12: Work-life balance

Having a work-life balance is very important. You don’t live to work, you work to live. You work to pay the bills and have a comfortable life.

In lesson one I mentioned that it’s worth knowing how much it costs to fund your lifestyle each month. This is very important because then you know how much you need to earn in order to be able to have a roof over your head and food on the table. If you can work smarter rather than harder to earn that money all the better. It’s a great feeling to know that you only need to work 3 to 6-months a year in order to pay the bills for the whole year. You can then take time off or have long breaks between contracts.

When I first started dating the woman that would become my wife, she was an employee and her job gave her an annual allowance of 25-days holiday a year. So what we would do is look at the calendar for the upcoming year and note all the bank holidays and take those 25-days and use them to make weekends longer here and there and bank-holiday weekends even longer. We worked out that we could have short breaks every month. We would plan out where we were going next. Somewhere in our home country or somewhere abroad and we would start to plan each holiday. Both the holiday itself and the anticipation of the upcoming holiday helped us maintain a great work-life balance. We would often have 12 holidays a year. One year we had 14!

Another thing I like to do is to take "me days". These are days when I know that no one is going to be home during the day. My wife will be out and the kids will be at school and I’ll have the place to myself. I’ll book it a month in advance so both my clients and family are ok with the date. Then I’ll start planning what food I’ll have. Maybe pizza or a takeaway. What snacks I’ll have and what beer I’ll be drinking. Not the large packs of beer but a carefully chosen selection of real ales from independent breweries. Then I’ll choose what video game I’ll be playing or movies I’ll watch. It may sound strange to you but this is heaven to me. I’ll get up, have my favourite breakfast: scrambled egg on toast with smoked salmon and orange juice. I’ll probably stay in my PJs all day long. I’ll play my video games and watch TV with no interruptions. After my pizza lunch I’ll open my first beer and continue gaming until the family comes home. Sometimes they’ll just leave me gaming till bed time. Bliss!

Your me day maybe different. Maybe you prefer a spa day or a day at the golf course or racetrack. Whatever your preference, the key is to just take a me day every once in a while to unwind, chill-out and enjoy yourself.

I had a colleague once to whom I explained the concept of 'me days' and who informed me that he couldn’t do it as he’ll be leaving money on the table. His thinking was that a day off meant a day’s money lost. But is that really true? Do you have to work every working day of your contract? Going from contract to contract working every day you can to earn as much money as you can. Or would you rather enjoy what you do and be able to afford to take time off whenever you wanted?

Another rule of mine is that I don’t work my birthday. It’s the biggest 'me day' of the year so no way am I working that day. I’m far too busy celebrating me.

One other thing I’d like to point out about a good work-life balance is that the power people have over you is an illusion. Think about that for a second. When you are interviewing (meeting) for a potential job and are negotiating the terms, at no point in the conversation does your new client say "..and I will have the right to berate you, to talk down at you, to shout at you when I feel like it, and generally treat you badly", yet this happens. I’ve had clients shout at me as if they own me. They don’t. If you let them treat you this way then you are giving them the illusion of power and they will continue and this can lead to stress, anxiety and other mental health issues developing. The trick is to nip this in the bud quickly. Do it calmly and professionally but make sure that they understand that this is not acceptable and that if they cannot continue to be professional then you are prepared to walk away from the contract.

So remember that your health and well-being comes first. You are working so that you and your family can have a good life. You are not working just to work or just to earn money. You want a great life and you need money to do that, but not at the expense of your well-being.

Family and health come first!

Final thoughts..

One day, during my very first contract, I found a free industry newspaper at my client’s premises. Inside was an article profiling a freelancer who was an expert in databases. In the article it said that one day he’d figured out that he didn’t need to be at his clients premises any more. That he was always working from home and that his clients didn’t care where he was located in the world as long as he was available to them. His kids had all left home and there was just him and his wife and they both loved sailing. So they sold their house, car and most of their possessions and purchased a yacht. He kitted it out with all the tech he would need to be able to do his job from the boat and they set off sailing around the world. His clients remained happy with his work and he had an amazing work-life balance. If there was an emergency and he needed to go visit a client’s premises then they would dock somewhere and he’d hop on a plane, train or automobile and be there asap. He was both working and living the life of a retiree at the same time.

I remember reading that article and thinking that is going to be me one day. Well, my wife doesn’t really do boats but we have travelled the world together. I’ve been around the world at least once and I’ve worked a lot of fun contracts while enjoying an amazing work-life balance. And if I was to go back in time to meet my younger self just starting out I’d hand myself these lessons that have served me well, and hopefully you too!

Photo by Dominik Riesen on Unsplash

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Last updated: 29th September 2021

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