Freelancers Moving Back Home? A “Brain Gain” For Flyover States?

In the past, I have noted the potential for coworking spaces outside major cities and generally in what the US calls “the flyover states”, outside the dominant cultural centers on the coasts.

This month there have been a flurry of articles about a “brain gain”, reporting that people are moving to out of the way places, including small towns [1, 2].  This counters the dominating narrative that all the kids leave for the big city, and that small towns are dying.

OK, there is some hype here.  A handful of people moving into a small town is a big deal for that town, but it’s just a trickle compared to the flood pouring into NYC, LA, and the Sun Belt.  Plus, it never was the case that everybody was leaving, or even all the “best”.  So, it never was quite the way Girls portrayed it.

(And, knowing local Chamber of Commerce folks, I know that there is some motivated storytelling going on.)

But overall, this is plausible and even a good thing.

In the “Future of Work”, many workers can work from anywhere, so long as there is decent connectivity.  And, as I have pointed out, depending on how you want to live, the standard of living can be way better outside a metropolitan area.

Earlier I discussed a recent survey of Freelancers in NYC, and pointed out that the survey focused on Freelance workers who live in NYC.  The survey implicitly assumed that these workers also work in NYC, which, of course most do.   But many of them probably have remote gigs and they probably collaborate (and compete) with Freelancers who live elsewhere and work in NYC.  These variations on life and work were not really explored by that survey, which aimed to boost living the La Vida Giggada in NYC.

The fact is, if you are successful, you can move out of the city and keep working.

And when you do, you might well want to have a local coworking space in your new location.  It will be filled with other “freelancers in flyover land”.

So yeah. It’s not just me.  It’s a real thing. I know dozens of people who either never moved to the big city or came back to make a good life.


  1. Sara Millhouse, Brain Gain: Professionals Find Niche in Rural Upper Midwest, in The Daily Yonder: Keep It Rural. 2018. https://www.dailyyonder.com/brain-gain-professionals-find-niche-rural-upper-midwest/2018/05/30/25657/
  2. Sarah Smarsh, Something Special Is Happening in Rural America, in New York Times. 2019: New York. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/17/opinion/rural-america.html

 

Alton on The Future of The Gig Economy

In a recent blog post, Gary Alton raises the 64 million dollar question:  “Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay?” [1].

First, his title agrees with my own conclusion that the Internet enabled the gig economy, but did not and does not determine its course.  The gig economy (however you define it) is one of many experiments the ubiquitous internet has made possible.

Writing from the point of view of tech workers, Alton summarizes the by now familiar advantages and disadvantages of the freelance economy.  For workers, flexibility, but little security.  For businesses, cheap, easily replaceable labor.

The same blog had a separate article with yet another potential disadvantage of gig workers: “Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy” [2].  Anna Johansson points out that all these freelancer who work remotely are generally exposed to security breaches, which is kind of a problem.

She lists five obvious challenges, though they all stem from working off site, via multiple networks including public access points.  Freelancers value “flexibility” and “convenience”, but these are anathema to network security, which needs rigorous and often annoying control.

Generally speaking, the more important the work, the more security you need to protect it.  So this means that remote workers, including freelancers, either cannot do critical work, or must use extraordinary technical security to protect the business interests.

If it were me, I wouldn’t let anyone do anything important remotely.  I want to keep my data and IP inside my fortress, and I mean a physical not a virtual fortress.

So maybe gig workers will be limited to low risk work, which is also low pay work.  That’s not so good.


On Alton’s second point, “Is It Here to Stay?”, I will repeat what I have said before.  The current gig economy has only existed in the upswing of the recovery from 2009.  We haven’t seen a major recession yet (though the “media” industry seems to be contracting every year somehow).

One of the entire points of gig work is that it is short term and contingent.  The next big downturn will pressure businesses to shed costs and workers.  Gig workers will be hit first and will be hit instantly.  In fact, you don’t need to even fire a gig worker, you just let out fewer short term contracts.

Essentially, the gig economy will make the next recession see a rapid flash crash of employment, in the form of a severe drought of gigs and probably even lower pay for gig workers.

This will have a knock on effect on the coworking industry.  A widespread recession in freelance gigs will cause many workers to drop out of their coworking spaces, and many workspaces will crash.

As goes the freelance economy, so goes the coworking industry.

By the way, my own guess is that WeWork will implode under a mountain of debt, while smaller, more locally grounded operations may survive.

So:  is it here to stay?  Maybe.  But neither gig working nor coworking are going to look so great after the next recession.


