Just a little bit communist


Although still somewhat rare, just recently I have had two separate clients present me with legal documents and contracts to sign after I thought the negotiating part of my work was complete (by which I mean after I had presented my final, revised quotes to them for the work to be done). As I said, this is quite rare, and greatly affects the time and effort I need to put into their projects outside the quote itself. I suppose that henceforth I will need to include clauses in my quotes about hourly attorney’s fees if this sort of thing is to continue, because I never accounted for that, and never want to account for that. Part of the reason I enjoy working with small clients is the dispensing of what I consider unnecessary bullshit. I want to spend all my time on the work itself, and not on evaluating the legalese in various documents pertaining to who “owns” what intelectual property. Part of the reason I am such a fan of open source software is that it is not “owned” by anyone. Everyone is free to look at the code, or modify it to suit. What I make for the vast majority of clients is an arrangement (of code) that they are free to use and rework any way they want. To ask me to transfer “ownership” of any and all work I have done for them defies common sense (but apparently not over zealous legal sense), and represents a dangerous corruption and encroachment on my services by the overabundance of lawyers and litigation in this country. While large companies do create and hold secret large amounts of customized software, the nature of web design and coding today makes this idea quite laughable for a number of reasons:

1. Although much of the executable server side of things remain hidden, anyone in any browser can substantially look at the source of any web page and copy its formatting at least. Indeed this is how I and many programmers and web designers first learn how to do specific things, by looking at the work of others.

2. The vast majority of websites today are running at least partially on open source software, without which they would not be able to exist. Whether it is the webserving software itself, or the underlying content management system, or the plugins that further enhance that system, people would not be able to conduct business without it.

3. Enforcement of an ownership claim is very costly and almost always amounts to nothing. The only people getting rich off of going after perceived infringements are lawyers, except in very large cases. The web has almost no examples of such large cases.

What I am getting at here is the ridiculousness of trying to “own” intangible things like a web design. They should be thought of more like a service one has free use of, or a style of dress that one is wearing. People may very well like your style of dress and try to emulate it. Consider it flattery, not stealing.  Kirby Ferguson, one of my heroes, makes points about the nature of creativity far more eloquently than I, and his recent TED talk here is well worth watching:


Kirby’s basic thesis is that all creativity has its roots in copying work that came before it, and that current patent and copyright law is antithetical to this basic premise. Despite being there to “promote the progress of useful arts” patent law as understood (and litigated) today, works precisely against this. The sooner we get over our loss aversion, the better we as a society will be.

So I guess you could say that in certain cases (such as web design) I don’t believe in ownership, which I suppose makes me a little bit of a communist in some people’s eyes. I believe in free use, because I have seen first hand, over and over again, how valuable open source software can be in building a better world. I, and many other people around the world gain great uses and owe a large part of our livelihoods to this, and when I donate back to the greater good with contributions of my own, I feel even better.

The other meaning of “free” in freelancing


I often talk about the life of a freelancer, its upsides and downsides. On the whole, I really wouldn’t want to change my work life much, I love the flexibility and control it affords me over working for someone else, and I am someone who deals well with the ups and downs of remuneration in such an environment. That said, this week I had two not so great things happen that, while not a big deal in the grand scheme of things, are nevertheless among the hazards of working for oneself.

The first issue is with a non-paying client. As you may remember form my previous article on the subject, I don’t let people run up a huge tab with me. I never let them owe me more than the amount I am willing to walk away from. Still, there is nothing more frustrating that chasing after money you are owed. I am truly blessed most of the time as I have very rarely had a client be more than a week late with a payment. This client, however, is over a month past due and the various emails I have sent are met with responses of the type “I can’t do anything while my boss is on vacation” and other such hogwash. I assume the necessary utilities such as phone and internet get paid (you did respond to my email after all, albeit several days later, so that service has been paid at least).  I sent them a letter today explaining that no more work will happen on their site until I have been paid in full (not just up to the amount of last invoice), and that I am leaving on vacation for a month at the end of August, so if they want their site to work before the end of September, they jolly well better get their check-writing fingers in gear.

