Monday, May 4, 2009

IT Freelancing Lessons Learned the Hard Way

There will come a time in every young IT professional’s life when he or she is faced with a choice: To freelance or not to freelance?  Chances are, if you’ve got any talent with computer repair at all, someone at your place of employ has asked you to “take a look at” their computer.  They recognize you as an expert, have some issue at home that needs resolution, and show no hesitation toward you working on their personal computer.

While the idea of making a little extra money on the side is always appealing, there are several things you will need to keep in mind, and several ways your would-be clients will try to take advantage of you.  Keep in mind that they don’t mean to do it, they just don’t know any better.

First, you should really think about whether or not you really have time to do the extra work.  If you’re working a normal 9 to 5 job, your free time is precious, and shouldn’t be given away lightly.  Dig deep and be hard on yourself on this one.  Potential income gained by doing extra work often times does not outweigh the value of free time.

Second, you should really ask yourself if you’re capable of doing the work being asked of you.  It’s really easy to get yourself into situations that are above your head, especially when dealing with sensitive data, such as photos and music.  Your client is looking to you to tell them what you’re capable of, and if you really can’t do what they’re asking, tell them.  A little embarrassment is a lot better than losing a coworker’s data.

Another thing to ask yourself would be if you’re prepared to become that person’s full-time computer support technician.  The problem with working on a coworker’s computer is that, well, you see them at work.  If you take their machine home and the fix isn’t going fast enough for them, you will probably hear about it, most likely several times a day.  Some people can deal well with this, some can’t.  If you can’t, perhaps doing house calls instead of taking custody of their computer is the right direction for you to take.

Finally, and arguably most importantly, is the method of payment.  Have this conversation up front.  Make sure you tell your potential client exactly what you want to be paid, and discuss exactly what you are going to be doing.  Failing to have this conversation can lead to an assumption on the client’s part that you’re working for free, or that you’re going to be doing more work that you anticipate.  No matter what sort of payment you’re looking for (i.e. money, food, beer, etc.), state it in no uncertain terms.  Work out exactly what you’re going to be doing, so there is no confusion when you start packing up your tools at the end of the job.

I’ve made my share of mistakes, and the list of tips above outline exactly what I’ve done wrong in my freelancing career.  They’re painful lessons, and these are tips that I follow every time I’m presented with an opportunity to do some side work.  Freelance work can be very rewarding, and can help you get that next geek gadget you’ve been eyeballing.  Follow the tips I’ve given, and you’ll avoid the headaches that I’ve endured over the years.

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