Discipline

25
Feb
2012

I very often have people tell me that they could never be freelance like me, and that I clearly have a great deal of discipline to be able to sit at home and actually get work done (as opposed to, say, hunkering down in front of the TV with a container of ice cream leafing through glossy glam magazines). And it is true that for whatever reason, I don’t find it difficult to focus on my work. That is not to say that I don’t get creatively stuck, I do. But I simply move on to another project while my subconscious comes up with a plan, and then I return to it. I don’t waste a lot of time when working on things that have to be done. Sometimes I will take time out from direct work to learn about some new technique or design strategy, but even these are really in the service of my work and becoming better at it, and they usually relate to a current project. I remember many years ago (long about 1999), when I had my first experience with freelancing. I was an almost total failure at it, and this was largely due to my inability to stay focused on the task at hand. Back then, I never missed an opportunity to leave my workstation, and I had a great deal of trouble getting motivated to do my work, even though I had just as much economic incentive (the need to eat and pay rent) to do so as I do today.

I have often thought about why things are so much different today. What has changed in the intervening years that allows me to be so much more motivated and productive? I have a number of theories:

1. Age – The mere fact of getting older has changed the way I view a lot of things in the world, and in some unexpected ways has made me more focused and disciplined. Being more at ease with the general flow of life has helped to not always jump at every distraction.

2. Deeper knowledge – Interestingly, the more I learn about the areas of my work, and the better I get at making things, the easier it is to stay focused on them. I think this is easily as important (if not more) than number one above (age). The more I am able to express my creativity with the tools at my disposal, the less likely I am to become blocked and give up in frustration. The combination of better tools to do my job (constantly improving technology) and the greater experience I have with those tools keeps me much more engaged. It is the case that the distance between what I can conceive in my mind and what I can realize in my work or personal projects is shrinking with each passing day. This is highly motivating.

I am incredibly lucky I was not born 40 years earlier. I would have been trapped in a world very much at odds with my personality type. I could never have been someone who worked at the same job for 40 years at the same place. The skills that I use and the things that I excel at would have been mostly useless back then. Or at least they would have gone unrecognized, and I would not have had the same opportunities to chart my own course. Not only because of technologies (like the internet) but because of the more rigid social structures I would have found myself in. The globe-trotting, career-changing, self-taught person I am would not have been able to exist unless I had been given some very large trust fund.

Ultimately, I think the key to unlocking everyone’s potential lies in shortening the distance between what they can conceive of and what they can realize. There are many ways to do this, but they involve a huge array of changes in cultural norms, societal structures, and tools and technologies.  Many of these are underway, and many seem hopelessly stuck and unmovable. But it is so worthwhile to push ourselves and our world in this direction, because in unlocking people’s creative potential, we open doors to their happiness.

Sweet and Sour(ce)

17
Feb
2012

I feel a little sad when I neglect my blog, I have to admit. But the amount of work I have had over the past couple of months has been staggering. And knowing how up and down the work of a freelancer is, I am loathe to say no to any particular project. At some point however, I will have to. I have a project coming up that I decided to take as an experiment. Because I don’t really have the time to do the entire thing myself, I will do the design and technical architecture, and then have it built to my spec by a programmer I will hire over the internet. This is the first time I have done this type of thing, and there are all sorts of practical, ethical and emotional questions swirling about my head, for example:

Personal growth – Part of the reason I like being so “hands on” with everything is that I learn more by doing than by directing other people to do, and I generally find it to be more satisfying. I don’t like the idea of being removed or remote from my work product.

Risk – This is somewhat new territory, and a big part of the success of this project will depend on some factors outside of my control, ie a remote programmer. What if something goes wrong and he screws up the project in some way? What if our interaction at a distance does? What if I am left holding the bag and having to recover from something that is on a tight schedule?

Exploitation – There are multiple things about hiring someone in this way that beg the question, “Is this exploitation?”.  If I hire a programmer in India because I can get a good one for $20/hr, is it wrong? Should I hire a programmer in the US at $60/hr with lower (or the same) skill instead? What is the difference? Especially when that $20 there actually goes a lot further than $60 here? Is this a question of loyalty, and to whom? Myself, my country, my planet, my profession, or something else? What about markup? I went to the trouble to find and hire said programmer, am I to recharge my client exactly what I am paying, or a little bit more? And if so, what is just?

Cost and Quality – Hiring someone in this way will actually reduce the total cost to the client, because I am not charging my full rate for anything but the hours I actually work. The quality of what is produced may be better, or it may be worse that what I would make alone.

I don’t think there are necessarily “right” answers to the questions above, but they are the ones that are preoccupying me. I will of course make some decisions in the next few days and time will tell if I have made the correct ones. And really, this is just one small project, not the end of the world. That said, it does represent a distinct change in the direction of my work life.  As such, I must consider carefully if this is the path I want to walk on.

Mission Impossible (or at least undesirable)

4
Feb
2012

In my technology career, I have had many types of job, but basically they all fall into one of two major areas: development, or support.

Development includes areas such as research, design, programming, integrating, building, testing.

Support involves customer service, responding to “crises”, fixing things that are broken in a hurry, running maintenance tasks and constantly checking the health of a system to make sure things are operating as expected.

Although I am quite good at both, I much prefer the former. Development is calming to me, feeds my soul, is education. It is (mostly) divorced from client freak-outs. It is iterative, thoughtful, and most of all, creative. And support for minor things (fixing someone’s computer, helping them setup email or some program, explaining to them how facebook works, etc) does not stress me out. I do not mind it, and I feel a bit of good karma in helping others.

“Mission critical” support, on the other hand, is something I do not care for at all. Mission critical systems are those wherein any major problem is potentially catastrophic to that business.  It may be a large company’s email system or website, or a service they offer that paying customers have a right to expect will work flawlessly. I am not a huge fan of mission critical support, because it is highly stressful and people lose their heads and all sense of proportion. I don’t blame them, but it is quite a challenge to remain calm in the face of emails in ALL CAPS with many exclamation points (!!!!), to say nothing of the repeated phone calls and yelling. And I have realized over time that this type of support also brings out the worst in me. I don’t like the person I become towards others when people are screaming about fixing a problem (stat!). I definitely keep my cool much more than in the past, and I doubt that I project the agitation or tension that many people do. Still, on the inside, this type of support causes a greater level of anxiety than I would prefer.

I bring this up because I have recently taken on a client for whom there is a great deal of need for just this type of mission critical support, and I am debating with myself whether the stress is worth it to me. I am blessed at the moment to have a huge amount of work of all kinds, but as a freelancer I know it could all be gone in a few months. Feast or famine, as they say. And because of that, I have a slight aversion to turning down any work when I have it. I think I will continue for a couple more months and see how it goes.