Author Topic: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?  (Read 8360 times)

Roland of Gilead

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Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« on: January 16, 2014, 04:30:58 PM »
I may have asked this awhile back, I can't remember.  It is getting closer to our early retirement date and we are considering some alternatives.

I think we will have income from investments of around $42,000 a year using a 3% SWR.  I also want to continue funding our Roth IRA accounts since we are youngish (will be 46 and 47).   The best way I can see to do this would be some intensive high paying work straddling the new year.  Something like Nov, Dec, Jan, Feb.  This would allow us to fund Roths every year even though we only work once every 20 months.

We need to be able to earn $22,000 in the three or four month period.  This doesn't sound like very much but I am curious if any of you have landed this type of short software contract and how long it took to find it.

jsloan

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #1 on: January 17, 2014, 06:43:52 AM »
I have a full-time job currently, but I have taken on software side projects over the last couple of years for some extra income.  The best side projects tend be referrals from contacts I have made over the years.  I'm also up front with clients about the fact that I have a full-time job and that work can only be completed remotely.  I'm also more willing to compromise on my billable rate in exchange for assurances for 100% remote work and off-hours communications. 

In your case I would be up-front about the fact that you are not looking for full-time work, but are willing to work full-time for the duration of a project.  Willingness to travel would also be a plus if you were willing to do it.   

If you are looking to generate work via contract I would recommend the following:

1.) Personal Contacts: First get in contact with old co-workers via linkedin.com or phone and ask them if they have any overflow work for smaller projects.  This always seems to work best because these contacts tend to already know that you have done quality work in the past so there isn't much time proving your abilities.  You can negotiate a higher billable rate up front.

2.) Advertise yourself: Call around local dev shops and let them know your situation and ask them to keep you in mind if there is any overflow work.  Send them your resume and hope they keep you in mind when needed.  This approach usually only works well if you have a specialized skill set outside of the norm or the company is under staffed.  For example, if you have experience with certain APIs or frameworks.  I have found that usually I have to charge a lower billable rate initially to get the work, but this approach can work out great in the long run, it just takes more time to get things moving initially.   

3.)  Tech Recruiters:  Call some local tech recruiting offices and let them know your situation.  In most cases they already have available contracts which they can refer you to.  The downsides here is that they will take a cut of your billable rate and most positions do tend to be full-time.     

3.) Lastly you can try your hand at freelancing websites or craigslist.com, but this is usually only worth it if you have very specialized skills that merit a high billable rate even in the international market.  For example technologies like ERP systems, specialized financial software, specialized embedded devices, medical software, etc.

Hopefully that helps and good luck!             

TwoWheels

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #2 on: January 18, 2014, 07:26:48 AM »
Roland, I hope you don't mind me piggybacking on your thread. I quit my full-time software job last year and am looking to get into freelancing. I have some questions for anyone who's done it before:

1. Did you do anything to protect yourself from being sued by a client, like forming an LLC or carrying liability insurance?

2. I was thinking of joining a freelancing site as a starting point. I figure that once I start to build a reputation, I'll make my own website and raise my rate. Does this sound like a good approach? (I'll also take some of jsloan's excellent advice - thanks!)

3. At my old job, every project went through two rounds of code review. On complicated projects, we were almost always able to find some errors in each other's code - another set of eyes really helps. I'm concerned about how I'll write extremely robust code without the benefit of another perspective. Any advice on thorough/systematic testing?

4. I have a lot of experience with C#.NET and Windows Installer, but I'm also a quick learner and can pick up pretty much any language or technology. I can't decide whether it's better to market myself as a specialist or to cast a wider net.

the fixer

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #3 on: January 18, 2014, 07:48:29 AM »
I've been doing freelance web development on and off for a while, currently on. I've answered similar questions before if you check my previous posts. But to address these questions directly:
  • I started out doing contract work for former employers who found me essential in the short-term after I resigned. This was a good way to learn the ins-and-outs of billing, tracking payment, negotiating rates, etc. More recently, I have one current client that was an unsolicited referral from a former coworker, and I'm wrapping up my second job from oDesk. I've never carried liability insurance, since I don't feel like the potential for me to cause major monetary damage to a client is that high.
  • TwoWheels, most of the serious development contract positions I've done or been considered for on oDesk were working with a team, so that allowed for some of the review you'd like, but it wasn't as formal.
  • Bill rates, to illustrate the difference: My very first contract job was a bit of work setting up a Windows server for a small business just starting up for $50/hour in early 2008. I also made $50/hour on a close-to-full-time contract in 2012, and started charging one or two clients $65/hour for very limited work (maybe 2 hours/month). So far on oDesk I've made $45/hour, and turned down a full-time contract position that would only pay $35/hour (max offer was $40).
  • I would like to specialize more in RoR, but I keep getting contracts for random webby stuff. The contract I'm finishing is to build a website almost entirely with static HTML (!)

Roland of Gilead

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #4 on: January 18, 2014, 07:44:55 PM »
Interesting responses.  My wife is the one with all of the contacts as she is a senior software engineer at a large company with about 24 years in the industry (she knows EVERYTHING).  I can do a little software work but my background is hardware.  Maybe I can be her tester :-)

Insanity

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #5 on: January 18, 2014, 07:52:48 PM »
I've tried eLance (which merged with oDesk if I remember correctly).  I gave up very quickly as a lot of the bidders were under-bidding drastically to get their foot in the door. 

You could check on LinkedIn, Dice, or Monster to see if anyone has posted contract jobs up there (some do).  There's a couple of other ones (stack overflow might have some).

Word of mouth is usually the best way, so reach out to your network.

jsloan

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #6 on: January 18, 2014, 08:36:30 PM »
Quote
1. Did you do anything to protect yourself from being sued by a client, like forming an LLC or carrying liability insurance?

