Self Management

Freelance Developer Coach

TL;DR: I’ve launched a new company called Freelance Developer Coach (http://www.freelancedevelopercoach.com/) and we’re releasing our first product November 1st of this year.

The longer version is that I’ve done a lot of startup work over the years, but never something that was completely mine.  Last month I started designing a new company with what I considered to be an ideal business model.  I wanted something I could build and scale on my own where every piece would be automated so I could build once and sell thousands of times.  I knew that I wanted to create something which helps people and doesn’t steal time from their lives with no return in the real world (I’m looking at you Fortnite!).

I was fortunate enough to listen to a Tim Ferris podcast on a long drive where he mentioned some of his principles from The 4-Hour Workweek. One of his recommendations was to ask yourself, “What’s easy for you, but hard for others?”.  I immediately thought about hiring and managing freelance developers.  I’ve spent the last 6 years very focused on hiring and managing freelance developers for various companies and projects.  At first, I thought about creating something for hiring managers like me to manage this process.  Then it occurred to me that my greatest satisfaction came from coaching developers on the non-technical skills and habits which made them easier to work with – and more valuable.  After all, that’s what I’ve spent years writing about here.

After that drive, I returned home and sketched out the application and the business.  I had recently read Disciplined Entrepreneurship after a hearing it mentioned by a guy I really respect so I worked through the 24 steps and made sure I had answers for the 21 which applied to my idea (the other 3 are more for enterprise software).  That weekend I outlined a couple of ebooks related to the idea, set up some landing pages, and ran Google Ads.  My theory was that if people are interested in the ebook, then they’ll probably be interested in the software.  More importantly, if they aren’t interested in the ebook then I need to rethink the messaging, the market, or both.  So I launched my ads late Saturday evening to see what I could find.

I woke up Sunday to leads –  hundreds of people had clicked through my ad and dozens had provided their email address to get the ebook.

At that point, I knew that I could reach my market with a message they were interested in.  Since that was the critical first step, I started planning out the rest and after I completed the financial model I was pretty sure that I was on to something.  So now I’m back on familiar ground: building mode.  The first release is planned for November 1st, with follow-on releases every 30 – 60 days after that as long as the market continues to indicate interest.

I’ll post updates here at Big Swinging Developer, but there probably won’t be anything until after launch – focus and execution are top priorities until then.

Assets and Capabilities

Several years ago I developed a personal career strategy that I call The Assets and Capabilities Model.  For the purposes of this model, an asset is something which you control and a capability is something which you can get done.  Notice that this is different than “things you own” and “skills” – that’s intentional and to clarify, here are some examples before moving on:

Some of my assets:

  • My AWS account
  • My company’s reputation on Upwork
  • My computers (note that some assets are, actually, “things you own”)
  • Software I’ve purchased
  • My blog
  • My Zoom account (previously my WebEx account)
  • My relationship with my kick-ass designer in Ukraine
  • etc.

Some of my capabilities:

  • I can design large-scale distributed systems
  • I can implement a business or development process, train people on it, and monitor it instantly
  • I can perform code analysis and technical due diligence (in part because of experience and in part because of some of the software I own)
  • I can build remote teams quickly
  • I can schedule an online meeting at the drop of a hat
  • etc.

Take notice of some of the overlap – I can build remote teams quickly in part due to my experience and my company’s reputation on Upwork.  I can schedule an online meeting at the drop of a hat because of my Zoom account and because I’ve done it many times before.  I have long lists of assets and capabilities which took years of conscious effort to develop and several times a year I ask myself a few questions:

  1. What assets aren’t being fully capitalized upon? (I’m looking at you, list of domain names)
  2. What capabilities aren’t being used frequently enough?
  3. What are some assets I can acquire/develop?
  4. What are some assets I can divest? (domain names, old computer gear, and books are common)
  5. What are some capabilities I’m missing?
  6. What are some capabilities which need to be improved or refreshed?

I recommend the exercise to anyone who is interested in actively managing their value – pretty much anyone who isn’t retired.  The exercise starts simply enough: grab your note-taking tool of choice (I have a thing for Canson Sketch Pads) and start listing things you have/control which can be used to solve problems and things that you can get done, either yourself or via your network of strong relationships.  I find it’s helpful to link things together to find self-reinforcing constellations of value – things like AWS, Upwork, large-scale system design, building remote teams, and development process implementation all fit together to form a higher-level capability of “I can start a software company in an hour with nothing but an idea, a credit card, and an internet connection”.  As you perform your asset and capability cataloging exercise, you’ll naturally identify some of these higher-level capabilities yourself.  After you do, then you can follow on with questions about how to make that capability stronger, how to capitalize on it, etc.

What’s the point of doing all of this?  Right now you’re probably sitting on a gold mine of value, but it’s not being actively managed.  Once you have your catalog, you’ll see what you need to read, what kind of training you should seek out, which things you need to practice, and gaps which need to be filled – this is internal management.  Next, your eyes will be opened to opportunities.  You’ll find yourself coming across people who need something that you can can do or a chance to deploy an asset – this is external management.