The second issue is somewhat my fault, for not doing enough due diligence before quoting a project fee. A very good client of mine who I really like, asked me to step in and fix a few things that her publisher had done wrong on a site showcasing some of her work. I would have been hired to do the site from scratch, but the publisher had their own internal guy who fancies himself a web developer, and they felt it best to do the work in house. I only looked at a few comps and asked some simple questions, and so I assumed I knew based on the answers to these questions how the site was put together (how it would be logically put together, anyway) and made my quote based on those assumptions. Little did I know until getting into it that the previous coder had apparently never learned anything new about web programming since 1996, and I had to manually manipulate some 50 individual files when we should have just been dealing with just two or three templates that were re-used across the site. All in all the site took roughly double the amount of time I thought it would. I didn’t really feel comfortable charging my client either, because we have a good relationship and I didn’t really think it was fair to her. Live and learn, next time for a fixit job on someone else’s work I will ask to look at the code directly before quoting anything.

I’d say in about 90% of the cases, I come in under quote and ahead of schedule, but sometimes things like this happen. In the first case above, there is really nothing I would do differently at all, I have a clear process for dealing with late payment, and it is being executed as I am comfortable with, even if it is a bummer.  In the second case, I can see changes I can make to improve my outcomes. Practice makes perfect.



As I have gotten better at what I do, I have gotten faster as well. The same type of complex website that took me 40 hours to accomplish 3 years ago, I can now do in 20 or less. I have only raised my rates about 25% in that time, so people actually are getting websites for a lot less money from me these days. And yet, people balk at an hourly wage that they consider to be too high. I am considering starting to quote project fees (which I hate to do) instead of hourly estimates, because then people can imagine hundreds of hours going into their project, whether it is true or not. This is the problem of bean counting, and I have been fighting against it my whole life. The quality of a project is almost completely divorced from the amount of time one puts into it, but people are loathe to understand that, mostly because they don’t have the intellectual tools at their disposal to evaluate quality. Hours are a fixed value that they can measure. In their head, more hours = more work = better product. People love the illusion of quantifiable results. But they are just that alas, an illusion. The crappiest designer in the world can spend 500 hours on something that won’t look as good as the best will produce in 5 hours. If the cost of the crappiest designer is $10 per hour and the cost of the best is $100, you just saved $4500 by hiring the best.

This is getting ridiculous.


7 active projects. 5 pending projects. 10 project proposals (several of which are bound to be accepted). This is no way to live. It is definitely time to raise rates, or I will go insane. The only thing holding me back has been my fear that the work will dry up, but I can’t go on like this and I suppose I could always lower rates when times are tough to stimulate further demand. And with the exception of one large project, none of these lend themselves to outsourcing at all, they are too small. The time it would take me to explain what I need done would only be marginally less than the time it would take me to do them myself. Is this all the result of the economy getting better? Of word getting out about my skills and work? Dumb luck? Or a mix of everything?

Sweet and Sour(ce)


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)


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.

Fresh is contagious


Now that my professional website is updated, I am really itching to update the design on this very blog. But alas, it will have to wait, as I have a (to borrow an expression from my friend Mo) high class problem: tons and tons of current work. It is funny how the ups and downs of freelancing go. One minute, you have no work or very little (October, for example) and the next you are flush. This, I think, is the hardest part for many people when considering working for themselves: the uncertainty. If you have the temperament for it though (and I most definitely do), I think it is far more rewarding than working for someone else on a set schedule. To name just a few of the practical benefits: No rush hour commute, shopping/errands when the stores are empty, taking a walk outside whenever you want, setting your own hours of work, setting your own places of work, variety of work and clients, and more. These benefits far outweigh the perceived security of a regular, full time job. At least for me they do.

Feast or famine


The thing about the life of a freelancer is that one is always chasing new work. And if one if unlucky, also chasing payment for that work. The thing I love about freelancing is I really can set my own schedule, take a walk or watch a movie when I feel like it, visit museums outside of crowded times, etc. Some people are really stressed out by not knowing exactly how much they will make every month. And for them, a salaried position makes a lot of sense. I am not overly worried, most of the time, about the ebbs and flows. I know that I may have nothing today, a lot tomorrow, and nothing again the day after that. Overall though, I find that I am much less stressed than when I was in a big office with lots of staff, pay and projects. And when I look back at the pattern this year, it is pretty uneven. I was pretty dead in Jan and early Feb, swamped through end of March, very light through April and early May, and now swamped again with more work than I can handle. Fortunately for me, I am learning a lot all the time, and really enjoy the work. When I get “stuck” on some project, whether for lack of inspiration or waiting on materials, I move on to another and often find the problems are easier to fix when returning to the first one. And often the techniques I am learning on one project fit nicely with the needs of another. And now that my little head-clearing break is over, back to work.

