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Should we accept freelance projects to work on after our daily work?

I am pretty sure each software developer has been thinking at least once about dumping his/her workplace and getting into freelancing. I have always been dreaming about being my own boss, being able to accept only projects that are really interesting and of course having a flexible schedule. And by flexible schedule I mean to be able to work 3 hours one day and 12 on the next. Or working two hours from 7 to 9 in the morning and then again work a few hours in the evenings.

This is a dream for most of us, but we also need some sort of financial security, to know that at the end of each month we are able to pay for the rent, the electricity and we can afford another shipment of coffee for the next month. This is not an issue if you already have several loyal clients and you continuously have something to work on, but it gets a lot more complicated if you are just starting to find your first clients. After finishing university and working full time over the past few years, I have declined most of the freelance projects I was offered and in only 4 years I have lost all my important clients. So when I have decided to give freelancing another chance, I have started it all again from the bottom…

I can’t afford to simply quit my daily job and spend several months on trying to get some constant work by accepting projects that have very low budget. So I ended up taking freelance projects in the evenings, after my daily work. It sucked. I didn’t enjoy working, since I was too tired and was very difficult to get projects, because I had to tell the clients that it would take longer than they expect me to complete the tasks, since I could only work 1 or 2 hours per day on them. In the first weeks I said to myself that it was totally worth it, because I could try out new things that I couldn’t do at my workplace and this got me going for a while. But after almost two months I have experienced something that is called ‘burnout’ for the first time. I have finished most of the smaller tasks/projects I’ve been assigned and didn’t bid on new ones anymore. Although I did not work in the evening anymore, I still had 3 weeks until my holiday and I felt terrible at my workplace. I completed my tasks, because I had to, not because I have enjoyed working on them. Fortunately I was able to take a 2 weeks long holiday and everything went back to normal at my workplace, the effects of the burnout have vanished.

So my answer for the question in the title would be clearly no, because it is very hard to work on 2-3 projects a day, especially if they are created using different technologies. But that doesn’t mean one shouldn’t work on side projects. I still have several private projects that I work on, but not daily and nobody is stressing me to finish them. I work on them because I enjoy it and not because I want to make a living of it, so there is absolutely no pressure on me. Furthermore, side projects may come handy when you want to switch workplaces, as interviewers value if somebody works on his/her ideas or gives value back to the community by making your private projects open. Actually has an interesting article worth reading on this topic: Who needs side projects?. Extra projects may offer a lot of value for a developer, we may try out APIs that most of us will never use at his workplace if working at a big multinational company, for instance Twitter/Facebook APIs. You also have to do the whole planning and architecture thing, that usually others do for you at big companies and you just have to follow the plan. You have to do all phases of the development, from planning to deployment and that is awesome. It is also a good way to keep up with the constant changes in technologies and try out new ones.

To conclude, taking extra work in the evenings after our daily job may turn bad, as it did for me. This approach to get clients and get back to freelancing again did not work for me. I plan to enjoy the benefits of my full time job for now and when next time I get the feeling that I need a little bit more freedom and flexibility, I will most probably contact a recruiting company and become a contractor instead of a freelancer. Some big companies let you work on your own stuff in 20% of the time, which is enough to let you work on your side projects, so you will probably not stay in front of you computer at all after work at all. Unfortunately none of the companies I worked for has offered this benefit and I can’t really name any company that does in Cluj right now, but hopefully things will change in the near future…