How to become a freelance software engineer: 10 tips to succeed

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There are lots of benefits to contracting in the UK’s technology industry, but equally, it’s not for everyone, writes Matt Collingwood, boss of technology and IT recruitment agency VIQU.

1. Get full-time experience

Before you commence your freelance journey into software engineering, you need to start off by getting a solid grounding in software engineering as a permanent employee.

Only with software engineering full-time under your belt, can you give independent contracting as a software engineer a considered stab.

2. Switching codes

Now, think you’re REALLY ready to leave behind your 9-to-5?

Okay, let’s first get going by mentally switching to a different mindset. Even if you were very able as internal software engineer, you now need to prep yourself for a marathon and not a sprint, as how to become a freelance software engineer (and succeed) requires perseverance, planning, and even a little panache.

3. Explore HOW you’ll generate software engineering assignments

While you were in permanent employment as a software engineer, it’s very, very likely that you didn’t really have to think about creating job openings for yourself regularly.

As a contractor in software engineering, you will need to build relationships and sell your skills and services in order to find new contracts.

Consider doing this through three main routes (and yes, you can do all three!):

  • Specialist agencies

Connect with software engineering specialist recruitment agencies, or at the very least, connect with agencies which have departments DEDICATED to software engineering.

In a perfect word, ambitious freelance software engineers should really only work with agencies showing a large variety of clients. If you collaborate with agencies that only have two or three core accounts, you might struggle to secure a contract that suits your skillset, desired rate and location.

  • LinkedIn

Before you start freelancing as a software engineer, make sure you’re connected on LinkedIn with your ex-colleagues and managers.

Connecting directly with them in on the world’s largest business networking website means that, once you’re ready to look for your first contract, you can simply turn on the ‘Open to Work’ button. This will let all of your connections know that you’re ‘on the market.’

I also recommend posting a message to encourage your old contacts to get in touch with you. You never know what opportunities might come from what LinkedIn describes as your ‘2nd’ and ‘3rd’ connections’!

  • Your peers and previous managers

Staying in touch in the non-virtual world with old employers, and former colleagues, is traditional best-practice. Go for a coffee, send a ‘Happy Christmas!’ card, arrange an industry conference meet-up.

The event doesn’t have to be anything too strenuous -- and making it brief should increase your strike rate!

Meeting up, and going beyond a screen, will keep you on the mind of people who might need to contract or commission your skillset in the future.

4. Ensure your CV and LinkedIn profile are software engineering recruiter-ready

Recruiters often find candidates like you through online searches.

Make sure your CV and LinkedIn profile contain your core technical skills, development languages, industry experience and the like.

Next? Make sure you include any ‘keywords’ you think a recruiter looking for someone like you might search for.

5. Make sure you’re financially prepared for freelance work / independent contracting

As a contractor, you’re obviously not going to be paid when you’re searching for your first new contract. So applications; speaking with us recruiters, interviewing, doing interview tests – it’s all time-consuming and it’s all unpaid.

Similarly, if you take a holiday, need to be off-sick or want to do some training in software engineering – these are unpaid too. These three maybe things that you took for granted as a permanent employee.

My advice? Aim to work at 85% utilisation. i.e. 15% of your year as a contractor or freelancer in software engineering, or any other tech skill, will be non-billable.

However, if the fire is in your belly, you might choose to work on multiple full-time and part-time software engineering contracts to do 80-hour weeks. I know some developers who CHOOSE to do this!

Positively, software engineering professionals tend to always be in demand -- at least to some degree.

However, you never know when the market is going to dip and go quiet. For instance, nobody predicted the likes of Covid! Therefore, in order to keep the lights on, having access to savings is vital -- especially when you’re just starting out as a software engineer contractor, having only just hung up your spurs from stabile full-time employment.

In short, plan for the unexpected so that you’re not left with unpaid bills!

6. Create a passive income for yourself

No, I’m not talking about TikTok!

I am talking about you potentially offering your clients ‘Support Contracts’ once your contracts end.

