joe

Engineer, data scientist, and founder of Subspace.net

Are freelance developers different?

Rise of the contract coder

There’s a population of tens of millions of people churning through a sizeable chunk of the $85.6 billion the world spends on outsourced IT services … and we don’t know much about them.
Nearly one-third of all online freelancers are software developers. Fifty-one percent of all gig economy job postings are for developers — up 16 points over the last three years. And the number of freelancers in the U.S. alone is slated to hit 100 million by 2027.
Gig economy studies from UpWork/Edelman and Gallup don’t offer much detail, so my team used surveys, data from my company, Subspace, and Stack Overflow’s Developer Survey 2019 to piece the story together. Here are nine findings that surprised us:
(Read the study here; no gate. Freelancers, help us strengthen our data by taking our developer survey).

47% of freelance developers have children

Far from the trope of a sandal-clad twenty-something sipping Mai-Tais on a beach, half of all freelance developers are family men. (Yes, men. Only 7 percent are women, compared to 9 percent for non-freelancers.) It probably means that at least half of them are more concerned with supporting dependents than partying at hostels. It also means a lot more are stationary than they are nomadic. (True digital nomads are quite rare, it seems: Only 0.01% of Americans qualify.)

They are 4 years older, on average

The average freelance developer is 33 years old; the average full-time developer, 29. (The median is 35 to 31, so same spread.) It’s possible that their age partially explains their increased likelihood to be parents. It also probably affects how many hours they choose to work.

They work 100 fewer hours per year

Freelancers work less than their full-time counterparts — at a rate of two fewer hours each week. (Freelancers, 40.26 to non-freelancers, 42.12.) That difference sounds small. But it adds up to nearly 100 hours over the course of a standard working year.
Our data doesn’t offer a complete picture yet, but our survey suggests freelancers have plenty of extra work capacity. While 54% said they’re only available (or interested) in freelancing an extra 1–20 hours each week, 36% are ready to take on the equivalent of a part-time job (21–40 hours) and 10% are ready to take on the equivalent of a second job. There’s lots of extra supply in the market for freelancers, though whether that’s due to a lack of demand or the tremendous friction of finding new (or the right) clients is up for debate.
Also unclear is how many freelancers are only open to freelancing a few hours each week because they’re otherwise fully employed. It’s anecdotal, but a great majority of the hundreds of freelancers I’ve interviewed over the past two years have a full-time job and are freelancing to gain new skills, or to save up for a big purchase like a medical expense, or to pay off student loans.
As context, freelancers in general say they wouldn’t want more than 30 hours if it was offered because they’re otherwise fully employed, according to Gallup.

They’re happier at work

Less time working may confer existential benefits. Freelancers are less likely to be dissatisfied with work and more likely to be “very satisfied.” That’s despite wearing tons of extra hats (e.g. being your own accountant, sales manager, IT person, and janitor), and spending less time in an office where work friends are an alleged key to happiness.

Freelancers (may) commit cleaner code

The average freelance software developer spends 14 percent more time on code review because they “believe it increases code quality.” (That’s 5.48 hours each week compared to non-freelancers’ 4.82.) I presume that’s because as a freelancer, shipping code comes with greater responsibility: You get fewer strikes with a client than with a full-time employer.
Freelancers also have an average of 3.63 more years of coding experience on their non-freelancing counterparts. (That’s 16.22 for freelancers versus 12.59 for non-freelancers.) If age is any proxy for skill, and I readily admit that it’s an imperfect one, freelancers may have a slight advantage. They at least come to the table having encountered more code bases than their non-freelancing counterparts.
“In my experience, it makes perfect sense that freelance developers tend to be older, and with substantially more coding experience,” says Matt Aronoff, Co-founder, Lead Developer and UX Designer at the app development agency Logical Animal. “As an independent developer and designer myself, it took years of shipping products as a full-time employee to build the skillset and the experience necessary to know that I could provide what a diverse group of top-quality clients expect.”

Freelancers know more coding languages, roles, and platforms

By almost every measure of competence in Stack Overflow’s 2019 Developer Survey, freelancers have a greater breadth of experience. It says nothing about depth of experience (perhaps for a future survey), but familiarity is certainly something.
Freelancers were more likely to have experience in 15 out of 17 platforms and 19 out of 28 languages. Out of 24 possible developer roles ranging from full-stack to DevOps, designer, and educator, freelancers were more likely to say they had experience in every single category.
“As a freelance developer, you’re always changing, growing, and improving. We keep learning because technology and client needs keep changing, whether it’s working in React Native, augmented reality, or new techniques in data visualization,” says Matt.
Freelancers’ top five languages: Javascript, HTML/CSS, SQL, Bash/Shell/PowerShell, Python
Freelancers’ top five platforms: Linux, Windows, Docker, AWS, Android

They contribute more to open source

Of the 12.4 percent of developers who told Stack Overflow they contribute to open source software (OSS) at least once per month or more, a majority are freelancers. Perhaps by necessity: Freelancers are more likely to consider contributing to OSS as part of their education.
Freelancers are generally interested in self-development. They’re more likely to have attended college without earning a degree, more likely to have studied something other than computer science, and more likely to have taught themselves a new coding language, framework, or tool.

Their #1 challenge is finding good paying jobs

Not administrative work. Not stress. The number one challenge according to our survey was finding good paying work, and it shows in their income: Freelancers make considerably less than full-time developers. Data is difficult to gather globally, but an average from ZipRecruiter, Glassdoor, PayScale, and Stack Overflow data suggests that freelancers make an average of $105k per year, to non-freelancers’ $129k, and that gap grows when you take into account the 10–15% of that salary they’re not getting in benefits.
A few things may explain their lower pay, apart from finding clients: Most are outside the U.S., where the pay is often lower (and where much of our full-time developer pay data is drawn from), but they also work fewer hours overall, and tend to focus more on non-work activities like parenting.
And finally,

They’re more likely to work from home

Kidding. Obvious. But have another chart anyway:
Have thoughts? I’d love to chat. Help us strengthen our data by taking the 2019 Developer Survey.

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