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Ask HN: How do you find work?
44 points by Zarathu on Feb 7, 2009 | hide | past | web | favorite | 49 comments
I'm a freelance RoR and PHP developer with every other relevant skill set (XHTML, CSS, AJAX, SQL, et cetera), but I'm having a rather difficult time finding work.

I'm rushing Craigslist, writing on my blog, and asking everyone I know if they know anyone in need.

The economy has been treating me miserably lately, and I haven't had work in over a month. Do any of you guys have tips for me?

Hm. My work finds me most of the time, but every now and then I'm running on 'idle' for a month or more and I start to look around. One of the things I've found over the years that it pays big time to keep in contact with all your business buddies. Let them know you exist and that you still remember them and every now and then a job will pop out of that.

Networking is a thing that I seriously hate, you won't find me on cocktail parties / friday get togethers, I live far away from my customer base but an occasional email does wonders in staying attached and maintaining mindshare.

It's a bit like a pipeline, jobs are always pushed in on one end and out the other when they're done, if you neglect the 'in' queue while focusing on a job you'll see a longer gap by the time that you're ready for the next one. That's a tricky balancing act when you are a single freelancer, maybe teaming up with a few other people with similar or complimentary skills would help you to find work easier, and if too many people say 'yes' at the same time you can always divide the load.

Also, the economy really is down, and lots of tech projects are on hold or being scrapped right now, this is not the best time to be looking for work.

Thanks for this. I need to network a little more.

Be careful about what you do when you 'network'. If you contact people without a having a good reason for it, they'll learn to think of you as someone who doesn't value their time. Instead, it's just good to get in the habit of thinking, every time you learn something, "I wonder who among my business contacts would find this most useful."

Yes, that's an excellent point, I make sure I really do have a reason. Part of that is to keep an eye out for stuff that is useful to my 'network' and alerting people to that. The funny thing is that they repay in kind and you'd be amazed at some of the stuff that comes 'back' to me in this way. It really does seem to work like the karma counter on this site.

Write tutorials on your blog. Don't hesitate to share your knowledge. Even if you don't have great writing skills, people are attracted to quality content and tips & tricks. Put a link on your blog that you are available for hire. Publicize your blog through the right medium (reddit, digg, dzone).

There are plenty of wall in the hole restaurants that don't have a good website. Offer to build them one for just $100, it doesn't take more than 3 hours to finish a website for a small restaurant. Some of the mom and pop restaurants don't even know how to host websites, so offer them to do all the hosting and maintaining for them in exchange for free food every week (or an extra fee of say $100). Put a webcounter and keep track of who is visiting and try to publicize it in Yelp, local.Yahoo, local.Google etc. Expand your offer to small businesses (clothing stores or boutiques) and show them your portfolio. Don't just try to impress them with the webdesign showcase. Try to show them how a website for a restaurant had brought more customers to them. Show them some numbers.

Start building something on the side and try to make it popular. It doesn't have to be the next big thing. It can be a small news aggregator or a recipe collection site with some user interaction. Keep your skill set sharp and use it to market yourself. If you truly made a new product that people love you won't even need to find work, you'll be working for yourself.

> so offer them to do all the hosting and maintaining for them in exchange for free food every week

I do this with a local vegan restaurant. They're the only one in the area and although I love eating there, they are a bit expensive.

One day I was having trouble getting on their free wireless network, so when I went to the counter to pay for my meal I mentioned the problem to the owner. Recognizing that I eat there all the time, she asked if I wanted to take a look at the wireless router in the backroom. All I did was restart the router and it worked again. The owner said the $18 meal was on the house for fixing the wireless.

Now I'm hosting their website and taking care of all tech support in return for an open tab. I bill the owner but mark the balance as $0 and in return I never pay for food when I eat there. My good relationship with the owner has led her to introduce me to other local restaurant owners and now I do work for them too.

I agree, companies wants a website that could potentially generate to them more moneys, so show them the numbers.

You need to find the thing that distinguishes you from your peers. My story is undoubtedly different than yours, but I'll share parts; perhaps it can help you.

I went to college on a military scholarship. After four years of school, I spent 6 years in the military. Three critical things came from those years: contacts, credibility and experience.

After a couple tours, the military's plans for my career and my own ideas didn't sync up. I left and used a contact to land a nice job doing exactly what I wished. I floated my resume around, but serious offers only came from those I knew. I got other offers, but they were in a different class.

I've been with the same organization for several years. It's awesome. I get calls occasionally from those old contacts, asking if I'm ready to move on yet. I'm not, but when I do, I'm unlikely to "hit the market." I'll make a few calls, express some interest and find a home.

I'll say this: your technical skills alone will not land you the _awesome_ work. There are plenty who (claim to) have the same skills; in the world we live in, it's very difficult to distinguish between us and charlatans without experience. For me, the military provided the contacts and touch of reassurance a hiring manager needs to make a decision.

You need to find your distinguisher. If you don't have one, make it. The other comments here provide plenty of ideas how you can do so.

