How to Survive in a Challenging Freelance Market

Earlier this year I wrote an article in which I stated that the majority of software testing professionals in Australia are PAID TOO MUCH. To my surprise NOT ONE person wrote to me and took me to task over this assertion. I can only conclude from this that you all agree with me, while cruising along in your German-built cars on the way to your weekend beach houses. I also warned that this situation is dangerous for many of you, because you are working in an unsustainable environment where economic factors are sending many software testing jobs to lower cost markets – Asia, South America, Africa etc. (via some of the world’s leading Consulting organisations).

My assertion in the original article was that this is mainly an issue associated with permanent staff and NOT freelancers. The main reason I excluded freelancers (at the time) was that they choose to work within an environment where they can be in work one day and out of work the next. They embrace a high risk work status for what many of them see as a higher financial reward. However, this “higher financial reward” is only achievable if you are in work consistently throughout any given financial year.

During the past 10 years, the freelance software testing market in Australia has been predominantly bullish (give or take the odd small blip). However, we are now seeing a different scenario unfolding where Testing jobs that have (traditionally) been the domain of freelancers are no longer available – they haven’t disappeared, they’ve just gone elsewhere. And that elsewhere is to major international consulting companies that are using very low cost overseas employees to do the same work. Note: My reason for using italics is because it is very rare, in my experience, that they are indeed doing exactly the same work. For example, it is not unusual for a single Test Manager or Test Lead role to be performed by several consulting (overseas) staff. While this may still be economically viable (for the consulting company), it plays havoc with accountability and communication.

But I digress, the main thrust of this article is to provide guidance to Freelance Testing Professionals in these economically challenging times. I’ve already written about how the market is changing, so let me focus on how you can remain a freelancer – if you want to.

Firstly, we need to look at your expertise. You need to be seen as an Expert or Specialist in your particular domain – this can be based upon specific technologies, business classification, software/tools and even methodology. Being seen as an Expert/Specialist is the important part, it’s no good you being the only one who considers you’re an Expert or Specialist. I’ve met far too many people who think they are Experts/Specialists. I have worked continuously within the software testing industry for over 25 years and I consider that my Specialist skills are currently confined to just one or two areas – Test Strategy and Program-level Test Management. I can easily perform another 20 or so roles (within multiple IT disciplines), but I am not an Expert or Specialist in those areas. This is not because I’m sub-standard at those jobs, it’s because I don’t consider that my skills in the majority of those other jobs are up to date and/or totally relevant in the current technological climate. In some cases, it’s also because I’ve fallen out of love with those roles…

By the way, before I move on – how do I know I’m considered an Expert/Specialist? Because people call me and ask my opinion about stuff. People call me and offer me jobs in other states and countries, because they don’t have someone there with my experience. People ask me to speak at Conferences and design Training Courses. This is not a position I covet, it is a position that I respect and every day I try to learn at least one new skill or technique that will make me a better software testing professional.

Second, be prepared to flexible with regards to location. I have commuted interstate on several occasions during the past 25 years, sometimes for more than 12 months at a time in order to protect my freelance status. I’ve also worked overseas for short periods (the longest being 9 months). If you are only prepared to work within 30 Kms of your home then you better be prepared for long periods of bench time.

Third, be prepared to negotiate on rates and/or terms and conditions. I know people who won’t get out of bed for less than $1200 a day!! Get over yourselves – your ego will love you, but your wife won’t when she has to go to Target instead of DJs… I have NEVER turned down a job because of money. I know you’re going to tell me that your kids Private School fees mean that you have to earn $200 per hour, but surely 80% (or even 50%) of your usual rate is better than nothing. Years ago, Lin and I developed a spreadsheet that showed the projected income (for a year) for every $10 per day you increase/reduce your income and once you notice how long it takes to make up lost income you will very soon see that negotiation is far more sensible than pride. We also developed a budgeting tool that assumed a 40 weeks per year working ratio and every cent over that amount went into a savings fund for time off for holidays and training. Yes, a training budget is essential for freelancers, in order that we stay current with technology, tools, methodologies etc. NOTE: I always worked more than 40 weeks each financial year, so there was always a bonus left in the kitty for additional holidays and/or training.

Fourth, even if you are an Expert/Specialist, sometimes you have to take other work. Don’t be proud, suck it up and Just Do It. I’ve been a Freelancer for the majority of my Testing career (as I said over 25 years) and I’ve never been out of work for more than 2 weeks – and that 2 weeks was when I returned from working in the UK for 15 months and I couldn’t attend interviews until I was back in the country. My 25 years as a software testing professional has been sprinkled with non-core testing roles (I’ve been a Release Manager, a Trainer, a Project Manager etc.) but I have always been able to maintain my freelance status on my terms.

Fifth, if you have less than 7 years experience at your current level (Test Analyst, Test Lead, Test Manager etc.) you should consider returning to a permanent job until the current phase of off-shoring has run its full cycle and the market returns to a more normal state. Seven years may sound like a lot but, believe me, if you have less then you’re prime meat for replacement by a cheaper resource.

Sixth, Network, Network, Network. My last five jobs have all come from my Network, not from the job market. There are many ways to build and maintain a professional network these days, not least via simple online tools like LinkedIn and Twitter. There are also increasing numbers of local special interest groups and meet ups – join them and cultivate them. I see many jobs mentioned on Twitter that will never make it to the job market. I also get at least one call a week asking me if I’m available for a Test Manager or Strategist role – I’m also asked if I know of someone else who I may recommend. Don’t all rush though, I have a very short list of people I recommend and you probably know who you are already..

Finally, if you can’t beat them – join them!! Look at strategies for segueing out of your current freelance status. There are several options. Some of the consulting companies who are messing with the market actually hire freelance staff (I’ve worked for some of them) to get them over peaks in their own workload or they have a shortfall in a specialist area. Go see what it’s like on the other side – it’s a little different (as you will often have two bosses – one in the Consulting company and the other at the Client site). My favourite assignment of the last 10 years was with a major international consulting company!!

In summary, don’t wait until your current freelance assignment is coming to an end, act now to future proof your freelance status. If you want help and support doing this I will be more than happy to provide assistance and guidance – just write to me or call me.

Dateline: Thursday May 16, 2013; Melbourne

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4 thoughts on “How to Survive in a Challenging Freelance Market

  1. Nice post, Colin (though I can unhappily disprove your theory that all Aussie testers are driving luxury cars to holiday homes). The little I’ve heard of what’s happening “out there” (i.e. the wider testing profession in Australia) has leaned towards the gloomy. That said, isn’t a lot of the outsourcing / offshoring occurring at an enterprise level? There seem to be continuing opportunities in smaller businesses (at least in Bris-Syd-Melb), and that’s where I’m aiming my future career towards. Probably not as well paid, but the environment in small-mid sized businesses has tended (in my limited experience) to be better, the bureaucracy much reduced and a greater freedom on doing your job how you see fit.

    • Hi Dean, thanks for the feedback. I would definitely recommend the approach you’re taking. Better to work with second and third tier organisations and take a little less money. Low risk, long term thinking is the best approach in my experience; I’ve done the same at various times on my journey.
      Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  2. Many a truth in your article; time we realised the market is not what is was all cut out to be, there are times when we may even need to move out of the market into another role all together.

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