10 essential software engineering skills for contractors

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In the vast world of freelance software engineering, the choice of technical skills isn't just a programming decision; it's a strategic one that can significantly impact your career, finances, and availability of assignments, writes Matt Collingwood of VIQU, a tech recruitment company specialising in software engineer recruitment.

1. Artificial Intelligence (AI)

The transformative power of AI is undeniable.

From healthcare to finance to retail, AI is already a part of many industries, and its scope is set to improve and strengthen.

Therefore, developing core skills in AI engineering will only benefit your long-term prospects as a freelancer or contractor. You’ll be contributing to cutting-edge solutions that will have a real impact on people’s lives.

Believe me, as a tech recruitment professional with 26+ years’ experience in software engineer recruitment, I know that your ability to strengthen your skillset for the future will only put you in a better position to command higher rates and more flexibility, compared to your peers who will still be in the starting blocks.

The main roles for software engineers in AI include:

2. Machine Learning Engineers

Freelance Machine Learning Engineers (‘MLE’) are the architects of AI’s predictive powers! As an MLE, you design scalable models that can handle huge volumes of real-time data.

To excel as a contract or freelance MLE, you will need to possess deep learning, cloud applications skills, and programming expertise in languages like Java, Python, and Scala.

3. Data Scientists

Freelance Data Scientists are the brains of data that transform raw information into actionable insights. To be a contract or freelance data scientist, you’ll likely have advanced degrees in studies such as statistics, mathematics, or computer science, as well as expertise in cloud tools, programming languages, and data-processing platforms. With experience, a freelance data scientist can eventually become a director of data science, earning substantial rates -- as high as £1,200 a day.

From what I’m seeing as 2024 comes into sight, AI is the sector that will see the biggest demand over the next decade. It will only become more specialist and as a result, skills in this area will only see an upward trajectory on day rates and the availability of contract or freelance assignments.

4. Agile Methodologies

Agile Methodologies refer to a set of principles and practices designed to improve flexibility, efficiency, and adaptability.

The term ‘Agile’ encompasses several iterative and incremental software development approaches, including Scrum, Kanban, Extreme Programming (XP), and others.

Agile principles can be applied to many freelance and contract roles, including project management, business analysis, and of course, software engineering!

Ask any stakeholder what they wish they had more of in a project, and you are almost guaranteed to hear “visibility.”

That’s because visibility across a project helps stakeholders make smarter decisions. And visibility through Agile Methodologies and work practices increases the transparency of leadership, while also improving accountability across the organisation.

Therefore, when businesses are looking at their software engineer recruitment, they will often have requirements around capabilities for agile working. Therefore, I would always recommend software engineers open themselves up to exploring Agile Methodologies.

5. Cyber Security

As the digital landscape evolves, the need for robust cyber security measures is more critical than ever and our agency has seen the demand for Cyber Security Software Engineers increase -- significantly.

A Cyber Security Engineer collaborates across teams and departments to integrate security measures into software development processes.

Sought-after on a temporary basis, Cyber Security Engineers are critical to the design and implementation of security solutions to safeguard against cyber threats, in addition to conducting vulnerability assessments and penetration testing.

As a software engineering recruitment agency, we speak with businesses recruiting Cyber Security Software Engineers regularly. At the time of writing, those conversation reveal that their average rate is around £550 a day.

That said, our actual placements of CSEs show a continued increase in rates, and we don’t envisage this slowing down, as the need for cyber security measures in 2024 is bound to increase.

6. DevOps

DevOps is a collaborative approach that bridges the gap between software engineering and development (‘Dev’) and IT operations (‘Ops’).

It's not just a set of tools; it's a cultural shift that emphasises communication, collaboration, and integration between development and operations teams throughout the software development lifecycle.

There are many advantages for freelancers and contractors in exploring DevOps.

Here’s two from the top:

  • Projects are delivered faster, meaning you can roll off fixed-price projects more rapidly and move on to the next, maximising your earning potential

  • Quality and scalability of work is improved, which makes it a huge benefit for clients.

Day rates for DevOps contractors vary between £500 and £800 a day, depending on sector.

When it comes to hiring DevOps freelancers, businesses are willing to pay the premium, offer more flexibility, and look to retain the contractor at renewal, when they find a ‘solid’ professional.

Unfortunately, in our experience, we’ve had a lot of frustrations around lots of individuals entering the field, who simply don’t have a proper grasp of the full set of DevOps tools. Therefore, our consultants have to do more ‘due diligence’ compared to when we’re placing other technical IT contractors.

If you can develop a solid set of DevOps skills, and be solid in your application of those skills, you will find numerous clients happy to both retain your services at contract renewal stage and offer plenty of repeat business.

7. JavaScript

JavaScript has firmly established itself as the go-to programming language in the ever-changing landscape of web development for freelancers and contractors.

At the time of writing, JavaScript is the most popular programming language worldwide, and this is why JavaScript is such a crucial skill to have on your CV. The fact that freelancer rates (according to our database) have outperformed inflation, with an average of 7% year-on-year, speaks volumes!

Used for front-end and back-end development, JavaScript’s importance can’t be overstated. No matter your chosen area of focus, JavaScript will continue to be useful in 2024.

8. C#

In the realm of programming languages, C# stands out for its adaptability, corporate popularity, and cross-platform accessibility.

Oh, and say goodbye to platform limitations! C# is open-source and plays seamlessly on Microsoft, OSX, and Linux. This universal compatibility makes it the go-to language across diverse operating systems.

With average rates between £450 and £900 a day (depending on sector and experience), C# is one of the best-paid languages in the market. Deciding to invest in mastering C# could be one of the best career decisions you make in 2024.

9. Python

Python is the new kid on the block in the programming world!

However in only its short space of time, it has become one of the most in-demand languages, due to its concise and extensible nature and versatility.

The range of applications powered by Python continues to grow and extends from secure web frameworks to GUI applications, game development, enterprise applications, and as a support language when testing and managing software products.

With day rates for Python freelancers and contractors ranging from £400 to £800 a day, Python has become a favourite of the independent tech workforce.

10. GitHub profile

Your GitHub profile, as the platform itself explains, “tells other software engineers the story of your work through the repositories and gists you've pinned, the organisation memberships you've chosen to publicise, the contributions you've made, and the projects you've created.”

Software engineer recruitment agencies like us ae currently using GitHub to recruit software engineers. Why? Well, it tells me about your expertise in different programming languages and projects. Therefore, creating, optimising and maintaining a GitHub profile is crucial to showcasing your technical skills and abilities, including to hiring decision-makers.

Final thoughts for freelance software engineers as 2024 dawns…

Whatever hard skills you choose to pursue as a software engineering contractor, staying ahead of your specific skills curve will be key to your success.

My recommendation is to partner with a well-networked software engineering recruitment professional, assuming you won’t only want direct-to-client opportunities in 2024. Working with the right people, who have the right connections, can be a game-changer for freelance technologists, and software engineers are no exception.  

So, in a nutshell? Get an agent who knows his onions; stay current and at the forefront of change in your chosen specialism and keep focussed on maximising your date rate, while keeping an eye out to ensure your freelance contracting career is as dynamic as it is fulfilling.

Written by

Matt Collingwood

Managing Director of VIQU

Matt Collingwood is the Managing Director of VIQU Ltd. an IT recruitment and project-based consultancy company with offices in Birmingham and Southampton. Matt is also the co-founder of the Recruitment Canaries, a network of West Midlands based recruitment agencies who encourage collaboration, best practice and upholding the standards and ethics of the recruitment industry.

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