You need to find your distinguisher. If you don't have one, make it.

Best advice you will ever get here. True for everything, not just freelance work.

You're doing the right things. It's just very bad right now for freelance work. I have an artsy-fartsy startup but do heinous "enterprise" style Rails contracting to make money. My contract was just terminated, because I was too expensive. I think I was replaced by two others who were charging a lot less than me. So, I guess if you want to keep working you'll probably have to lower your rate or else get lucky.

That sounded a bit pessimistic.. I guess for practical tips, Twitter seems to be a new venue for finding work that actually seems fruitful.

I found my first job by going to my highschool job fair and begging a guy from Boeing to let me work as a programmer. He told me I was too young (just turned 17 at the time) but since I was "highly motivated" he would call some friends on my behalf. He referred me to a local business that develops frimware. After I explained that I had been developing game development skills for years using C++, they said I'd probably be a better fit at Ageia (a St Louis company that developed physics middleware called PhysX, and was recently acquired by nVidia).

I thought, "How am I going to get the attention of the executives? I'm 17, there's no way I can just submit a resume and get hired." So I scoured the internet for any Ageia phone numbers I could find. I called one of them, and a guy who spoke Chinese picked up. "Um... hello?" and he hung up. But I noticed a pattern in all of the numbers I found. They all started with the same 5 digits (for example, 555-1212, 555-1286, etc). So I changed the last two digits to 01 and tried, and nobody picked up. Then I tried 02 and got one of the top execs on the phone. I convinced him to let me show him some of my gamedev demos the following day. After that, he told me that he was impressed, but to prove my skills, I had two weeks to create a demo using PhysX. Two weeks later, I had created three simple but effective demos.

He seemed pretty impressed at that point, and even told me "you definitely have a job here". Then I didn't. He couldn't get special permission to hire a 17-year old, because I couldn't sign the NDA. But he asked John Ratcliff (who worked at Ageia at the time) if he knew of any local companies I'd be a good fit at. He did, and it turned out that there was a gamedev studio about 30 minutes away from where I lived. I was really excited, and they invited me to take their programmer test.

The guy who handed me the test said "I hope you know your C++"... he wasn't exactly confident in me, apparently. (I don't blame him, most candidates suck.) But I took the test and got a decent score. Up next was the interview phase, where around 8 programmers came in and sat at a large table in the conference room. I presented my demos to them (including my three previous Ageia demos).

I dropped out of high school and worked there as an unpaid intern for about 8 months, at which point I was hired and worked there for three years. Also, the time between the job fair and my first day on the job was several months, so the whole process took a lot of effort.

So my advice is, demos are key; talk to the decision-makers, not the middlemen; and demonstrate your skill in every other possible way (but mostly shut up and let other people talk, because you don't know 1/10th of what you think you know).

Also, be genuinely interested in other people. Almost everyone likes the idea of being a mentor.

"So my advice is, demos are key"

Exactly correct. If you don't have any, you're likely not as skilled as you think.

Ok, so demos are great to have. As a person in charge of hiring, what kind of demos would you like to see in a candidate? What kind of portfolio should a person without demos try to develop for the purpose of trying to get a job?

It depends on the job. I'm hiring web devs at the moment so cool functioning sites are great(but rare). I'm certain a few little games I wrote in javascript(blackjack, and copies of a few of the games from kde games) got me my first job in web development. The CTO loved the blackjack game in particular.

I guess the best advice would just be anything interesting that shows off your skills.

Interesting story Palish...how is your startup coming along btw?

Thanks for asking! It's coming. We had a recent setback due to the current economic problems. My partner lives in an apartment with his girlfriend. She had a full-time job at a large company doing quality assurance testing (finding bugs), so she offered him the opportunity of leaving his full-time job while she paid the bills. Just a couple months after he did that, the recession hit, and she was laid off. So our startup is somewhat inactive for a couple months while my partner saves up money doing contract work.

The value of persistence is similarly prominent in this description of finding a dream job at a toy company: http://www.spectrum.ieee.org/feb09/7471

This story is awesome. When is the movie coming out? :-)

I often think it would be beneficial if HN had some directory that people could list their skills if they are willing to freelance.

Often times I would like to work with someone more skilled in UI and design and would rather work with someone who posted on here regularly. Seems like it would be less risky then say any of the elance/ rent a coder type deals.

I have thought it would be nice if there was a site devoted more to building a business relationship then just low-ball pricing to get projects done. Maybe I should just build one, but getting enough people to make it worthwhile would be the difficult part.

The rentacoder but for long term freelance relationships is a great idea. Email me if build one. I'd like to help.

For one thing it is not obvious how to contact you. Your blog has one ambiguous link for email but it doesn't even load. Maybe obvious, but you need to make it simple for someone to reach you.

Nevertheless I am actually looking for RoR help. Hit me up: sam dot huleatt @ yahoo dot com

As simple as it sounds, be social. There are countless times where I've been looking for work and a simple twitter message has resulted in business friends pointing me in the direction of their friends, and so on.

