5 tips that will put your Java contracting career on auto-pilot mode

If you are already working as a Java freelancer/contractor or aspiring to become one, here are 5 tips that will put your freelancing career as a programmer on auto-pilot mode. Feel free to share your experience and tips as a freelancer. If you aspire to become a freelancer/contractor then read 5 steps to become a Java freelancer

3 key benefits of contracting/freelancing

1) Better income, normally 1.2 to 2 times the permanent salary.

2) Exposure to wider number of systems, technologies, frameworks, processes, ideas, people, etc to expand your horizons.

3) Professional freedom. For example, you can afford to work 9-10 months and take 2-3 months off to pursue your other dreams & endeavors due to benefits 1) & 2).

Above benefits come at the cost of

1) Not being able to continuously find work. In other words, the job security. You need to have the confidence, skills, experience & the know how to find work in any job market.

2) Your contract rates being under pressure due to fellow Java developers being able to lower their rates to get a foot in the door & offshoring. You need to target high profile jobs that recruit top-notch developers via stringent screening that includes technical tests & written home assignments.

5 Tips to survive as a Java contractor/freelancer

1. Diversify: Don’t put all you eggs in one basket. Freelancing gives you professional freedom. For example, you can work for 18 months for a large client of yours on a contract basis and take 3 months off to pursue your other passions like self-publishing the book that you always wanted  to write or  laying the ground work for the start up or an application that you dreamed of.

The hardest part of being a freelancer is to find work continuously. So, it is imperative that you diversify your income streams.

Another 2 reasons why you need to diversify are

  1. The freelancing or contract rates are on the decline due to more competition from the other freelancers who are prepared to drop their rates to get a foot in the door, and due to  more competitive off shore development option. When I started contracting in 2003, the large organizations offered hourly contracts rates, and then they moved to daily rates, and now a days opting for a fixed term contract amount.
  2. The IT salary or rates start to plateau after 8-10 year experience unless you move into more management roles. I know that many of you out there like me, more passionate about the hands-on technical role.

So, don’t put all your eggs in one basket.  Motivate yourself to diversify. Many of the other diversified actions may not bring in the income for many of you as a full-time contract based assignment with an organization, but they can certainly cushion the effects of being without work in between contracts both emotionally and financially.

This also means diversifying your skills into other sought-after programming languages (e.g. JavaScript, Scala, Clojure, etc), technologies (SOA, BPM, BigData, etc) and frameworks (e.g. AngularJS, Hadoop, etc).

2.  Maintain a repository of your experience: From my personal experience, this takes time. So, start early by spending 15 to 20 hours every week. Blog your experience on your own unique style to be useful to you and others. As a freelancer, I work with wider range of tools and frameworks. By blogging my experience, I don’t have to worry about using a particular tool or framework after a 2 year absence of using it. I know where to go to jog my memory. For example, JasperReports is a very powerful reporting framework. But you don’t get to work on it all the time. Blogging will also enhance your understanding as you will be compelled to do more research on the subject. You may also get free tips from your readers in the form of comments. This repository will even come in handy for your future job interview preparation and be the inspiration for your next POD (Print On Demand) book.

3. Get your current employer to say positive parting words like “keep in touch” OR “see you in 6 – 12 months”.  Generally, contractors stay with an organization for a short term, hence they don’t get a decent farewell as the permanent staff do. This is quite understandable. But, if you had impressed your current employer both technically and non-technically by getting things done effectively, proactively, and on time, you are likely to hear more positive parting words from your managers meaning that you have done a good job and they won’t hesitate to have you back again in the future. I have underlined the word non-technically because your soft skills and attitude are at least equally important as your technical ability to win the hearts and minds of your managers. I have worked with the so called some super star coders who didn’t either get the decent farewell, parting words or the further extension they thought they deserved mainly due to lack of their non-technical skills and  right attitude.

Some freelancers do stay a very long time like 3+ years by earning the reputation as person “who gets anything that we throw at him/her done”. They do have a good handle on the domain knowledge, business processes, and a  number of business applications used.

4. Harness the power of networking: It is imperative to network professionally with all your colleagues and superiors via linkedin.com and other avenues like regular catch ups, emails, etc. As mentioned before, only 30% to 40% of the vacancies or job opportunities are advertised and the remaining are filled internally or via contacts. You will also face less competition and scrutiny when you find your future work via your network. You can even eliminate or reduce the share that is charged by the recruitment or consulting agencies. Some companies do not hire directly and have policy in place to deal through recruitment or consulting companies. So, you need to maintain a good rapport with them as well.

5. Constantly challenge yourself to venture into other initiatives that allow you to create your own branding, application, and small business. Don’t just expect your first idea or plan to always work. If your first idea did not work, come up with more ideas and plans until it works. For example,

  • Your first freelance job was not as you had expected.  You were assigned boring tasks. You were asked to do things that other permanent staff did not want to touch. You mitigate this by asking the right questions about the job on offer at the interview. An interview is a 2 way street. You need to assess the project you will be working on.
  • Your first online article, blog, or book might receive bad reviews. Don’t let those criticisms stop you from keep writing. Learn from your mistakes and grow stronger.

Be an egg hatcher, not a chicken counter. Put your thinking cap on and keep churning out ideas, products, and services. Expanding your horizons as a Java developer

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