Tuesday, March 06, 2012


I've been back in the freelancing world for a couple of years now, and still loving it. The only downside, really, is I need to force myself to get out of the house and socialize from time to time, lest I become a complete hermit.

Trying to explain to people why the freelance life makes me happy, I've realized there's actually a lot of history there. Not only have I spent most of my career working from home on freelance projects, but my parents worked from home the whole time I was growing up (my father still does). Early on I even rejected the daily grind of elementary school, opting for a self-made curriculum in the wild. Given that history, it's amazing I sat still in an office (at Microsoft no less!) for four years.

Of course I love the short commute, and having more time to spend with my family. It also seems like a really good use of my time: I'm able to devote myself to a project when they need me, but when the project is over, I move on to the next project for the next client, rather than having to contrive ways to fill my weekly time obligation for a single employer.

While there are many of us freelancers in the tech industry, it still seems to be more the exception than the rule. The film industry, on the other hand, is dominated by freelancers. Hundreds, even thousands, of people come together to work on a single film, and when it's done they all move on to other projects. Some of them may work for various production companies and service houses, but the dominant paradigm is that of the free agent.

I feel like this may be happening with the tech industry, and things like open source and github certainly lean in that direction. Of course some people prefer the comfort of employment. Ultimately, it's healthy for the ecosystem to support both modes.

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I've had only one, very short experience freelancing, so my sample size is admittedly very small, but I found that, for me, it boiled down to ownership: with employment (especially if the employer is you, i.e. your own company), I enjoy the long-term ownership of and the feeling of real investment in what I'm working on, whereas with freelancing, it felt more like short-term work-for-hire.

I really do think though that starting your own company has the ability to potentially give you the best of both worlds — you have full flexibility to work on what you ultimately want to work on, but you fully own it and are fully invested in its success.

Of course, there are tradeoffs, the primary one being that your company needs to be able to ultimately sustain itself, so your work probably needs to be more directly translatable to money, but that's just a detail, right? ;)
I love freelancing. I think more people would love freelancing if healthcare wasn't so tied to salaried employment.
Hey Aseem, we TRIED to hire you...

And Scott - I completely agree.
Haha, good point Oskar, my bad! =P
Aseem, I think the key factor in those experiences is the length of the project, not the type of relationship. I definitely feel more ownership over projects I work on for long periods of time, but it doesn't matter whether I'm an employee or a freelancer. Many of my freelancing jobs (Ishido, Heaven & Earth, Seize the Day, Enabler, Firefox Panorama, Bondi, Chris Jordan's site) have been longer than a year. On the other side of the coin, I've been on many short, unmemorable projects as an employee (in addition to the awesome situations like Seadragon).

I certainly don't consider employment to give me any sort of ownership rights. From a legal standpoint, I have much more ownership of the Firefox Panorama code (which is all open source, so therefore available to me to use at any time in the future, regardless of my relationship with Mozilla), for which I was a freelancer, then I do of any of the Seadragon code (which is all locked up in the intellectual property blackhole that is Microsoft, never to be heard from again), for which I was an employee.

Think about the movie industry… do you think Brad Pitt would feel more emotionally invested in his movies if he was an employee of Universal? Well, maybe if he owned Universal. ;-)

So yeah, you're on the right track: starting your own company is definitely the path to full immersion! Short of that, though, health care notwithstanding (excellent point, Scott!), the sense of ownership you get from employment (with the possible exception of small startups) is more or less illusory. In that way, freelancing is more honest: either we you're working for hire, but with freelancing you're not kidding yourself.
Great points, Ian!

I indeed didn't mean ownership from a legal perspective (except when you own the company, of course, or the code is open-source, as you mention -- great point), but more from a freedom/trust/responsibility angle.

I think this might have to do with the payment model. When I was getting paid by the hour, I would feel conflicted anytime I wanted to e.g. refactor some messy code or clean up the coding style. As a salaried employee, you could make the argument that time is still money, which it is, but maybe the cultural norm allows that more as an employee.

But ultimately, I think you nailed it that has to do with the length of the relationship.
Yeah, I certainly know what you mean. I still think it comes down to how long the project runs, though. If you're just called in for a week or 2, you do the best with what you've got. If it's multiple months, then it's worth it for all involved if you take the time to clean up the messes you find.
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