Use twitter search to check out who is looking for a RoR or PHP dev. This is how I get most of my SEO work - there's usually a business asking for someone and I just follow and send them a quick message.

If it's an option for you relocate. I'm desperate for PHP/Ruby developers in Sydney and I know when I was last in Toronto it was the same way. We just can't find decent developers that aren't already in a great job. Even if moving isn't an option try finding cities with real shortages and looking if you can telecommute?

What exactly is involved in relocating across international borders? Perhaps I should post this as a Q. I would love to relocate to another country for a while, but I find the paperwork to be intimidating.

I posted this in your submission as well but just posting it here for anyone that didn't see that.

It honestly depends where you are and where you are going. I'm from Canada originally. When I moved to England I had to go to the embassy and fill out a form and show some birth certificates(I was claiming ancestry). I'm now in Australia on a working holiday visa. To get that I filled out a form on a web page and got an email a few hours later with my visa number.

In both cases I found a job when I got there.

Did you try Scriptlance.com, HireACoder.com, or any of those type of sites?

I know there are some cheap people on there, but those that use that kind of site often know not to hire the least expensive.

Do you have any ideas of your own?

Take this time to create your own startup. I have a ton of ideas that are self-sustaining if you're interested.

Yes, I have two startups that are on their way to being very successful. Though, it'll take 4-6 months before I'm financially free of working at all.

Unfortunately, I don't have that much saved up.

So you're saying in 4-6 months you'll be free of working at all but worry about these 4-6 months? Sorry, sounds fishy to me.

When I read that, I assumed there was an implicit "if all goes well". :)

can you succeed with both of them at once?

There was a similar thread not long ago: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=445776

And my comment from that thread: http://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=445836

Put a some info in your profile here; you never know who needs help with their startup.

Have you tried some of the Gig boards that are out there like 37Signals and Joel on Software? I've had good luck with those before trying to find a way to make some spending money.

Seriously. People who are freelancers and don't have stuff in their profile irritate me. We're always looking for people with skillsets like yours.

Fixed. :)

I'm...asking everyone I know if they know anyone in need

Good, but: Are you clear on exactly what your ideal client looks like? If you're not, then this question won't be clear. If the question is vague or general, it's easier to answer 'no' than to think about it.

You'll get more responses with a clear question like "Know any business owners with less than 20 staff who want to use their technology better?" than asking the vague "Know anyone who needs RoR and PHP work?"

(Obviously, you know how to phrase this for your service offering better than I.)

Also, don't just ask if they know anyone in need. Ask who they know that may know anyone in need - this will open more doors, and prevent dead ends in your contact base.

I find this very difficult as well (although I am just getting started), but I can only really blame myself for not being more social (as mentioned here). It is just much easier to code up more stuff or work on a new project then it is to really market ones self. I also worry that I focus too much on learning different things and should instead focus on a just one or two specialties.

I am glad I came across this thread, very good information and advice to really keep motivated. Thanks again for the great advice HN.

Your existing customers are your most easily converted prospects. Surely, there's something else they need, right?

Think about the things that you've done. Think about the sectors, the solutions, the requirements.

Find similar things. If you can re-use what you've already done you're halfway to a profitable solution, but it lets you bid lower than the next guy.

Find your niche. Exploit it. Reuse it. Recycle. The possibilities are endless.

Network like your life depended on it (maybe it does?). A few good contacts are worth more than any job board or anything else.

You need to find other good networkers. Once you find them, help them before they help you. Prove to them that recommending you will make them look good, too.

Create a profile on LinkedIn (if you don't have one already) and subscribe to 'Ruby on Rails' and other specific groups. I have seen quite a few contracts (both full-time and part-time) on 'Ruby on Rails' group. May you will find some luck there. Good luck.

Open source projects are a way to keep yourself visible, although of course that's not an immediate way to find work. Ask friends, lower your prices... it's probably tough with the current economy.

Have you tried oDesk or Elance type of venues? There are also Rent-a-coder type sites as well. Good Luck! Send me your resume in case I hear of anything.

Are there any relevant local meetups or foo/bar/startup/etc camps? Any sort of gathering where there'll be other local people you can meet and talk to?

There are lots of people looking for freelance Rails developers. You need to engage with the community more somehow to ferret them out.

I suggest you publish a really useful and re-usable .Net/J2EE/Android/FLOSS (for e.g. memcached) code on your website.

Start offering free weekly classes on programming at your local starbucks. Make it something real general like homepages for small business. Or facebook profiles, crap like that. Then if somebody wants more substantial private help or consultation you can charge them for it.

On a similar note, look into teaching continuing education classes at your local community college, or giving presentations at, e.g., ACM/IEEE meetings.

That is a good idea, has anyone done this? What was turn-out like? Did you have to talk with the manager first?

I made a website for a tiny open source project of mine, that addressed image segmentation and 3D visualization of meshes.

I added a link to that web page: "Hire me". And I got hired at a very nice research institute for an intership. Later I became group leader there.

Bottom line: have something to show, and don't be shy about it.

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