Year One – part 3 – Friends Will Be Friends

This is continuation of part 1 and part 2, a series of posts summarising what I have learn from my first year of freelancing, in the hope that my experiences will help others considering something similar. This post discusses the importance of support around you, as well as the impact of travel.

Support

Last year stood out as a brilliant year, primarily through being characterised by having a great set of friends around me; people who I could have huge amounts of fun with, but also who supported and challenged me professionally. This year, amongst the biggest lessons I’ve learnt, is one also to do with friends and the importance of support.

One of the things that I’ve had to deal during my freelancing was that someone who I had considered one of my absolute best friends ended up being anything but that. Now, before you start wondering if I’ve accidentally mistaken this blog for LiveJournal, bear with me.

I didn’t know whether I should write about this or not, but in the spirit of giving an honest assessment of the year it felt like it was important to include. We all go through personal things which can impact on our work, but I don’t think that we always recognise that it’s valid to acknowledge them. Personal problems can hit you hard at any point and your work can suffer as a result, but sometimes these things can also directly impact on your professional life too.

My experience was particularly difficult considering how, outside of a day to day friendship, I had also valued that person’s input and honesty on a professional level a huge amount and they were a big part of my freelance journey. Freelancing is very solitary – you’re making decisions, working out how to do things, wondering whether you’re on the right track, and having someone to give you honest opinions, to bounce ideas off and help you learn is so important. Even knowing that you can grab someone on Skype to get a sense-check can sometimes work wonders for your sanity. They were the person who I would always go to in order to get an opinion I trusted, and I knew that they would always be straight with me about work matters. Side projects are becoming increasingly important to me, and they were things that I’d always seen this person being a part of. Things that I’d hoped we could have done together one day, weren’t going to happen any more.

This highlighted a couple of things for me – firstly that working with your friends can be brilliant, but that it can also be a lot harder if it goes wrong, because you can lose both. Second, it raised an important point of the right friends and the right support for the right situations. In general it’s incredibly important to have people who can be there for you, because you will have ups and downs, and there are times where you may really struggle. Make sure that you let people help you, and don’t keep any burdens just to yourself. You may have chosen to take on the challenges of freelancing, but that doesn’t mean you need to be alone in facing any difficult times. Whilst general support is great and you might have all sorts of people in your social groups, sometimes it’s just not quite the same as having people you trust, to collaborate with, who really understand the realities of both the industry and freelancing. Try to make sure that you have people who understand this side of your life too.

Things that I have learnt really benefit from having a good, industry-related support network around you:

  • Business decisions – what to charge, what to put in contracts, should you form a company or be a sole trader etc. I came into this knowing very little, and a big help for me at the start of this year was the Unfinished Business podcast, which taught me a lot.
  • Peer reviews of work – whether it’s presentations you want to give trial runs of, or code reviews, having people whose opinions you trust is extremely important. You don’t want someone who will trash your confidence one little mistake at a time, but you need someone who will be honest with you rather than telling you that everything you do is great.
  • New ideas – new things are coming out every day, and friends who are part of the industry are a great way of keeping tabs on cool things that you may have missed. Sure, you can learn from your colleagues and co-workers, but as someone who takes a while to feel comfortable with new people it’s sometimes easier to ask stupid questions and learn from friends.
  • Expand ‘your’ capabilities – a number of times this year, I have been asked about doing work that either wasn’t my core competency, wasn’t what I was interested in doing, or that I simply didn’t have time to do. In these instances it’s great if you can bring on board someone that you know and trust the capabilities of. Despite the cautioner above, being able to work with my friends is definitely something that I aim to do more of in 2014.

As it stands, I’m lucky that I do have other fantastic friends who are also in the industry, and they have been incredibly supportive this year. We are in touch regularly, and are able to help each other with anything from how to colour bullet points in CSS, to new job opportunities, to passionate discussions about bookmarking solutions and structures, to debates about government legislation, to ammo for convincing employers about a device-led strategy, to “IS IT LIVE YET?” motivation. We go for steak and burgers, we share things we’re working on, and talk openly about the way that our respective companies operate, in order to bring improvements to our own methods. They don’t realise it, but they’re one of the most important things that helps me do what I do. They’re my sanity check for everything, and having them around is a big support when heading into the unknown for a new contract.

