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Ask HN: What to do as a programmer about to go homeless
46 points by brandonhsiao on June 22, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 55 comments
I'm a full stack freelance web developer with several projects all heavily delayed. Meanwhile I'm living overseas in a country where I don't know anyone (Vancouver, British Columbia), have $60 USD left in my bank account, and only have rent paid for another 2 days (at a hostel). Food here is pretty expensive and runs about $15/day even if you really try to save, especially if you don't have a permanent place for groceries.

It seems to me my best bet of making money is exchanging programming services for money as usual. How do I make this kind of trade last-minute?

Resume is in profile if that helps give advice. Also, this is a special case, but I have no one to borrow money from.

Start by removing any negative connotations from your CV/bio: http://brandonhsiao.com/

Things like "I will not work with Windows hosting" and "Honestly, strictly speaking, any semi-competent hacker is capable of using any documented framework" make us associate you with someone who is stubborn and over-confident. The latter may be just, but I doubt it given your situation.

I apologize if my words are harsh, but as it goes; beggars can't be choosers.

Also, the word "hacker" has a very different meaning (criminal who breaks into computer systems) in most of the world (e.g., to your potential customers) than it does within the software development community. So definitely don't refer to yourself as a hacker.

Thanks for the heads up. If you hadn't told me I would never have even thought of it that way.

ALWAYS get a competent/savvy friend to review your resume/CV. (Also, dating profiles.)

But seriously, you need someone to be brutally honest with you about these things and employers will NEVER tell you what you need to know.

Quick money? Well, Vancouver is Bitcoin capital of Canada. And Bitcoin payments are immediate.

Also, there should be plenty of places to buy food there using Bitcoin. Here's a list of just some of them:


So to earn money, go check out: https://coinality.com/ and http://www.reddit.com/r/Jobs4bitcoins

They both post programming jobs. And Bitcoin payments are immediate. Just watch out for scammers -- Bitcoin unfortunately attracts more than its fair share.

If you post a Bitcoin address, I'll get you started with enough Bitcoins to buy some cheese fries here:


Edit: By the way, the quickest secure way to get a Bitcoin address is probably to sign up via blockchain.info and use 2-factor authentication and a long (20 char+) password. Just don't end up storing $10,000 on a blockchain wallet.

In the long run, you're best off learning to securely manage your Bitcoins yourself using bitcoin-qt or another desktop client:


Wow, that is awesome. Wait, that actually sounds like a solution to my biggest problem right now.

This is not it. To all intents and purposes bitcoins are a fictional currency with no relevance to the real world of getting food on the table. Do not pursue some displacement activity based on selling tulip bulbs!!!

No one is suggesting that he sell them. I'm suggesting he earn them, from anyone around the globe, and then use them to pay for food at one of the many restaurants and/or groceries in Vancouver that accepts Bitcoin.

If you are about to be homeless and have $60 to your name, you need to focus for now on short term survival. You need to find a way to raise the cash (preferably without borrowing) and make sure you can eat, as a minimum.

Look into couch surfing or staying with friends/family for the short term if that is possible.

Look for a way to get quick cash legally. In the U.S., collecting recyclables is a common way for people on the street to do that. A quick google does not indicate you can do that in Canada. You might consider pawning something, accepting donations, finding some kind of short term work that pays cash.

While drawing on those resources, then try to get more long term solutions in place. You cannot crisis manage your way to a more middle class life. You have to make real plans and do a lot of problem solving.

I hope that some of the advice here on how to market yourself as a serious professional is useful to you in the long run but I will say that it makes some really big assumptions which may be completely off the mark. First, in order to charge $100/hour for anything at all, the quality of your work needs to be worth that much. Your work may not be that good. So you may need to find out how to improve the quality of your work. Second, simply relabeling yourself as a "consultant" instead of a "freelancer" may not be some kind of magic bullet to get you better clients.

Some of the advice here is a good long term thing to shoot for but, really, if you are on the verge of homelessness, the odds are high that you have bigger problems than what label you are using for your business model. So you may have some serious work ahead of you in terms of figuring out exactly what went wrong and how to fix it.

Also, asking for help here on HN in this manner may be doing you more harm than good. The people you want to hire you for your programming skills may well be reading this forum and may well basically blacklist you because of this post.

I am sorry you are in this situation. (I have been homeless for 2.5 years, so I am not looking down on you.)

Best of luck.

While 'patio11's post is (as usual) a valuable contribution, yours is far more useful in this particular case.

