Most developers will have considered freelance work at some point. If you haven't, you might do after reading this.
Freelance work often provides a higher wage, flexible working hours and the ability to be your own boss, although it does have some pretty major downsides too.
Depending on your chosen speciality, freelance work can be unstable and lack important mentoring and positive working structures.
Techworld explores both freelance work and permanent employment, offering a balanced guide for those considering a career move.
What are the benefits of freelance work for developers?
Simply, one of the biggest pulls of freelance work is the money. Freelancers are in control of the jobs they take, and as a result, they can set the hourly wage or total cost of the job.
"The pay is a lot better, I guess you're paid to take the job security risk," freelancer developer James Cross tells Techworld.
"A typical developer with 3-5 years experience in London would be expected to earn maybe £40,000-£70,000 gross annual salary."
"They could comfortably earn more than £500 a day as a contractor which is two to three times more money [than a permanent developer]," Cross adds.
Another draw is flexible working hours. Freelance developers will be able to choose not only where they work, but when they work.
"Freelancers can have the ability to work from home, selecting the hours and days that work best for their needs," says Chery Sutjahjo, Talent Strategist at Hired.
"On top of that, some freelancers have the opportunity to choose to only work certain months out of the year, saving the remaining time for personal ventures not necessarily tied to making income."
For developers, finding the right niche is important, as it will ensure they are always in demand and can charge higher rates of pay.
Freelance developers have total control over what jobs they take, and ultimately what projects they work on.
Permanent developers may find that their projects are dictated to them and that they can't really object to tasks or control the majority of the task.
"Freelancers have the power to dictate exactly what they want to work on by accepting (or not accepting) certain projects. This also allows freelancers to become experts in the fields that they choose and hone their skills in an area of choice," explains Sutjahjo.
For non-freelance devs, it can be difficult to voice your opinions and keep a good working relationship with your manager and other colleagues.
Freelancing tends to reduce this tension.
"In the consulting (freelance) environment that I'm in now, if I disagree with what a partner says from a technical point of view, I can say that I don't think that's how it works, or how it should be done," says Cross.
"Whereas if I was a full-time employee, I'd be thinking what repercussions is that going to have on my career or my bonus," adds Cross.
What are the benefits of permanent work for developers?
The biggest benefit of permanent work is just that, it's permanent.
Most freelancers will admit that job security is one of the biggest downsides of freelance work.
"While freelancers operate with an impending 'end date' and have to plan ahead to make sure they’re not scrambling for more work, permanent workers have no such stress," says Sutjahjo.
"Though no work is truly 'permanent', a freelancer generally has less control over how long they work with a particular client and thus face the uncertainty of job security."
Another benefit of permanent work is the working structure itself. Often freelancers miss out on the rewards a good office and working structure, including the mentoring and learning from colleagues.
"The nature of permanent work is more team oriented, with the opportunity and structure to build long-term direct mentorships and partnerships that can serve an individual throughout their entire career," says Sutjahjo.
"Inherently, the nature of freelancing is less about developing the individual and more about getting the completion of a project, it can be beneficial for people who are looking to build their skills and find mentors to stick to the permanent world."
As a final, rather important note, one thing that all freelancers will have to do that permanent employees won't, is manage their own taxes.
This isn't necessarily a benefit of permanent work, but it does mean that for those on permanent contracts, all the stress associated with self-assessment tax is non-existent.
"True independent freelancers have to manage their own taxes and pay for their own benefits, while permanent employees don’t have to worry about that to the same degree and tax and benefits are often centralised in one system," Sutjahjo explains.
What are the cons of freelance work?
While the benefits of freelance work are pretty obvious, so are its downsides. The risks associated with freelance are big and whether you decide to go freelance or not will really depend on your personal circumstances, responsibilities and whether you are in a position to make the move.
"The biggest downside is that the responsibility really is on your shoulders in terms of income. My current contract cycle is three months and previously it was six months," says Cross.
"So in theory, I could be moving jobs every six months and potentially have to interview around a lot which can be stressful.
"Making the initial leap is difficult, especially if you're in a contracted employment position where you have a long notice period. Which can sometimes be incompatible with freelancing as most companies expect you to be able to start work in a couple of weeks.
"People need to be comfortable with the fact that their employment is going to be constantly in flux," adds Cross.
In terms of career progressions, freelance work is much less regulated and will rely heavily on your determination to learn new skills outside of a structured work environment offering you a specific career path.
"As a permanent employee, you’re embedded in the fabric of your company, giving you more exposure to different teams and skill sets. Though the road can be long, it’s much easier to pivot from a software engineer to a product manager, in a permanent work environment," says Sutjahjo.
"Since most freelancers need to be experts in their field, it’s far less likely that employers will take on freelancers with little real world application in a role that they’re looking to pivot into."
What are the cons of permanent work?
Clearly, the lower rate of pay is one of its biggest drawbacks. Permanent developers in some companies will work alongside freelance developers on similar tasks while being paid completely different rates.
"I worked as a software engineer at a company and during my time there I'd worked with a lot of contractors (freelancers) and it was pretty obvious that they were being paid considerably more than us full-time employees," says Cross.
In addition, freelancers have a lot more control over what they work on and who they work for. Depending on what your specialism is, you could be in high demand and be able to only pick the projects that you're passionate about.
Permanent staff have little creative control and must stay within the company career path set out before them. The security this brings is attractive, but for those that want to work on certain things, permanent work is limited in this area.
The biggest deciding factor when facing a choice between freelance or salaried employment really is your personal circumstances. In order to begin freelance work, you'll need to be in a comfortable position financially, and know the risks and how it could affect dependent members of your family.
In addition, your chosen field of expertise will play a huge part as demand is everything in freelance. You will not receive the massive potential benefits of freelance work if your specialism is saturated.
There are major benefits to going freelance however all in all the risks tied to freelancing are big, so it's a decision that shouldn't be taken lightly.