Tech & Work

4 freelance opportunities for tech professionals

Going into business for yourself can be rewarding as well as liberating. Here's a look at four self-employment opportunities if you're considering becoming your own boss.

If you're sick of the nine-to-five corporate lifestyle, or just looking for a side gig, there are plenty of open doors for tech professionals. Turning entrepreneur and going into business for yourself can lead to profit and adventure. Depending upon your abilities and personality, there are opportunities to make more money, meet new people and make a positive difference. Many independent careers can be performed from home or a remote location.

It's not all swashbuckling treasure-hunting, however. Keep in mind you'll be in charge of your own benefits and paying taxes. Furthermore, the buck stops with you, so you'll also be responsible for correcting any mishaps or dealing with any crises. Being completely independent isn't for the faint of heart, but it can yield greater rewards than traditional corporate employment.

Here are four opportunities for IT professionals to strike out on their own. The advantage to these options are that they can be conducted on a part-time basis, which can allow you to get your feet wet and see if the self-employment waters are to your liking.

1. Consultant

This is the most traditional of the opportunities listed here. Being a consultant means selling your knowledge and skills to the right buyers. It can apply to an array of fields, and it can involve working with different individuals or companies each day or week, or it could entail a temporary contract job.

According to PayScale, the average salary of an IT consultant in the United States is about $76K per year; the earnings scale ranges between $42K and $131K. Actual income will vary based on skillset and geographic location.

Mark Pollack, an IT consultant in New York enjoys his work because of the variability. He's worked at a lot of different and interesting companies such as Johnson & Johnson and White & Case. He enjoys the fact that sometimes his work positively affects his client operations. However, Pollack listed cons such as uncertain health benefits, the potential for a quick and unexpected termination of a job, and the challenges of finding new clients. "It's gotten harder as I've gotten older," he said. "I'm 59 now, and have lost gigs because I didn't fit the rest of the company's 'profile.'"

As far as skillsets, Pollack said the ability to learn software extremely rapidly is important. "Microsoft Office is a given, but you should at least be familiar with Jira, SolarWinds, ServiceNow and a host of other platforms," he said. "Being able to pick stuff up on the fly is a must. Also, being a contractor, you need to have a method of motivating people who have no reason to respond to your requests. I usually spend a lot of time with the people I'm working with so that it's harder for them to blow me off when they see me all the time."

A typical assignment first involves finding a client, which is the hardest part, Pollack said. He puts his resume on Dice and CareerBuilder, searches job boards frequently, attends meetups and other networking events and carries a wallet full of business cards since everyone is a potential contact.

Once he is at the client site he makes sure he is familiar with their software, finds out who the people are he needs to keep happy, makes sure he gets to know the the ones he needs to work with and understand what they do. Performing the work is the easiest part, Pollack said, since the work lies in his area of professional expertise, but he stressed, "Make sure your client is aware you are doing the work and it's not happening through some strange magic — believe me on that one!"

SmallBizTrends.com offers a good article on how to become a consultant. One important step involves obtaining the appropriate certifications and licenses, which is especially significant since this option definitely relies upon you knowing as much as you possibly can about your chosen niche in the knowledge market.

Most consultants have to travel to their clients, so make sure to factor in mileage and travel expenses in your billing plans or tax deductions.

SEE: IT consultant code of conduct (Tech Pro Research)

2. Programmer

If you're handy with Java, Python, Ruby, C, C#, iOS/Swift, Android, or other common programming languages you might try your hand at selling your application wares online. Mobile apps are a hot commodity right now, but it's also possible to sell traditional desktop apps such as for Windows.

What you earn depends on how much you charge for an app and how successful that app becomes. Obviously you won't make much money selling open source software, but providing it online for free to be a good way to build a reputation for quality work and develop a loyal customer base.

Here are guidelines for selling apps to the Apple Store, Google Play, and the Windows Store.

For Jason Lowndes, a programmer who developed a fantasy football app called Sit or Start, the process of getting an app to market on his own was complicated. "This is still one of the toughest aspects for me," he said. "Marketing/advertising in traditional senses is extremely costly. And when you are working a full-time job, and are working with no funding but your own this is a very difficult and time consuming task."

Lowdnes said the biggest challenge of his freelance work is wearing so many hats. "You don't necessarily think of this when you have an idea for an app or even when you are starting to code," he said. "But essentially you need to be every part of the business. Product, development, testing/QA, support, finance, marketing, legal, etc. You need to wear all the hats. You have to determine what users want, what will it look like, what will it do and how it will do it. How will you fund it, handle massive amounts of users, deal with problems, etc. But at the same time this gives you so much insight and experience dealing with these different aspects of things. You're making decisions to shape not only your app, but your business and client base as well."

