Some of you might have noticed there is a pretty huge gap on my blog. It has been more than a year since I last published a post. So what happened in the meantime? Well I quit my job, that’s what happened! 2019 was the beginning of a big next step in my career: I went independent. In this blog post I’m going to look back on the process, the benefits and downsides of independent contracting, and my next steps. Warning: this is not a technical blog-post, it’s more a 'dear diary' type entry!
When I was 10 or so I wanted to be a veterinarian. I soon found that being allergic to almost everything that has hair is not beneficial to such a career choice. When I was in high-school I got really into programming, so going for a Computer Science career was a pretty obvious choice. I already knew that I wanted to be a developer, and I also knew that I wanted to be a freelancer. My plans probably did not involve waiting until I was almost 39, but that’s just a minor detail.
Most of my career I have been in consulting/contracting in some form. As a developer mostly but I’ve also had more advisory or sales oriented roles. I worked for my first employer for about 10 years (a decade; more than half my career at this time) and while I learned a lot it was mostly as a generalist. As a consultant mainly focused on pre-sales and integration projects you use whatever tools the client already has.
When I made my previous switch to a new employer I specifically wanted to work in contracting but this time as a technical specialist. For my personal projects as well as the "use whatever you want" professional projects I always gravitated towards the Java ecosystem. Not because Java itself is the best language ever (back then I preferred C# actually), but because of the awesome open source ecosystem. This is how I ended up working for JDriven: a small organisation specialised in contracting for complex enterprise Java projects.
Initially I set myself the goal to work there for 4 years. I did not want to make the same mistake of working for the same organisation for 10 years again, becoming 'part of the furniture'. I ended up loving the company so much that I spent a year more than intended; especially in the first years I learned so much and I made some great lasting friendships there. Leaving that company felt more like 'breaking up' than saying goodbye.
The start of 2018 I set myself the goal of starting as an independent contractor in Jan 2019. Part of my strategy to make sure I would follow through on that plan, was simply telling people about it. I told friends, family and even a few close colleagues. I was very specific too; no later than Jan 2019. It was nice to share plans; but it was also scary. There was already no going back; I could not bear to have to explain to people why I didn’t make the move.
Around the summer something interesting happened. I had been working at Yolt, an ING start-up for about 2 years. For me personally I tend to set a hard cut-off on projects; I don’t want to do the same thing for more than 2 years because I don’t want to get stale. Switching projects is scary, but it’s by far the best way to learn new things. But because I already planned to leave the company I also figured I could spend another 6 months at Yolt.
However; my manager at JDriven came up with a great opportunity for me at an at that time new customer: Intergamma. This resulted in a nice dilemma. On one hand; it was the right time for a switch and it was an awesome opportunity for me: the first at a new customer, in an official architect role, being able to make a difference and pave the way for colleagues. On the other hand; I already knew I’d be telling them I would be leaving in just a few more months. Also; there was no way of telling my manager that I did not want the project without telling him that I planned on leaving; it was a great fit for me.
So; I said yes. I had a great time at Intergamma, for a few months. Still learned a lot so in the end I was glad I did. I just felt pretty bad about disappointing some people.
Early 2018 I started with what’s basically the 'business plan'. As an independent contractor the business model is simple: you contract yourself out and get paid by the hour. It was the same thing I had been doing already for years, with the main difference that I now had to find my own projects.
So my 'business plan', just a Google Doc with sections of bullet points, was mainly focussed on who do I know, or can I get to know, to get a contract. Friends, old colleagues, websites, you name it.
Second to that; there was also a list of stuff I had to arrange, and when they had to be done. Here in Holland you have to register with the Chamber of Commerce for a company; typically with the "sole proprietor" legal structure. This allows you to get a Chamber of Commerce number that lets you get a business bank account, register on contractor sites, etc.
Another big issue, for me at least, was that I had been driving lease cars for a long time. It had been quite some time that I had owned a car, and buys a car by yourself is rather scary. There’s also loads of options; do I buy a (relatively) new car? Second hand? Or do I lease? It was not a choice I could put off; I would need a car (I have a family after all) and I would lose access to my lease car the end of Dec. To some it might seem trivial, but for me it was a big headache.
Eventually I settled for a 'young timer': it’s a fairly weird arrangement here in Holland: if you have a car that’s part of your business you pay 'fiscal addition'. Basically you add a virtual amount to your income based on a percentage of the value of a car. The percentage depends on the type of car (electric cars are cheaper). For example for a typical gas-fueled car you add 25% of the list price per year. And yes; that’s expensive.
However; if that car is older than 15 years you pay 35% on the current value of a car. Which suddenly is very attractive. This is why a lot of freelancers and business owners in Holland either drive a new Tesla, or a 15+ year old car.