As a final example, I remember some time around the end of 2009 I decided that I lacked public speaking experience.  I had no problem speaking to groups in meetings, but I had very little experience presenting to an audience who was there specifically to listen to me.  I developed an idea for a talk about the future of work and how it affected recruiter, contacted a few recruiters, and said, “I have this talk and I’m trying to get better at speaking – may I present to your team sometime in the next month?” Not everyone responded, but a couple did and I got to practice.  Public speaking is now on my list of capabilities because I’ve actually done it and so I know I can do it again.

What’s on your list?  What are you missing? How are you going to capitalize on the unique collection of assets and capabilities that you possess?

You Are a Product

Think of yourself as a product for a few moments. Your employer (or client) continuously refills on what you have to offer.

Now think of how you treat products.  The ones you like and seek out vs. the ones you just kind of use because they’re there or because switching costs are high.  There are also products you use that you really don’t like, but feel there is no good alternative (I’m looking at you, AT&T which has essentially a monopoly where I live).

Which are you?  Are you a product with a devoted following or are you just there because you’re there?

One of the difficult aspects of the modern economy is that there are new, competing products being released all the time.  Just like music moved from tape to digital, there are now alternatives to what you’ve been doing for years.  Not many people (if any) said, “Think of the tape manufacturers – it’s not fair, we need to keep using cassettes!”  Instead, we saw that CDs (and then MP3s and then streaming) were better alternatives and so we switched.

Jobs are “disappearing” because there are so many better alternatives to hiring for those jobs.  From outsourcing to machine learning to robotics and drones and autonomous vehicles – you aren’t competing against just other people anymore.

A new model year for you is just around the corner.  Is the 2017 edition of you going to sell out or sit on the shelf?  You need to become your own product manager, which means understanding your true competition, your actual costs (if you are unfamiliar with “fully burdened labor costs” then Google it – or just add 20% to your pay to estimate it), your actual value, etc.

So, as the year winds down give some serious thought to your entire offering – from packaging to warranty.

Here’s to wishing you a year of Apple-level devotion and margins!

How to Get a Raise (Without Even Asking for One)

In my previous post I described how to make an additional $10,000 in 2017.  For freelancers, the combination of “charge more” and “work more” is pretty easy.  For employees and contractors, however, it might be a bit trickier since most people have a hard time asking for money – or at least asking for it in the right way.

So how about getting a raise without asking for one?

This was one of my favorite (and, regretfully, most secret) techniques from my days as an employee and contractor.

Instead of asking, “May I have more money, please?” or (even more cringeworthy) stating “I think I’m worth x”, the correct question is “What do I need to do to be worth x?”.

There are several important aspects of that question.  The first is that it comes ahead of the increase.  You’re asking your manager to help you align with the organization in such a way that you’ll be worth x.  This should be a manager’s dream – you’re making it easy to manage you, and in a proactive way.

Next, notice that x can be whatever you like.  I once got a 50% raise with this technique and my manager was happy to give it to me.  Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t a handout – I had to develop solutions to a couple of very difficult problems to be worth it, but that’s where the beauty lies.  By posing the question this way, and up front, you quickly enter a space of discovering and defining value that’s starts with mutual agreement and completely bypasses the need to negotiate.

Another important aspect to this question is that you may get the response, “We’ll never be able to pay you that”. The manager I had at my very first salaried job had to deliver that message.  To her credit, she delivered it proactively (I was WAY too immature to ask for a raise well – she simply got in front of the issue before it ever came up) by telling me, “This organization will never need all that you can do.  Get as good as you can before you leave, because we’ll never be able to pay you what you’re worth simply because we can’t consume what you do.”  That response, while somewhat disappointing, is incredibly valuable information.  An appropriate reply (and FAR more appropriate than my reply) is “Then what is the maximum I can be worth here and how do I get there?”  It’s also a sign that it’s probably time to start looking elsewhere.

Lastly, there’s an even better technique than what I’ve described.  It’s actually more of a super-charged version, which is why I presented the other one first.  That technique is to bring suggestions for value along with your ask.  That’s what I did for the 50% pop mentioned before. I took the “what can I do to be worth x” and turned it into “would it be worth x if I solve y and z?” You see, at that point you’re doing part of your manager’s job for them and that’s incredibly valuable.

The final point I’d like to make is that you have to deliver.  It’s not enough to ask where the value is, you are committing to deliver on it.  Don’t go asking how to get to x and then reply with, “Yeah, I don’t want to do that”.  Only ask if you’re looking to grow and looking to stretch yourself.

So, look around and identify some of the opportunities which almost certainly surround you.  Talk to your manager in your 1-on-1 to set a goal.  Make a plan, check in during your 1-on-1s and quarterly reviews – the next thing you know you’ll be making what you want.

No 1-on-1s or quarterly review?  Oy, well we’ll discuss managing your manager next time.