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.
  2. Subspace, The Rise of the Contract Coder: A Report on the State of Freelance Software Development. 2019.


“Legitimizing” Freelance Work

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 [1])

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”  [2].

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?

These are two tips.  We can add two more:  join the Union, and join a coworking space. The former will help a lot with the formalities, and the latter will help with the psychology.

  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.
  2. Jessica Thiefels, 5 ways to legitimize your freelance business, in Freelancers Union blog. 2019.


What is Coworking? It is a way to stay connected

Sensei Tyra Seldon writes for the Freelancers Union Blog about the importance of “staying connected” to other people.  “[F]reelancers may be particularly vulnerable to feeling disconnected and lonely.” [2]  As independent workers, they are also responsible for maintaining their own well-being.

Sensei Seldon gives three key things to do to sustain an independent career:

  1. Network with others
  2.  Join virtual communities
  3. Take care of your body

On the third point, she equates well-being with “self-care”, though I view the latter to be mostly cosmetic, while the latter is essential.  Exercise, rest, eat right.  You know it’s important, and Seldon is correct that your work will suffer if you don’t.  Budget time and effort to keep your own physiological and psychological infrastructure in shape.

The second point is, of course, not limited to independent workers. Many, if not most, workers—and basically everybody–are digitally connected in many ways. Independent workers may find valuable connections beyond direct work activities.

However, experience shows that digital communities are not enough.  People need other people, face to face.  So item number one is “network with others”—in person.

Historically, one of the key reasons contemporary coworking emerged is that independent workers can find a community of like-minded workers.  It is a “respite from our isolation”, to quote Zachary Klaas [1].

This is all good advice, and not just for independent workers.

I thing Sensei Seldon leaves out another critical principle. “Self care” is important, but the road to happiness is caring for others.  (Actually, we know Seldon hereself understands this:  see here and here)

Anyone with kids or elders or a family in general knows this.  Why is work-life balance a problem?  Because work is necessary but takes time away from what really matters, and what really matters and makes us happy.

So–when  looking for community and self care, I say aim to help take care of each other, not just yourself.  And this is certainly something that a coworking community can, and should foster.

  1. Zachary R. Klaas, Coworking & Connectivity in Berlin. University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.
  2. Tyra Seldon, 3 ways to stay connected for emotional and physical well-being, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019.


What is Coworking? It’s Hard To Have Plants

Just in time for Spring, Geoff Gohlke writes in the Freelancers Union Blog about “7 plants that will brighten your workspace and boost your productivity” [1]/

OK, first of all, I love plants, indoors and out.  And it’s a great idea to have some plants around your workspace.  It’s a good idea for Freelancers and, I believer, for everyone.  There is nothing specifically freelancy about this suggestion.

His list of plants is scarcely new.  These old favorites have been on desks and windowsills for a generation or more.  It’s a good selection, though anyone who knows botany knows that these are nothing compared to a real plantscape, let alone a natural ecosystem.  But anything is better than nothing.  (And go outside where there are plants as much as you can, anyway.

So, yeah.  Plants are good.  Personally, I don’t think you need a lot of explanation or justification for wanting to be surrounded by plants.

But Gohlke wants to make a case.

So he tells us that “botanicals” (which seems like a rather insulting taxon-ist word–are we “zoologicals”?) aren’t just pretty, “they can also freshen up the air and boost your productivity”.  That sounds great.  And, sure, plants do filter the air, though a couple of potted plants on a desk don’t process all that much air.

“Boost your productivity”?  What does that even mean?  Compared to what?  He gives no evidence for this claim.  But, as I said, plants are good regardless of alleged productivity boosts.

Gohlke’s discussion suggests a couple of other points that I’d like to pull out.

First, he discusses the rudiments of caring for these plants, which means light and water. These standard desk plants are popular because they can stand and/or prefer low light, and do not require a lot of water, and generally can survive periods of neglect.  Fussy, they are not.

Unstated in this discussion is the fact that you still must take care of these plants, however forgiving they may be.  My own view is that part of the benefit of having living “botanicals” in your space is the psychological benefit from taking responsibility and tending them over the long, slow life of a plant.  Pay attention to them, and they will thrive.  That feels good.

Second, Gohlke makes some unstated assumptions about working conditions that are worth examining.  He imagines that  “you have a well-lit corner in your apartment or a windowless room,” but he definitely assumes that you have “your workspace”.  While he mentions “digital nomads”, it seems clear that plants are for a place that you “own”, even if you wander a lot.

You don’t carry around your plants, nor do you set them around your open plan work table that you rent by the hour.

Which suggests that, while a coworking space might have plants (and really nice ones also have gardens), coworkers generally don’t have a permanent space to put plants in.

So this article is for Freelancers, but not particularly applicable to Freelancers who Cowork.  You really have to have at least a permanent desk before you can have plants.  It isn’t easy to have plants when you cowork.

And this is certainly a downside of coworking for me.

  1. Geoff Gohlke, 7 plants that will brighten your workspace and boost your productivity, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019.


What is Coworking? It Can Be A Place For Freelancers To Help Each Other

Apparently in recognition of Women’s History Month, Ariane Hunter writes about “9 ways freelance women can help each other get ahead” [1].

OK, I’d like to know about this.

First of all, I was totally baffled by Hunter’s assertion that stupid men “think that women are competitive, jealous of each other, and gossipy”.  She thinks women are more likely to think “when she wins, we all win”.

For someone who has spent decades fighting stupid stereotypes about women being “nurturing” and “soft” and otherwise not suitable for real work and business, I’m simply floored by Hunter’s starting point.  She repeats the patriarchal stereotypes backwards, as if this were a significant discovery.

Look, people are capable of behaving many ways, the question is what is the best way to act.  So let’s check out her nine ways.

The first thing to say is that her list is a perfectly reasonable set of collaborative, mutually helpful behaviors—for anyone.  I like the list, but I don’t see anything particularly female of feminine about them.

Share, connect, listen, say positive things, do business with good people.  These are great things to do.

Furthermore, these are great things for freelancers to do with and for other freelancers the know.  All independent workers face loneliness and isolation, so the connection and generous attention of other freelancers is a powerful good.

So I think you could change this article to be 9 ways freelancers women can help each other get ahead”.  In fact, I’m pretty sure I have read that article many times.

There is one thing that does stand out to me, though.  Many of these behaviors could have very different interpretation and reception when the giver and receiver are male or female.  For example, unsolicited sharing and connecting might have a totally different feel when an older man is “connecting” or “sharing” with younger women (or vice versa).  I’m sorry to have to say it, but it may be easier for women to help each other than for workers in general to help other workers.

On a more positive note, a coworking community is actually a much safer space for these kinds of positive interactions between workers. A coworking community is a group of “like-minded peers”, with similar interests and relatively little difference in social power and status.  So, inside a coworking space there are expectations that the interactions will be positive and supportive, and that “when one succeeds, we all succeed.”

From this point of view, this is one of the most important benefits of joining a coworking community. A coworking space can be a place were everyone can and do help each other, all the time, regardless of gender.

No wonder coworking makes workers happy.

  1. Ariane Hunter, 9 ways freelance women can help each other get ahead, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019.