Other than that; it was a fairly typical to-do list. Insurances, finding a nice application to do administration, etc. Fortunately I had a lot of people in my network who already went through the same process and gave great tips and suggestions.
Getting the Show on the Road
If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest from home I’ve ever been.
The Fellowship of the Ring
At the end of October I tendered my resignation with JDriven. For me this was the farthest from home I’d ever been. I had never resigned before without having another job lined up. It was scary. Very exciting as well, but most of all scary. Being the primary source of income in our family was a large part of that. We had some savings, but I really did need to be able to find a project for myself soon.
The second week of November I announced on LinkedIn that I would be leaving JDriven and start as an independent contractor. My LinkedIn exploded! Most of you who are developers probably have experiences with recruiters, but this was a whole other level. Which of course made me really confident about the chance of getting a project in time.
However; a very large percentage of those recruiters contacting me were offering contracts with very low (below 75 euros an hour) fees: taking a very large cut for themselves. This I considered a 'fall back' option at best. And what I also noticed is that companies, when they find out your earliest start date is in about two months, are not all that interested anymore: when it comes to contracting out work they want you to start yesterday.
I got a few leads from people in my network which eventually worked out the best for me. One lead didn’t go anywhere in the end, but another eventually lead to my current client: Bol.com. But even there, with a direct referral, it turned out it was quite nerve-wracking: by now it was half December and recruiting almost shuts down during these months. Getting a response was hard, and I kept bugging my contact there to keep pushing. Fortunately, eventually it lead to an intake and a contract! Even though the assignment in itself was not the best fit for my skill set (it was more Ops oriented than I would like) I took it: beggars can’t be choosers!
And We’re Underway
Already during my first initial 3 month contract period I found it that, as expected, the role was not a good fit. I love software engineering and I was doing a lot of useful stuff, but it was not software engineering. And while the team and the people were awesome, I simply wasn’t having fun. Luckily, together with my manager there we eventually found a much better spot in a feature team developing a cool new service. And what’s even better; I get to finally develop in Kotlin!
So what is ahead of me? Well, it’s interesting, but I don’t really know. 'Going independent' has been a goal of mine for a long time, to a certain extent since I decided I wanted to be a developer. And now that goal is reached. What are the next steps? Currently I really don’t know. Which is a bit of a bummer on one hand (I like having goals to work towards), but on the other hand I’m extremely happy so I guess for now I don’t really need new goals?
One goal I set for myself for this year is to do at least one talk at a conference, and to restart blogging again. I have loads of things to talk and write about. And while these goals are not 'new', I still feel they’re things that I should keep doing, and not just things that I can cross of my career bucket list.
So this 'dear diary' post is my first step towards getting 'into the groove' of blogging again. It’s also a post I’m writing mostly for myself, as a 'present', since I know very well that the technical 'how to' posts attract a lot more attention. But if this helps others who want to make the jump; excellent!
The Path Behind Me
Looking back I can only wonder 'why not sooner'. It’s not that I regret the choices I made at all; they got me where I am now. But life as an independent contractor is excellent. Of course the money is awesome and a big factor. But it’s more than that; it’s the freedom.
I can just do whatever the heck I like. If I don’t like what I do, I can have a chat with the manager and see if they have a better spot for me. If I feel ill, the only people I need to let know is my team. If I think a client sucks I don’t have to argue with an account manager that the client is not a good fit. One of the 'worst' memories I had with my previous employer was an account manager telling me a client 'wasn’t so bad' when all I saw was red flags. If I see red flags now, I can just follow my instincts and say no, without feeling like I am going to disappoint my manager. And that client that 'wasn’t so bad'? The company withdrew all developers a few months later. It was that bad.
While I do miss the friends I made at my previous company, I don’t miss working for one. Sure; you have nice parties. But you can easily have your own fun parties. I noticed independent developer band together a lot and often form groups that go to meetups, have dinner, etc. Not only are these great socially; they’re awesome for building and extending your network as well.
This leads to my key learning: your network matters. I got my first client through my network without a recruitment firm that takes a cut in between, giving me a lot more room to negotiate price. It’s important to start building that network as soon as possible, and it’s important to also maintain that network. Entrepreneurs love to help each other out.
About 9 years ago I went canyoning with my girlfriend in Croatia. Somewhere along the route I had the option to either rappel down, or to take a 10 meter jump down into the water in a narrow gorge. It was a tall cliff over a very narrow spot of water a long way down. I took that jump.
It’s incredibly similar to the jump I took a little over a year ago. I had to hype myself up and talk myself into taking that jump. I also told others I wanted to take the jump, so there wasn’t a way back without looking bad. The moment I took the step; my heart was in my throat. Everything started accelerating. And just when I started to worry about my landing, everything turned out perfectly fine.
Every now and then it’s important to take a leap of faith. Big changes are scary, but they also tend to have the big benefits attached to them. So in my opinion the things that scare you are the things you should do.