Yes my wife and I have an LLC so personal assets are protected.  I also pay myself a salary as president of the company and pay taxes quarterly.  This avoids a lot of issues with tax red flags as some years we make a lot more money than others and have employed other developers on bigger projects.  I have had liability insurance in the past, (it was actually required on a couple of government bids) but generally it wasn't worth the cost because I was getting most of my work as a 3rd party (hired through an established dev shop with their own insurance).  I think in your situation starting out it would probably be a good idea to protect yourself with insurance, but as you become more established or depending upon the contract work it may not be needed. 

Quote
I was thinking of joining a freelancing site as a starting point. I figure that once I start to build a reputation, I'll make my own website and raise my rate. Does this sound like a good approach? (I'll also take some of jsloan's excellent advice - thanks!)

I think this sounds like a great approach to get your feet wet.  As your skills improve don't feel like you need to settle for 3rd world rates.  On a lot of freelance sites you will have a lot of international competition, but that doesn't mean you can't make some good contacts and learn a lot.  Doing work at a reduced rate would be great to build up your portfolio as well.

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At my old job, every project went through two rounds of code review. On complicated projects, we were almost always able to find some errors in each other's code - another set of eyes really helps. I'm concerned about how I'll write extremely robust code without the benefit of another perspective. Any advice on thorough/systematic testing?

In corporate world sometimes code reviews can be opportunities for other programmers to nitpick another programmers code without adding much value to the software itself.  Code reviews can be very helpful to establish coding standards, best practices, etc within an organization but I'm not entirely sold on it being a great exercise to produce great software.  Code reviews are not a necessity, testers/QA people are.   

As part of my quotes I always include time for testing and I assign hours estimates for testing.  This forces the client to realize that testing is an integral part of the project.  In most cases I encourage the testing time to be done by an internal resource who will eventually become a system admin.  This has 2 direct benefits: 1.) an internal resource has an understanding of the inner workings of the system BEFORE go live so it will be an easier transition once the programming is complete and 2.) you have another set of eyes using the system and identifying bugs, issues, new features, etc.  If the client does not have a qualified internal resource you now have some hours to outsource testing to someone else to help you test (maybe you wife :-)).     

Lastly you can always write/generate your own unit tests to test code for things like null values, negative numbers, etc, but nothing can replace good testing.         

A good read on testing: http://www.joelonsoftware.com/articles/fog0000000067.html

Quote
I have a lot of experience with C#.NET and Windows Installer, but I'm also a quick learner and can pick up pretty much any language or technology. I can't decide whether it's better to market myself as a specialist or to cast a wider net.

C# can get your foot in door with a lot of different projects since you could do anything from web/mobile development to games and desktop software.  At first, I would recommend bidding on some projects that you feel comfortable you could accomplish without much trouble from a technical standpoint.  A small desktop app or easy web app would be my recommendations.  This will allow you to get a feel for the way that contracts work without also feeling overwhelmed by the project and get used to the business of contract work.  Contract software development is 50% technical 50% social and a lot developers don't realize this when they start out.  I think a lot of experienced developers will jump to contract work and take on big projects while glossing over a lot of the business details like managing hours, dealing with clients and billing.

Hopefully I didn't ramble too much, but contract work is a great way to earn some extra money on your way to FIRE.  Good luck! 

the fixer

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #7 on: January 18, 2014, 09:28:05 PM »
I've tried eLance (which merged with oDesk if I remember correctly).  I gave up very quickly as a lot of the bidders were under-bidding drastically to get their foot in the door. 
Don't give up! I recommend it even though you're increasing my competition :)

Yes, you are competing with people from India, South America, and Eastern Europe who are bidding something ridiculous like $20/hour for Ruby on Rails development. Don't get discouraged. These people might be worth that much, but no more; they don't speak English as a first language, and the ones not in S. America are 8-10 hours off US clients' timezones. Both of my oDesk contracts have been situations where the client hired one of the cheap people first, then brought me in later to clean up the mess. Whether or not this is a sound business strategy is another discussion, but the point is that those of us with real talent in North America are still valued by businesses at reasonable rates, even if it's only to finish out their project and not build the whole thing.

Look and apply for jobs that specify they want people in North America. You're much more likely to get them.

the fixer

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #8 on: January 18, 2014, 10:29:47 PM »
Contract software development is 50% technical 50% social and a lot developers don't realize this when they start out.  I think a lot of experienced developers will jump to contract work and take on big projects while glossing over a lot of the business details like managing hours, dealing with clients and billing.
This is a very good point. Your client is not your boss, but rather your customer. I learned some of this stuff as an employee on work the company was doing on contract. I was in this role several times, and nearly always got some direct access to the client at meetings and such. Also, pay attention to how the project managers and executives treat the client; all of it is stuff you can apply as a freelancer.

TwoWheels

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Re: Anyone have experience with short term software contract work?
« Reply #9 on: January 21, 2014, 06:36:42 PM »
Thanks so much guys! I feel like I have what I need to get started now.

Quote from: jsloan
In corporate world sometimes code reviews can be opportunities for other programmers to nitpick another programmers code without adding much value to the software itself.  Code reviews can be very helpful to establish coding standards, best practices, etc within an organization but I'm not entirely sold on it being a great exercise to produce great software.  Code reviews are not a necessity, testers/QA people are.

This is a good point. At my old employer, code review could sometimes reveal functional problems that wouldn't be caught during QA, but this was because our codebase was so horrendously complex and tangled that there was realistically not much hope of devising comprehensive test plans for large projects. As a contractor I will be able to steer clear of companies like that!