Freedom’s just another word


An old Yiddish proverb goes:

If you have nothing to lose, you can try anything

I was thinking about this today after talking to a friend who was quite distraught over the state of the economy and his low amount of incoming work. He needs to maintain projects and billing at a pretty high rate just to keep his financial life in place and meet all of his obligations. I asked if he wanted to go out to dinner this week and he told me that really, he couldn’t, he was “broke”. When I told him I was surely the far more broke of us two, he assured me that he was the more destitute.  Being quite sure that he generates many times my income, this could only be true in the sense that he has far more to lose than I, and that he is freaking out about losing his multiple mortgages and style of living to which he has become accustomed. And he is not the only one. I have other friends who are likewise entrenched in a certain level of material comfort that they are hell bent and determined to maintain, seemingly for its own sake.

With each passing day it seems, I continue to be thankful that I have so few possessions compared to so many in this country. I mean, I don’t feel deprived of anything (except health care, but I should have that taken care of soon). I really don’t. I go out to eat and drink with friends quite often, I have a roof over my head and easy transportation. I have a gym membership and Internet access and a laptop. I read books and watch movies and meet people. I drink coffee, I take strolls. And of course, I travel. Out of the possessions I have, they could all be destroyed in a fire or taken in a theft and it really would be no big deal.

I keep returning to this theme since I have been back, because I am confronted with it everywhere. The more things people aquire, the more worried they are about protecting them. The more worried they are about losing them. The more stressed out they are about maintaining a certain level of income to be able to support all these things. At my current billing rate, I will make about a third of the money that I made when I was VP of Technology, but I can honestly say that I am orders of magnitude less stressed than I was when I had that position. I also have a great deal more freedom in my schedule. If I feel like working today, I will. If I feel like taking part or all of the day to go to a museum or read or stroll or meditate, I will. The things I have “given up” to be in this way are not in any way necessities of life. I do not “need” expensive clothes, a multitude of gadgets, or excessive displays of wealth. I live very well indeed without owning one or more houses or cars. I feel a great freedom to try new things, consider any life changing option whether it relates to the kind of work I do, the place I do it, who I do it with or how. People often ask me if things are less exciting now that I am no longer traveling. But to be honest, I still feel pretty much how I did while I was traveling. I don’t feel settled or tied to this particular thing or place, but neither do I feel a need to be constantly moving somewhere else.

There are a vast array of potential reasons for our conspicuous consumption, or the acquiring of vast amounts of things well outside basic need or comfort. We acquire them for reasons of status, to show others how important we are. We acquire things out of a false sense that they will make us safe and secure. We do so because in our consumer culture if we do not acquire, we are not participating in the organizing principle of our society. We acquire to fill the loneliness and to pass the time. But is more stuff really the answer?

I am not in principle opposed to having any of these things, but in anything that generates great feelings of attachment there is a danger. Buddhist teaching sure has that part right anyway. They teach that our unhappiness comes from our attachments to some things on the one hand, and our aversion to others on the other hand. Of course, grasping is very much at the core of what it means to be human, and no amount of conditioning or meditation will or should wipe away the sensual responses that are central to who we are. It is the greatest gift to be born into existence, all of it. But we strive so much to contain the uncontainable, instead of appreciating the breathtaking thing our very existence is and sharing it with others. We should be able to enjoy the experiences we have without needing them to continue. In short, we should be striving for being, not having.

Many dead ends


Today was one of those days when I worked very long and hard and accomplished nothing tangible. I have a site I am working on that is presenting some technical challenges, and I have gone down many design and programming dead ends today. As is often the case, many of these dead ends stem from decisions made to to try to speed up the process in the first place. For example, I decided to start this design using a free template as the basis, but it turned out that reverse engineering the decisions of the template designer and fixing some of his coding mistakes actually took longer than it would have to build the thing from scratch. Live and learn, I say. (But really, I am not sure I would have made another decision even knowing what I know now.)  And I am still without a design that works as it needs to. Sometimes the road to greater knowledge is full of rocks and potholes and wrong turns. And sometimes, you need to get away from something to be able to move forward on it.

I think I will take most of the day off tomorrow and start again on Thursday. Saying that makes me realize how happy I am to be a freelancer.