A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
A new book about Coworking, Coworking Spaces, and Coworkers.
Tallie Gabriel reports this month that a large fraction of freelance workers are “software developers” . She is referring to a survey by Squarespace indicates that 29% of freelancers develop software, and this fraction may grow .
The survey indicates that these workers are a bit older (and therefore more experienced) than freelancers overall and more likely to have kids. They are reported to be even more predominantly male.
There is, of course, tons of coding work available, and employers are happy to “pay as you go” for many tasks. So it is not very surprising that there is a booming “will code for food” sector.
The survey found that these coders report work less than a full work week, and earning a bit less than conventional employees. This ability to earn enough with flexible hours is probably a key to the high satisfaction reported.
I’ll point out that this survey should be taken with a bit of care. The definition of “software development” lumps together a broad range of skills and tasks, and the pay and opportunities vary quite a bit within this range. The needs of employers will continue to evolve, so past performance is definitely not a prediction of future success.
As a (retired) software engineer, I’m not overly surprised by these findings.
A lot of coding has always been done independently (at home, at night, down in the basement of the building next door (in the case of Mosaic), etc.), and a lot of coders essentially go from short term project to short term project, even in conventional organizations. So working freelance fits the work practices of many “coders”,
The survey also notes that the freelance developers are generally enthusiastic about and participate in open source software projects. This makes tons of sense, too, in that participation in OSS is pretty much a freelance activity. If you like coding enough to donate your time to open sourcing, you’ll be even happier doing something similar for pay.
Gabriel’s article discusses the question of “learning as you go”, or at least trying to. I.e., bidding on a contract that requires technical skills that you do not quite have, with the idea of figuring it out on the job. As she says, this can get a freelancer in a lot of trouble, with missed deadlines, swollen time commitments, and customer dissatisfaction.
This problem is quite familiar to anyone in the field (I mean, who hasn’t taken an assignment that required new skills?) and especially to anyone who has had to recruit and lead software teams. It is unusual to find people with exactly the skills needed for a new project, and such paragons are hard to get and probably expensive. But on the other hand, taking a chance on a rookie is a risk, and teaching people on the job can be very costly (especially if you are tying up other skilled workers supervising the work of others).
Glancing at the survey report, I was struck by the list of skills and roles of the freelance developers. Specifically, I was struck by what isn’t in the list. Things like documentation, testing, software maintenance, configuration management, and, most of all “team leader”.
Now, in part this reflects the particular jargon used in the survey, which lumps some of the functions into categories such as “back end” or “full stack” or “product manager”. But still, the freelance roles are really concentrated in the area of pushing out new products quickly, not on supporting products already in use—which I would say is what software work is mainly about.
The Subspace survey reports that workers in their sample really hates the social overhead of organized work (meetings, tasks other than coding, dealing with other people), and are “less motivated by company culture and more motivated by remote work flexibility”. In other words, “I just want to code, I don’t want to bother with the rest of the business.”
That’s fine and good, but my experience suggests that this isn’t necessarily the best way to do software, even if some programmers prefer it.
The short term, project oriented commitment of freelancers that means that there is little opportunity to develop (and be rewarded for) “institutional knowledge” and memory. (And, by the way, it can also mean that they don’t understand the big picture, which can lead to building totally useless software, i.e., solving the wrong problem.)
Beyond just plain experience (“been there, done that”), senior software people are valuable holders of knowledge about things like “why we did it that way” and “how that obscure module actually works” and “how we figured out that problem”. No matter how good you might be, there is no substitute for this kind of experience.
In fact, I suspect that some freelancers are actually semi-permanent contractors, hired on multiple contracts precisely because they have this kind of knowledge. And in such a case, freelancing basically amounts to a preference for one kind of employment relationship over another.
Possibly most important, short term deliverable-focused freelance coding makes it challenging to assemble and maintain development teams. Software is really, really complex, and good software is generally a team effort. My personal rule of thumb was and is that I might be the smartest programmer in the room (maybe), but I’m never smarter than the union of everybody in the room.
Some of my proudest achievements in software development involved fostering a great team. This is a difficult challenge (programmers are notoriously egotistical, opinionated, and, shall we say, “boisterous”), and it is even more difficult if some or all of the team are short term contractors with limited commitment to the team per se–and never in the office. I personally wouldn’t be totally happy leading a software project relying on freelance workers.
This last point raises the question of the potential value of coworking for these freelancers. I can see reasons why freelance programmers would benefit from a coworking space. My impression is that in some cases a software project might be executed by a team of freelancers who work together (at least some of the time) in a coworking work space. Coworkers might find work through community connections, and especially, might connect with a successful development team of local coworkers. A coworking community would also be extremely helpful for building such a team, and would also be an opportunity to successfully learn new skills.
But the survey data seems to indicate that few of these freelance software developers (~15%) mainly work in coworking space, and prefer small projects on which they work alone. Taking this survey at face value, there is clearly a large cohort of people who like coding alone, and are very satisfied to get reasonable pay for relatively small and time limited projects. This group seems to have little interest or use for coworking space or coworking community.
I guess this should be filed under “coworking is not for everyone”.
One of the great hazards of freelancing is the isolation of working alone, on your own. Coworking spaces have become important and successful in no small part because they are a “respite from our isolation” (per Zachary Klass )
There are other mental challenges for freelancers. It’s not quite as bad as “a worker who is his own boss has a fool for an employee”, but there certainly can be a lack of recognition and respect. We all have experienced some form of imposter syndrome, or just plain self-doubt. But a freelancer may have no one except themselves who even knows their successes and failures. That’s rough. (And again, coworking communities can be very helpful.)
Jessica Thiefels writes for the Freelancers Union Blog about another aspect of this psychology, suggesting “5 ways to legitimize your freelance business” .