For your inspiration, I know one contractor who has built various small web apps. He has support contracts in place with a couple of clients for 2-10 hours of support per month. He told me his clients rarely use the hours, so it’s all profit. He wakes up on the first day of each month and has £2,500 to bill before he even does any work!

7. Think about your specialism

Before you start freelancing in software engineering, consider the vertical tech and horizontal industry sectors which might yield the most opportunities.

Yes, some clients might want generalist software engineers who can turn their hands to a number of tasks.

But most clients will prefer those with a certain set of skills/experiences. For example, a front end developer in the retail sector will know the industry -- with both new and emerging tech and trends.

The more you are seen as a specialist, the more demand there will be for your time, and this demand can be reflected (or pushed for!) in a high day rate.

My advice? Secure some experience in your chosen specialism and only then take a deep dive into contracting as a software engineer.

Remember, whereas a permanent employee has to do what is dictated by their employer, a contractor has the freedom to pick and choose the contracts they accept. Ultimate, ‘Free-Work!’

So seize the opportunity to plan which direction you want your contracting career to go in. 

Here’s a true, cautionary tale. I used to work with a client who had very average, run-of-the-mill tech -- yet, they would only take on the cream of the crop when it came to new development talent.

The client paid the freelancers well. But after 5-10 years when these individuals wanted to move on, many of them found that they were no longer sought-after, and could not demand the rates they were expecting, purely because they hadn’t worked with any exciting technology or been involved with innovative projects!

8. Start building a ‘Brag Folder’

How will you give assurances to potential clients that you’re the right software engineering freelancer for their lucrative assignment?

Well, some contractors do this through a ‘Brag Folder’.

As a new contractor, you won’t have a book of contract references to include in your brag folder – not just yet.

But being in software engineering gives you the ability to easily show your client live examples / screenshots of sites you’ve built and been involved in. So show the client how great you are. By documenting the work you’ve done, you are giving yourself a long-term contract-acquisition strategy.

9. Grow your confidence to fly your flag

True story. I know a developer who fixed a bug which was costing my client TENS OF THOUSANDS OF POUNDS on their e-commerce site EVERY DAY.

It took the developer four-plus weeks to fix. The client was grateful when it was resolved. But the actual code to fix it was minimal, so the client didn’t understand why it had taken him so long.

What the developer did -- excellently -- was explain in detail how he’d identified the problem, and the developer articulated (with evidence) that it was this identification which had taken 99% of the time. This helped the client see the incredible value which the developer had brought to the business.

This is a skill anyone can do, with a just a little self-confidence. Whether you’re perm or contracting in IT, start flying your flag now.

In software engineering (and elsewhere), it’ll lead to contract extensions and very grateful clients repeatedly coming back to you!

10.  Get to know your software engineering contractor community

Software engineering is no longer only carried out in silos, so please talk to other contractors!

Surround yourself with people who can offer advice. Meet up with ex-colleagues, join networking groups and meet-ups, attend forums, speak with software engineering recruiters and generally put yourself ‘out there.’

By doing this you will gain a deeper understanding of what to expect from software engineering contracting. The exposure you gain might include you understanding other people’s stances on Inside IR35 versus Outside IR35 software engineering contracts.

What do people with your skills, or with more skills than you, or who specialise, look for in a day rate? What are the current market conditions like in their city, sector, industry?

Always be up for listening and keeping a friendly eye out for you and your fellow software engineers. For you professionally, such a poised, sociable and alert stance might even get introduced to a business for a potential contract opportunity.

And to reassure you? I’ve known multiple contractors who have secured contracts by being introduced by their contracting contacts. I told you some panache was required!

Finally, under-promise-overdeliver

There it is – my 10 top tips on how to become a software engineer contractor.

But I’m going to provide you with an an eleventh, because a bit like the freelance software engineers which we place, and who you want to become, under-promising and over-delivering is no bad strategy!

So my final, additional tip concerns professional development.

There are always new and emerging technologies and work practices in software engineering. As a contractor, you will no longer have someone looking to invest resources in you -- rather you need to invest in yourself.

It’s therefore massively important to stay current and, if you can, cutting-edge, so that you can do the best job possible for your clients, and your career!

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