To the OP, having come close to your situation before, my advice is to focus on finding a day job. If visas are an issue, look for remote work or cash work (or, I suppose, a long-term "freelance" gig--for example ad agencies in Canada frequently employ programmers to do work in-house as contractors), but focus on finding anything that will let you wake up every day without worrying about how you'll pay rent or buy food. Freelancing/consulting is great, but there are a number of factors which make it a lot more difficult to dig yourself out of a hole that way, especially if you don't have a track record of consistently filling your time with valuable client engagements. You can always re-visit that path once you have savings in the bank.

EDIT: This is a subject that's fresh in my heart and mind, having transitioned from (some of) the starry-eyed delusions of youth to (some of) the miserable realities of adulthood more recently than many here. Guys like 'patio11 mean very well, and they are giving actionable advice which I've made work for myself many times over, but they are taking a few things for granted which they maybe shouldn't, and de-emphasizing the importance of a few things which programmers have a tendency to over-emphasize:

1. You cannot charge $100/hour if you can't demonstrate any previous success at all. It's true that programmers over-emphasize the importance of this most of the time, but you do need something.

2. You cannot charge $100/hour if you're not able to act like a professional. This includes communicating professionally, dressing professionally, etc. Again, programmers over-estimate the importance of this, but there is a basic requirement (which is probably on par with most North American white collar work).

3. You will never be able to bill 100% of your work time and it's probably not realistic to even get 60% in your first year of solo operation. (That, by the way, is part of why $100/hour is on the low end of what you should be charging.)

4. You will almost never get paid on time, and it's not unusual (a few times a year) to face expenditures which represent more than a week's work (tax season, etc), so you should have at least a month's worth of cash float available.

5. Regardless of your overall market value and the value you're able to create for any business, there are many parts of North America where businesses will not justify spending more than $100/hour on your work. Your options (as a freelancer/consultant) are basically moving or trying to work remotely (see 6).

6. You're not going to get a "freelance job" at $100/hour working remotely unless you're $INSERT_INTERNET_FAMOUS_NAME. You might get a consulting engagement, but only if you've met the client in person previously, or you've been referred by someone, or you have some very serious Fu. (I am probably overstating the difficulty here, but not by much.)

7. It's near impossible to pull off #'s 1 through 6 if you don't have food to eat this week. (I'm speaking from experience, although in reality I have a wider support net than most people. This list is doubly true for those without a support net.)

In other words, 'patio11 and 'tptacek and the other good people giving wonderful consulting advice are right 100% of the time, but they're making reasonable assumptions about functional professional adults with a few connections and a bit of money in the bank (again, they're optimizing their advice for people who have the resources but lack the confidence). If you're not there yet, get a job for a while--it has its own set of challenges anyway. (And when you do, check out http://www.kalzumeus.com/2012/01/23/salary-negotiation/ for some excellent advice about salary negotiation.)

$100 an hour is the just-hung-out-your-shingle rate for web developers in e.g. Chicago. It doesn't require a fancy suit, Internet fame, or having written a book on Rails. It is just the market rate for being able to do work in a mostly unsupervised fashion.

I apologize, my previous comment must have been quite poorly written for you to have misunderstood it to the extent that is apparent. I didn't intend to make any assertions about writing books or wearing suits, and I certainly do not object to $100/hour rates (having charged more than that in markets much smaller than Chicago). The crux of my point was that freelancing isn't the optimal way for most people to pick themselves up from nothing.

It's not helpful to suggest that a person just needs to go check out the local $INSERT_PROGRAMMING_LANGUAGE_HERE developer meetup and ask people to hire them for freelance work--that sort of environment is not the norm in most of North America.

Of course freelancing is a perfectly viable option for lots of people, and I will generally agree with your party lines (ie. businesses typically value developer skills on a completely different axis than programmers do, and programmers typically underestimate their ability to provide that value) but offering it up as a panacea to someone who's on the verge of homelessness seems... a bit strong.

I don't know how are things in Canada. But when the bad times come, here in Colombia we sell Empanadas! (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada) (A proverb say: What is the thing that sell most? A empanada!)

I need to self-fund my own startup, and I have not access to angel investors. So I start selling BBQ related things in the streets. I do this only in the weekends, in the night, right now. In a strike of luck, I get some very good freelance work just after the 1 week, but I still doing because a)I like it b)It could pay the rent! c)Reduce the stress!

This is a tactic that (here) work well. Sell food is fairly easy if you are smart about it. Requiere very low capital, not much talent, and some kind of foods bring more than 50-70% in earnings, after all the costs. Things like sell fruits (salad fruits) juices, tacos, empanadas, pizza, maicitos, mangos with salt, etc. This suckers are EASY and profit well!