The payoff, said Lowndes, is the feeling of accomplishment from seeing his app in use: "Knowing you designed and guided that app through the entire cycle; the front end, the back end, the cache layer, the API structure, the database and whatever else goes into it then seeing it go live is an amazing feeling."

SEE: The Freelance Web Developer Bundle (TechRepublic Academy)

3. Educator/Trainer

Quality educators and trainers can fill some tremendous knowledge gaps. Whether teaching a company workforce how to use a new time tracking system, serving as a temporary instructor to help train students in a technological trend or even working with the elderly at a senior center, education has many diverse and fulfilling opportunities.

According to Glassdoor, the average IT trainer salary in the U.S. is about $61K. It's a similar occupation to consulting so some of the same other skills will apply such as being flexible, and adaptable to change.

John Rosky, a trainer who's worked as a technical product advocate for IBM, said a typical teaching arrangement for him is presenting at developer or user conferences. "Usually it involved teaching anywhere from 20 to 400 people. I covered new and updated technology to help them learn the topic or perform their jobs more effectively. The tools I used involved a mixture of traditional slideshows containing information about the concept or product, then I would engage in a demo to illustrate the look and feel and provide people with a hands-on experience where possible. I would then always conclude with a live Q & A session to ensure all their questions were answered successfully.

Rosky said that to be an educator, knowing your topic is obviously critical, but so is your ability to communicate, entertain, and inform people. "You want to be more than just a talking manual, or someone who reads slides to people for a living," he said. "You must also have a clearly defined goal for the training to correctly set the expectations in advance. Lastly, make sure to get feedback from the audience in the form of surveys or evaluations so you can adjust your presentation or style accordingly."

The most satisfying part of being an educator, for Rosky, is the feeling of accomplishment from seeing others learn. "It's rewarding when people leave the session having gained something from the experience that benefit their careers," he said. The downside? "I found a topic could become tedious if I had to repeat the same subject matter numerous times in a short period of time. It's important to have an array of concepts you can train others on to keep the job versatile and interesting," said Rosky.

Besides knowing your material, as Rosky stated, keeping up with updates or changes in your curriculum is important. Being able to anticipate problem areas or situations in which you might be questioned or asked to elaborate on certain topics also helps. Finally, be sure to do the research about credentials or licenses you might need.

4. Technical writing

This one may seem plainly obvious given the fact that this article is being presented on a technical website, but writing about technology can be a great way to build an income based on your knowledge base or what you can research and learn about. Many freelance writing sites exist and are just a Google search away.

Besides needing the technological knowledge to write about (or be able to research) a topic, good writing and communication skills are essential for this role. Pitching ideas which will resonate is another critical skill, meaning you have to understand your target audience and what they're eager to read about, then sell the idea to your editor or business contact. New trends or advisories to provide relevant "need to know" details which will bring value to readers are always wise to pitch.

Just make sure your billing rates are in accordance with the time spent researching and writing content and you're receiving a fair compensation for your work. Some freelance sites pay by the word or pay a flat fee for your material, and while many are on the level some do attempt to lowball writers or endlessly nitpick over changes and making difficult or impossible demands (for example, one such site once asked me to get an interview on a financial topic with company executives who flatly refused to talk, meanwhile offering $35 for the piece). This can drag the value of your work way down, perhaps even to minimum wage levels or less. That's no way to make a living. I would estimate a fair market rate which you can live on boils down to about $50 per hour including time spent researching, interviewing and performing the actual writing.

SEE: How to promote your work through writing: 4 tips for CXOs (TechRepublic)

If you do decide to hang out your shingle, good luck to you with your endeavors. When starting out keep a few full-time opportunities in mind so you can return to traditional employment just in case things don't work out as planned.

Lastly, one question you may have (especially if seeking a career in consulting or education) is "How do I find or build these opportunities?" The same as with any regular full-time jobs; search online, network with peers, check job listings, and utilize recruiters as necessary. Detective skills and understanding the needs of your community and your chosen area of expertise will be invaluable as you proceed.

Also see:

istock-610421530.jpg
Image: iStock/gpointstudio

About Scott Matteson

Scott Matteson is a senior systems administrator and freelance technical writer who also performs consulting work for small organizations. He resides in the Greater Boston area with his wife and three children.

Editor's Picks

Free Newsletters, In your Inbox