I’ve also in the course of my contracts got to meet a load of new people, and have made some new friends, which, as someone who feels like they can come across as a bit of an introvert, has been very refreshing. I would however like to get more involved in other freelance meets and be able to get more advice on that side, but sadly spending my life on trains means that I often miss meetups in Colchester. My recent attendance of Good For Nothing was an exception, and I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the folks there. It’s worth the effort trying to get to these things if at all possible, or maybe start your own.

The moral of the story here, kiddies, is as follows:

  1. Surround yourself with good people, who will give you honest opinions, help you make decisions, and inspire you.
  2. Make an effort to meet people outside of your usual groups. There are a lot of great groups out there, and you never know who you might meet.
  3. Life is all about how you choose to communicate with people. Doing this well, or doing it badly, can lead to very different outcomes and perceptions. Aim for the former, it’s better all round.

Travel

As I’ve mentioned just above, travel can often have a big impact on both work and home life. Whilst my nemesis for the previous year and a half was the M25, this year it has been the sheer joy that is Greater Anglia trains.

Trains have inspired mini hacks with Train Bingo, have taken a huge chunk out of my earnings, but have also given me time to read some fantastic books and do some side-project coding, or writing.

My first contract was local, and I was mainly able to work from home. My second contract was in London, and I initially worked 4 day weeks in order to finish off some pre-existing commitments and to be able to plan a talk. After that I’ve been in London almost every day, which, quite honestly is horrible. I spend around 4 hours a day (if not more) commuting, which as you can imagine is pretty soul destroying. I’ve struggled a lot lately, and have felt like I’m never at home. It’s had an impact on basic things – my boyfriend now does most of the shopping and cooking during the week (which I normally love), I can only exercise on weekends (when I’d rather be doing lazy things, so I end up not doing any), and it’s very hard to be able to get back home in time to go out and do anything on week days, so I end up missing things. All work and no play makes Sally a dull (and miserable) girl.

Working remotely

The places I’ve worked have generally been good about me working from home on occasion, but mainly they have wanted me to be based in the office. This is another thing that I’m keen to change next year. Having worked for a year and a half where I was remote for half the week I’m a big believer that you can definitely work outside of a conventional office-based routine and not only maintain a ‘proper’ relationship with the rest of your team, but that it actually helps to improve the way that you work.

Not being in the office all of the time can kill constant, unnecessary meeting hell. It also helps productivity – when I’m at home I am in my environment, and it is set up for how I work best. None of the offices I have worked in this year have had a spare second monitor for me, which can really slow things down. I have my speakers and music, which is a big thing for me. Yes, shared office stereos may not play tunes to everyone’s taste, but I much prefer background music of whatever kind. I love music, but I don’t enjoy wearing headphones whilst working unless I want to be very deliberately shut off. At home I have food and drink on hand and can graze without worrying about if it’s annoying others, and I have a desk and chair that I bought because they suited me, and don’t go home feeling achey.

I’m not getting into work frustrated after dragging myself across the country, and I’ll feel happier and more energised, which reflects in my quality of work. Coming into an office is great, and there are times when it’s absolutely best to be working in the same physical location as others, but in my personal experience there are probably at least 3 days a week where it just isn’t required. An effective infrastructure in terms of Skype or similar is very important, as is trust. Without treating everyone like adults who are capable of working responsibly and getting the job done, it simply doesn’t work.

One of the things that I’ve made sure to add to my contract is a clause regarding overseas/overnight travel. This has come up a few times, as the nature of what I do is very client-facing. I’m sure that some people probably treat this on an ad-hoc basis, and might have rates which vary depending on the amount of travel that will be involved, but typically I don’t tend to know this up-front. Most of my contracts have been longer term engagements over multiple months, and travel for work has been more reactive. If I know that a contract will involve a week away abroad on-site with the client I can factor this in, but if we’ve talked about me being based in London with a set day rate and standard hours and you then want to send me to Scotland for two days a week then that puts me in a bit of a tricky life situation. As such I feel that it makes sense to state up front that I charge more on days where I’m going to be hired for essentially 24 hours rather than the standard work hours. I’d be interested to hear more about how others deal with this. It’s a tricky balance – I sometimes find it hard to convey that I’m very happy to go above and beyond and I absolutely don’t mind travel, but that I also got into freelancing because I wanted more control over what I do.

I’ve been lucky enough to travel abroad a fair bit through work this year, which I’ve really enjoyed. There’s more on that in the next post, which looks at speaking at conferences.