The only catch? Location. This is the hard thing.

Other things to try:

- Fix computers - Teach about computers - Provide IT services to local stores - Exploit any talent you have and look if is possible to monetize in the very short term. - Become a "Cafe internet" - Become a "Play videogames here"

Both also are similar to "Sell empanadas" emergency business popular here. I don't know if is possible in Canada. Start a home business have zero real problems with the law if is low-level in my country so is easy to have a escape plan.

In Canada I'd imagine you need a permit and/or access to a commercial kitchen for selling homemade food. I know you do here in upstate New York.

Don't exist street sellers? I know in USA is normal the hotdogs sellers and people that sell in special cars.

P.D: Another very easy tactic: If you are close to a location where people do sports, sell fruits, water and similars become possible. I know a women that only work 2 days each week for like 4h/day and made 3x-4x the AVG. salary of a developer here.

This might not be appropriate advice for your current situation, but if you think you might face homelessness again, you might think about getting a van at some point. It will give you the minimum necessary to get through tough times. You'll still need to make enough for gas and some food, but you can live in a van for much less than rent. That, and a gym membership and you can get showers and work out. If you have a decent laptop then you can work in almost any coffee shop for maybe five dollars a day.

I'm not saying it a great option, but that it might be the best of a set of bad options.

Also, you might think about posting to Craigslist or similar, explain your situation and ask for some work. It certainly won't hurt.

First thing I would suggest is to edit your podt and let people know which city you are in. HNers that are local to you might be able to give you a sofa for a few nights or ask you to pop by their office for a chat or informal interview. You could be in my city, but since it isn't immediately obvious I'm not going to then bother to contact you via your HN profile to ask.

From http://brandonhsiao.com/, it looks like he's in Vancouver.

[EDIT: Ah, The OP has updated his post]

Your immediate resolution is to either borrow money, to solicit donations, or to delay payment on your expenses.

Your longer-term resolution, which I hope to share both with you and people whose present position resembles your position back in February (so that their position in October does not resemble your position as of this moment), is to improve the management of your business or, if you are unable or unwilling to do so, to secure gainful employment as a computer programmer, and trade the upside for predictable paychecks every 2 weeks until such time as you have financial/social/etc resources to survive natural variation in cash flow.

You're a freelancer. Variability in payment schedules is something which your business needs to be able to deal with.

You manage a business, and you should comport yourself as such, rather than as e.g. a college student who occasionally works for spending money. This implies, among other things, radically raising your rates, securing appropriate credit to smooth out your cash flow cycles, securing appropriate savings to smooth out your cash flow cycles, securing social and professional relationships such that you have them available in leaner times, and locating the business somewhere conducive to success at it. I express no opinion on whether Vancouver is that place, but if you've got no support network there and are at the margins of Canadian society, I would suggest rectifying that.

You should work on your pipeline such that you've always got some engagements which are in the pitch stage, some which are in the execution stage, and some which are in the "get the final invoice paid up" stage.

You need to increase your billable efficiency to more than the number you think is required for meeting your monthly expenses, because if you shoot for poverty level incomes, you will be poor when the business performs at plan and destitute when it does not. Your minimum viable number is not $600 a month. It is closer to $3,000 billed a month. This is the absolute "pack it in if you cannot hit it" minimum number -- a successful freelancing business should be billing much more in the current environment.

I assert, without fear of contradiction, that you do not charge nearly enough for your services. You need to charge more, substantially more. You probably get bad clients and bad projects from something like oDesk. Do not get bad clients and bad projects which pay you no money. Instead, network actively and get better projects from better clients at the prevailing wages for professional work.

P.S. The best clients will not respond well to hearing about you being a hair's breadth from financial disaster, because this does not happen to professionals. It suggests a lack of professional competence and will, therefore, impair your ability to land engagements doing professional work. In keeping with the "comport one's business like a professional" strategy, you will want to avoid sounding like you need to get paid ASAP.

10,000 times this.

I do freelance work, and THIS advice is the advice that has helped me the most.

Be, act, and appear a consummate professional at every front. Quality of clients, size of projects, it all depends on acting the correct part.

Might drop the term freelancer as well, although thats a little more controversial. It has appeared to me lately, that freelancer has begun to give the impression of cheap roll-of-the-dice...where as something like 'consultant' tends to be more in line with stable, experienced, professional, and yes, more expensive.

This. Be a consultant. Bill by the hour.