  1. Larry Alton, Tech Opened the Door to the Gig Economy, But Is It Here to Stay? , in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/tech-opened-the-door-to-the-gig-economy
  2. Anna Johansson, 5 Reasons Remote Workers Are Driving Network Security Professionals Crazy in IEEE Spectrum – Tech Talk. 2019. https://www.computer.org/publications/tech-news/trends/workers-are-driving-network-security-professionals-crazy

Many Freelance Software Developers Eschew Coworking Spaces?

Tallie Gabriel reports this month that a large fraction of freelance workers are “software developers” [1].  She is referring to a survey by Squarespace indicates that 29% of freelancers develop software, and this fraction may grow [2].

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”.


  1. Tallie Gabriel, What most people don’t know about one-third of the freelance population, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019. https://blog.freelancersunion.org/2019/08/07/what-most-people-dont-know-about-one-third-of-the-freelance-population/
  2. Subspace, The Rise of the Contract Coder: A Report on the State of Freelance Software Development. 2019. https://whatiscoworkingthebook.files.wordpress.com/2019/08/8ea6d-riseofthecontractcoder2019subspace.pdf

 

What is Coworking? It Can Be Out In The Country

Living out here in the flyover states, I have been watching how coworking might happen outside cities.

This month Sensei Cat Johnson interviewed Torill Bye Wilhelmsen about her coworking space Fjellflyt (“mountain flow”), in the Norwegian countryside [1].

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.


  1. Cat Johnson, Bringing Coworking To A Norwegian Mountain Town: A Q&A With Torill Bye Wilhelmsen, in AllWork. 2019. https://allwork.space/2019/07/bringing-coworking-to-a-norwegian-mountain-town-a-qa-with-torill-bye-wilhelmsen/

 

Coworking Space for Medical Practices?

In the past, I have remarked that certain kinds of businesses and professions are poorly served by coworking spaces.  These include anything that needs special equipment or environmental controls or branded space.  I have also remarked that some services that require privacy, such as medical or behavioral clinics.

This summer, I read of a “coworking space for medical practice” [1].  Hmm.    Am I wrong about this?  How does this work?


First of all, the facility is aimed at “private practice”, i.e., a small clinic with one or a few practitioners.  Conventionally, the facility would be owned and managed by the doctors.  The “coworking” space basically takes over the administrative work and expense, and provides (presumably appropriate) shared resources for all the tenants.

The company calls it “a concierge collaborative care environment.”

So, one question is, is this a “coworking space”, in the sense that most people might mean?  Historically most coworking space is not “boutique”, it is very generic.  Also, coworking space is classically shared, open plan workspace, not private “offices and studio space”.

On the other hand, a coworking space certainly is about sharing infrastructure, and offloading administrative responsibility to the operator.  And the operator promises “a comprehensive, fully managed, operating system for medical professionals.” This apparently includes people expert in “high touch customer service and brand building experience.”  (That’s not what a computer operating system is about, so the borrowed term is confusing to me.  But, I  digress.)

In general, the operator of coworking space aims to replace important features of a conventional workplace that are missing for independent workers:  infrastructure, management, networking, a sense of community.  This medical operation is doing the same thing, for a specialized kind of workplace.

So, it looks like I was wrong about coworking for medical practicing: it makes sense, at least in some cases.

In particular, it is clear that this space is aimed at “start ups”, individual or perhaps small groups of newly minted practitioners.  It is also aimed at “office visits”, which require privacy but not a lot of specific facilities (labs, imaging, sterile environment, etc.)

I’ll also point out that these spaces will probably see “churn” like other coworking spaces.  Doctors will move on to other spaces as the practice grows or simply to get a better deal.  From the point of view of the workspace operator, this churn may or may not be any different from conventional leasing.

It appears to me that the business model is predicated on the perceived financial and administrative pain of running such an office, which I certainly am not an expert on.  I can’t judge how this coworking space compares to working at a conventional clinic or other alternative.

It is obvious, though, that a lot of medical practice doesn’t fit this model for various reasons.  This is also a very “boutique” operation—scarcely the coworking space down the street, filled with freelance web designers and whatnot.  So my overall point is not too unreasonable: a lot of medical practice is not suited to the general coworking model.

  1. Natalie Kais, Clinicube Helps More Doctors Open Practice With Coworking Facility Format in PFSK. 2019. https://www.psfk.com/2019/06/clinicube-medical-coworking-space.html