Curious how to make it as a freelancer? A guide to getting started -- whether you're a software engineer, data scientist, or UX designer.
With more and more people disavowing the traditional 9-to-5 in favor of remote work, freelancing has emerged as a more attractive option than ever before. While being self-employed was once seen as sacrificing financial stability, 65% of freelancers agree that “having a diversified portfolio of income from multiple clients is more secure than having one employer.” Statista predicts that by 2027, 86.5 million people will be freelancers in the U.S. and will make up 50.9% of the total workforce, up from 41% in 2020.
During the last five years, 50% of organizations substantially increased their freelance workforce. Freelancers also report having more opportunities for career advancement than traditional full-time employees. 72% of freelancers agree with the statement “My position provides the opportunity for upward mobility” compared with 53% of non-freelancers.
The tech industry offers innumerable opportunities for freelancers, especially when it comes to in-demand roles like software engineering, data science, and UX design—fields already plagued by a talent shortage.
Here’s how to make a go of it as a freelancer in each of these professions.
Software engineers often contract with companies as freelancers (short- to medium-term work for one or more companies) or consultants (long-term work with one company). Software development is such a broad field, so find your niche and determine what services you offer before you pitch yourself as a freelancer. Make it easy for clients to understand what they’ll gain from hiring you.
Being a WordPress developer is also a highly lucrative specialization, given that WordPress powers 42% of all websites. WordPress developers help clients extend the functionality of WordPress—a low-code content management system (CMS)—create custom web designs, secure the site, and back up their data. You can also specialize in developing specific types of websites, such as setting up e-commerce platforms or creating custom integrations for a SaaS product.
Register a domain and sign up for web hosting for your portfolio site. As a software developer, your personal website is a tangible testament to the quality of your work. Remember, people hire developers for their problem-solving skills, so talk through the solutions you’ve created for other clients or past employers in a case study format: pain points, solution, outcome. Finally, know your strengths, be it an analytical mind or a penchant for understanding and communicating business requirements. An active GitHub profile is an absolute must for a developer.
Your hourly rate depends on your skills and experience, your clients, and your niche. Beginning freelancers charge between $20 – $50 per hour, while senior web developers charge anything between $120 – $450 per hour.
Sign up with freelancing platforms, recruiting agencies, job boards, and DaaS (Developer as a Service) platforms. Also, try micro-consulting platforms such as Airpair, Codementor and Pluralsight (formerly Hackhands), which offer short-term agile projects.
Data science is an extremely broad field, and yet, recent hiring patterns have begun favoring those with specialized skills rather than data science generalists. As investment in AI, machine learning, big data, and cloud computing continue to trend upward, companies are seeking data professionals with expertise in these areas. Note that you need a few years of experience to be a freelance data scientist. Ideally, you have a master’s degree in computer science and several years in a full-time data science role.
Specialist roles in data science include data engineering (building ETL pipelines, data warehouses and other infrastructure), machine learning engineer, algorithms developer, and data analyst. Specialization not only comes with a salary boost but the opportunity to handle more meaningful projects. Narrow down further by choosing a niche, such as building recommendation engineers for content websites, or using computer vision in SaaS applications. That doesn’t mean you can’t work on other projects, but it puts your services in material terms for prospective clients who may not fully understand what a data scientist does.
The best way to build your brand is by speaking at conferences or writing a blog. The ability to write critically about a technical field is important. Data scientists spend a lot of time communicating complex concepts to non-technical audiences—especially freelancers who work with multiple clients on short- or medium-term projects. You can also teach classes on data science topics through a boot camp or MOOC, or sign up to mentor other data scientists. Companies like Interview Query and Springboard are always looking for qualified data science mentors.
Get familiar with cloud computing and Python and cultivate an in-depth knowledge of at least one analytical tool such as R programming. Forty-three percent of data scientists use R to solve statistical problems. Python is one of the most common programming languages required for data science roles, along with Java, Perl, and C/C++. Python is so versatile that you can use it for nearly all the steps involved in data science processes, from creating datasets to building ETL pipelines. Many data scientists are not proficient in machine learning and AI; with this expertise, you’ll stand out as a freelancer. This means knowing how to work with neural networks, adversarial learning, decision trees, supervised machine learning, and logistic regression.
You need a body of open-source projects you’ve either contributed to or created from scratch. If you require additional projects for your portfolio, consider volunteering with DataKind. The organization engages pro bono data scientists to work with other nonprofits on projects that address humanitarian problems, such as creating paths out of homelessness or increasing access to safe sanitation.
According to ZipRecruiter, the average annual pay for a freelance data scientist in the U.S. is $100,943. That works out to $48.24 an hour.
AngelList is an excellent place to find startups that are looking to hire data scientists on a contract basis. If you’re just starting out, try joining freelance directories like Toptal, Upwork, Freelancer, People Per Hour, and Workana. It also helps to have a presence on data science forums such as Data Science Central, Data Science Stack Exchange, KDnuggets, and Kaggle, and participate in data science competitions. You never know where your next referral might come from.
Compared with professionals in other IT fields, UX designers are the most likely to freelance, with 34% of freelance IT professionals surveyed working in design. UX designers use empathy, creativity, and problem-solving skills to design intuitive digital interfaces.
If you have a background in another industry, consider how you can market it as an asset. For example, say you worked in healthcare administration before becoming a UX designer. You have special insight into the employee experience for healthcare workers (eg: red tape, outdated legacy software) as well as the patient experience (eg: lack of price transparency, scant facetime with doctors), so you know how to use technology solutions to solve pain points.
A good freelance UX design portfolio combines beautiful visuals with descriptive copy. Remember, clients want to know your thought process, the rationale behind your design decisions. Also, never underestimate the importance of good writing skills, even if UX writing is not your specialty. UX copy is an extremely important part of UX design, and communication skills are frequently listed in UX design job descriptions.
Create case studies of past projects to prove your skills. Describe the client, detail their pain points, and explain what solutions you created. Include ‘before’ and ‘after’ visuals and quantify how your design impacted UX metrics like user engagement and goal completion. Detail your methodology throughout the entire design cycle—from user research to prototyping, usability tests and iterations.
An effective portfolio should include, at a minimum:
You’ll also need to purchase subscriptions to industry-standard design tools such as Sketch, Figma, Balsamic, Adobe XD, and InVision.
Freelance UX designers are typically paid on a weekly, hourly, or project basis. For project-based pay, estimate the number of hours it will take to complete the project and multiply that by the hourly rate you are willing to accept. Popular contractor platform Upwork lists the sample UX designer rates of an intermediate-level, U.S.-based specialist as the following:
Aside from typical freelancer directories like UpWork, PeoplePerHour, Fiverr, Toptal and FlexJobs, design-specific platforms like Dribbble and Behance (run by Adobe) provide portfolio-hosting services and design job boards. Finally, make sure to join the UX Rescue Slack channel, which helps connect UX practitioners to organizations in need across the globe.
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