The Tech Gig Economy–and Why It’s Great

Back in high school, when my English teacher asked me what I want to do when I grow up, I answered, “I want to be a freelancer.” I had no idea what being a freelancer actually meant, but the idea sounded somewhat romantic.

I knew people back then who were translators or writers—and they called themselves freelancers. All I knew about their work was that they didn’t go to the office,  but, rather, worked from home and still got paid. It sounded like fun. You make your own schedule; you work when you feel like it; you’re your own boss.

These were the days of dial-up modems that got around 128kbps of throughput. Communication was still done by phone or via email, and voice and video chats were yet to come. Of course, technology has changed since then, making remote work much easier. Especially in tech, you can see how all of this affects the way we work, both in the rise of full-time “regular” positions that allow you to work remotely and in the growth of the gig economy.

The Future of Work

The gig economy is trending right now. It’s when people take on temporary jobs, known as gigs, either instead of or in addition to, their regular work. Many Uber drivers are part of the gig economy, and are freelance journalists, content marketers, and teachers at various coding schools and bootcamps.

What’s fueling this trend? Is it that people are scared of having a single income stream in today’s  economy? Does greater autonomy give people a sense of power? Maybe it’s just a consequence of improved communication channels?

I’d say there are many factors contributing to the rise of freelance jobs. Many people, while not exactly bored by their daily jobs, are looking for new challenges. Others are motivated by higher salaries; they can earn as much freelancing as they did in a salaried position, while putting in fewer hours. Depending on how much you want to work, freelancing can augment, or even replace,  your regular job. And if you’re considered an expert in your field, especially in tech, your salary will only grow higher with each subsequent client.

There are also those who love the flexibility of gigs. If you are no longer tied to a chair in an office, you can venture out and explore the world. Digital nomads are (quite literally) everywhere, combining work they are passionate about with another passion: traveling.

So, whether you want to keep your job, replace your job, or travel  around the globe, there are possibilities for you in the freelancing world. For me, it’s a mixture of those things. The compensation is important, but the ability to choose my schedule and location are much more important. This way, I can spend a few weeks in Norway waiting to see the Northern Lights—without sacrificing my vacation. I am there working, after all.

What I Like About Freelancing

Other than the factors I just mentioned, there are many other benefits to freelancing. When I was working at a “regular” job, for instance, projects rarely changed, and each day looked pretty similar to the previous one. Yes, I learned new things from time to time, but it usually required a lot of work to convince my supervisors to let me use those newly learned skills in a project.

When I’m freelancing, however, I can work on new projects whenever I want. I can be a Python developer one week, a Kubernetes administrator the next,  the DevOps consultant for a huge corporation the week after, and end the month by teaching a course in Python. (Yes, I love Python.)

This means that my professional growth is much quicker. My skills are no longer evaluated in a yearly summary; rather, my clients evaluate me all the time. And with each client, my skills grow.

Why Businesses Need Freelancers

I mentioned earlier that freelancers usually earn more than their salaried counterparts. Why then, would businesses want to hire freelancers—and pay them more? It doesn’t seem to make much sense, does it?

The problem is that salaried workers have to be paid whether there is work to do or not. If a company develops AI applications, for example, it makes sense to have AI engineers available full-time. But, if a company’s core business is something else—let’s say a software house specializing in Web applications in Django—it might be better to hire a freelance ML/AI researcher for a specific application, rather than regular employees.

That’s where freelancers are helpful. If a job is not necessarily repeatable in the long run, a hired expert may be a better choice than internal talent. Such experts are especially needed in niche fields that require specialization, especially if this specialization crosses over into different disciplines. For example, you can find cloud engineers quite easily. The same goes for content marketers. But what about content marketers who are cloud engineers and can provide interesting content that other developers would actually enjoy? Now, there’s some crossover specialization!

The thing is, most of the time, businesses don’t need engineers who can create content, so it doesn’t make much sense to base hiring decisions solely on that. But what should they do if a specific content project comes up that really does require the knowledge of an engineer? Well, you guessed it: They hire a freelancer. And they usually arrive at this conclusion after several unsuccessful attempts to force their developers who hate blogging to write blogs. (An approach I don’t recommend.)

If you are like me, and you enjoy doing a bit of this and a bit of that, freelancing offers great opportunities that are unavailable anywhere else. Since I love writing, and I’m a tech person, I was happily surprised when I saw that IOD was looking for people just like me. I was equally amazed when I learned I was the only person within a huge network of freelancers who had experience writing both C++ and Electron applications. Sure, such jobs might be rare, but that’s a problem of businesses, not freelancers.

Of Course, It’s Not All That Perfect

Ah, the glamorous life of a digital nomad who does freelance gigs and spends the rest of his time watching the sun set on deserted beaches on various exotic islands. If you’re used to reading similar blogs, you know there is something I have to be hiding—nothing on Earth can be that perfect.

Of course, you’re right. This article focused on the upsides of being a freelancer in the modern world. But there are downsides as well. For example, quicker growth can lead to quicker burnout. The dreaded freelance pendulum often swings from “Oh no, I haven’t had a client in months” to “Oh no, I have too many clients.” If you’re interested in learning more about the downsides of being a freelancer, make sure to read our second post in this series.

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