How to Make Money As a Freelance or Contract Coder

By Laurence MacNaughton for Hack Reactor

What’s the best way for a software engineer to make money without necessarily taking a 9-to-5 job as a company employee? What’s the secret to finding a continuous flow of incoming freelance work? How can you build a reputation that empowers you to command higher rates and earn more money?

To find out, we asked established freelance and contract coders for the secrets to their success.

Here’s what they said:

1. Instead of competing on job boards, make meaningful connections.

For many aspiring freelancers, the first place to look for work is often a job board. But although opportunities may seem plentiful on boards, intense competition often turns it into a race to the lowest price.

“I’ve tried job boards. For me, I think that work gets too commoditized. It just becomes about the lowest bidder, and doesn’t really guarantee good software, to be honest,” says Troy Hojel, who has been doing freelance developer work for about 15 years. “I stay away from that kind of price war.”

Doug Green, a contract developer who usually works for large companies on long-term contracts, agrees.

 “I don’t go out to job boards. For the last 10 years or so, my jobs have all been from relationships with people that have known me because of my work,” Green says.

Instead of competing against other freelancers on job boards, focus on meeting people, making connections, and building lucrative business relationships.

Attending and speaking at conferences can help you make connections that lead to jobs.

 “In doing those things early on, going to conferences and talking, I built a nice reputation where people know who I am. It’s a cool place to be,” Green says.

Social media can work, too.

“I found the gig that I have right now because my previous gig was running out, and I sent out a tweet. Several people that knew me from the Drupal community retweeted it. And somebody that I had built a relationship with over the last 10 or 15 years saw my tweet and said, hey, would you come work for us?” Green says. “I had a new gig in a day or two.”

2. Build a reputation for quality, and clients will seek you out.

The real money in freelancing comes from providing high-quality work to clients who are willing to pay for it. But in order to find a steady supply of work, you need to start by proving that you can deliver quality work.

Green compares it to getting an advanced degree of some kind.

“In a Ph.D. program you produce a thesis and this shows why you are now qualified for this type of job. I did something like that with Drupal. I wrote some code that people found useful and I built a reputation in the community,” Green says. “Since then I’ve graduated on from doing free community work because now that I have that reputation, people want to hire me.”

“You build your reputation in order to get the work. Put the time in. Do it right so that you don’t have a ton of bugs,” says Hojel. “It’s just like any other business. You slowly build a reputation for yourself.”

Once you do that, you will no longer have to compete based on price alone. You can charge higher rates, because you have proven that you’re worth it.

“There are so many people willing to write code for so cheap these days. But there are pitfalls that come with that, and clients get what they pay for,” says Hojel. “I try to always deliver value far beyond what they’re paying for so that I get the call next time. And I get more work.”

3. Find someone to teach you the ropes.

One of the most invaluable things you can do to further your career is by learning from someone who has been where you want to be and has done what you want to do.

That might mean learning from experienced software engineering instructors in an online coding bootcamp. Sometimes, it might mean connecting with fellow bootcamp cohort students.

“Finding a mentor really helped me. I found someone who was sitting next to me in one of my classes, and we became friends. He was much more experienced. Once or twice a month, we’d go have a beer and I would just ask him a thousand questions. He really helped me,” says Hojel.

Whether you find a mentor among those already in your network, or you make a connection when you take a coding bootcamp online, it’s important to learn the skills you need from someone with real-world experience.

4. Focus on the long term.

By nature, coding bootcamps are short-term and intensive. But your career is a long-term commitment. There are plenty of efficiencies and best practices along the way, but no shortcuts. To build a career that lasts, you need a vision for the long haul.

Make meaningful connections with people in your bootcamp cohort and in your industry, so that you can move beyond the job boards. Build a reputation for producing quality work, so that clients seek you out, and new jobs continually flow to you.

Above all, find someone who has been there and can teach you the things you need to know. That’s the best way to set yourself up for success and make money as a freelance or contract coder.

Find out more about taking a coding bootcamp online.

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