First of all: ouch! Freelance work is legitimately work, but, without the trappings of formal employment it can seem like a hobby even if your livelihood depends on it. So, yes, freelancers must “Take your freelance business seriously”—noone else will do that for you.
Thiefels’ steps are all pretty logical and probably obvious. “Legitimate” means first and foremost, creating a formal business entity, along with a “rate sheet” and, of course a “brand”. In short, act like a business, and you’ll feel like a business, and be taken seriously as a business.
Two other steps are less obvious, but equally reasonable: insurance, both for you and for the business entity. Nothing says “grown up” like having insurance, no?
This summer Gemma Church discusses Coworking Spaces for Seniors. What does this mean?
She notes surveys that show that older coworkers are more likely to be consultants and other professionals, while a large proportion of younger coworkers are in “tech” (which I assume means software and web design).
It also seems that younger workers are more likely to be employees of a large corporation, which older workers own their business.
Presumably, independent workers of all ages benefit from opportunities for networking and collaborations.
However, it also seems clear that not all coworking communities are congenial for older workers.
Anna Meyer reports on the Senior Planet chain, a non-profit that offers specialized training, etc . It seems to be aimed to be compensatory, teaching digital tech and business techniques to geezers.
Their motto is “aging with attitude”, and the “attitude” appears to be about “people who were born long before the digital revolution” who want to “stay engaged and active” (including something called “senior style”, whatever that is.)
Senior Planet is also described “a safe place”, where rampant ageism and associated “microaggressions” do not prevail. (Hey kids, we invented “inclusion”, and have fought for decades now, you think we don’t notice?)
This entire concept also seems that this is making the best of a bad lot, when more people are unable to retire and are forced to work longer.
Personally, I think this “seniors only” approach misses a huge opportunity for coworking: multigenerational community. There are many potential advantages for everyone to a coworking community that includes parents with kids, and also “grandparents”, as well as hotshot twenty somethings.
My favorite example might be Canoe Coworking, designed as an indigenous community. As such, it includes a space for elders who are there both to advise and to be cared for. Now you’re talking.
Living out here in the flyover states, I have been watching how coworking might happen outside cities.
In a small town (pop 3500), “there are not a lot of entrepreneurs to recruit”. There actually was shared office space available, but Wilhelmsen wanted to create a community of coworkers, not just offices.
How did she do it? She spent a year getting to know here neighbors. The coworking space opened only after she created the community.
“We invited people for dinner in our home, we’ve had wine and cheese evenings, we’ve gone on trips together, we’ve taken our families on outdoor adventures, we make dinner in the evenings, the adults have gone on mountain biking or kayaking trips, or other social activities.”
Now that’s what I call “community leadership”!
Her coworking space is also kind of “destination” coworking. Located in a wonderful area of National Parks, many of her community have moved out from the city to find a nice life. Obviously, not every rural area is as attractive to refugees from the smoke.
Her community is also focused on “creatives”, including actors, writers, designers, programmers, and, she says, one “ecological, small-scale” farmer. With the exception of the farmer and mountain lodge business, this is not that different from many urban coworking communities, is it?
Wilhelmsen also says that her coworkers were remote working from home. This is the classic use case for coworking: a respite from the loneliness and isolation of working at home. This, too, is pretty much the same as urban coworking.
Special challenges, aside from low population? Connectivity cannot be taken for granted, and is actually an important asset for the workers.
Special advantages? Well, most coworking communities are not recruited one by one over the dinner table, are they?
One open question is how this fits with the “native” residents and the long term health of the rural communities.
Reading between the lines of the interview, it seems that most of the interest is from “immigrants” up from the city. The locals are involved in their own businesses, such as tourism. I suspect that young people who want to be “creatives” probably leave town to go to the bigger city. So, with a local coworking community, will more local kids stay home, or maybe come back home? If so, that would be a huge benefit to the rural area.
The document is undated and unsigned, but is promulgated by Cobot and other coworking operators (and CJ). The document cites other similar templates that inspired this particular template.
The main thrust of the template is the kind of workplace code of conduct that many conventional organizations promulgate. Anyone who has worked or gone to school anywhere should already be familiar with these policies. (This document doesn’t consider kidful environments, which would have additional wrinkles involving interactions between adults with children, and the rights and needs of parents.)
The thing is, of course, that in a conventional office, the employer is in charge of both the space and the workers, so responsibility for the policy and its enforcement are clear. (In many cases, there are legal obligations for employers to enforce such policies.) In a coworking space, the workers don’t work for the space, so it isn’t necessarily clear who sets and enforces the rules of the workplace.
This policy template essentially encourages the workspace operator to take up this aspect of running the space, even though there isn’t a clear legal requirement to do so.
Yet another important responsibility for community leaders….
What effect would such a policy have?
Obviously, a well-functioning community of coworkers probably doesn’t need any such a formal policy, because they’ll be treating each other with respect already. But not all communities work smoothly all the time, and workers come and go all the time, so things can change at any moment. In addition, there will inevitably be differences of opinion, such as what is or isn’t “appropriate” talk or touching, so conflict resolution may be needed. Notably, the code calls for the workspace operator to create mechanisms for mediation, which are probably a good idea anyway.
This document is intended as a template to be adapted for specific workplaces. It will be interesting to see how it might be used by coworking spaces serving specific communities, such as women or first peoples or whatever. These spaces are balancing the goals of being congenial and/or safe for specific communities, with a desire to be open to everyone. The generic template about incusion might be too little or totally off target for these communities, I dunno.
If nothing else, this document should make coworking operators and community leaders think about this issue in their own community. Even if a community is functioning fine, there may be improvements to make.