No, even better bill by the day or even weeks if projects are big enough. It's silly mind trick but seems to work fairly well with clients, everything is more relaxed because they don't feel like having to pay for every minute of your work, it's much easier to negotiate the good price that way (at least for me, since I'm from southeast Europe, my rates are probably on a cheaper side here)

Thanks for the advice. I'd like to take your suggestion to radically raise rates to prevent this from happening again. What do you suggest I do to get in touch with/market to/work for clients willing to pay that much?

The only thing you have to do to hit $100 an hour in e.g. Python programming, which you appear to do, is to stop taking gigs which pay less than $100 per hour. People express disbelief at this, and it is headdesk inducing to me.

For general Python contracting work, go to people who already employ Python programmers, demonstrate competence, and then ask if they are hiring or know anyone who is. This can be virtually or in meatspace, at meetups and whatnot.

For getting work which is more than just being an interchangeable body who can ship a web app in Python, you'll want to find businesses which have problems which are amenable to solutions with computer programs, and then sell them that you're the right person to do that. I've gone over this many times on HN -- use hn.algolia.com and search for [patio11 consulting] or [patio11 prospecting].

(n.b. You should also shutter the business which sells fully functional prototypes for $3k, because that is not sustainable. Good clients know this, so if you're using that business for lead gen, you're selecting for pathological clients. You're also proposing to do project management for projects for the worst freelancers and the worst clients, at a fee of 8% on $3k, which is an even worse idea than delivering those engagements yourself.)

Sorry to ask what are probably silly questions, but: how do I, uh, find these people? Like where do they gather? Should I look up local businesses in my area, call them, and talk about their problems?

You could start by Googling "Vancouver Python meetup" like I just did, and you'll find that there's a meetup happening this coming Wednesday at 6 p.m. at Facebook's offices there.


I know that sounds snarky, but that's really that's all there is to it. Once you find your way into a local dev community, you'll quickly find more and more connections. Good luck!

It's hard to think straight when you're going to be sleeping on the streets in a few days. Thinking becomes cluttered. Depression sets in. Please take that into account.

If I search Vancouver and Python, this is the first result: http://www.meetup.com/vanpyz/ The next event is this Wednesday.

The organizers of that event probably know of companies in Vancouver who are looking for Python developers. You could also comb the attendee list and try to figure out what companies they are working for, as they'll probably be using Python.

Search job listings for jobs in your area that list python. Doesn't need to be a python shop, as long as they use python somewhere. You can call up or email HR, or better yet hiring managers/decision makers, and ask if they need any contract developers.

Look at Python conferences (e.g. https://2013.pycon.ca/en/ ), and look at the list of sponsors.

The problem for the OP, perhaps, is if he is not in Canada on a proper work visa, getting "gainful employment" will be very tough. You must have a Social Insurance Number to get any type of job. The only option for that is "cash under the table" at a place that hires illegal workers - those exist. But the conditions aren't going to be great. Those places underpay the minimum wage and expect 6 days a week of work from you. Working 60 hours per week at $10 per hour is going to be tough work when he can, as you say, make 10X that as a Python developer...

Couchsurfing.com for the immediate housing problem, maybe even make a friend you can lean on for the first week and try to get them back with a nice dinner once you got some cash flowing again.

If cost of living/food is a sustained problem, try to save up and fly to a place where that won't be your noose around your neck. Perhaps southeast asia once you've saved a bit. Again couchsurfing for a softer landing there as well.

If you freelance, I see no reason why you need to stay in a place that costs a lot to live in. Move elsewhere.

It doesn't cost that much actually; once I find a permanent place and buy groceries etc. I can live off maybe $600-$700/month. The issue is really just that I need money last-minute.

Recently vacationed and stopped in Vancouver, plus have family that are Canadian. BC in general, and Vancouver in specific is expensive compared to places in the eastern part of Canada. It's primarily, as I understand it, a touristy area, which drives up cost in most cases. I wasn't there long, but it did seem a bit pricy from my admittedly limited perspective. Of course, that also depends on where you are from/what you are used to!

Vancouver BC has the second most expensive real-estate in the entire world: http://globalnews.ca/news/1098143/vancouvers-housing-prices-...

Exchanging programming services for money is a great idea in the long term, but it typically takes on the order of months until the first chunk of money arrives, which means it's far too late for that alone to help you right now. What you need right now is an emergency bail out.

You say you're in a foreign country, and you don't have any family back home who could help with the price of an airline ticket? In that case I would suggest going to your country's embassy and explaining your situation.

Exchanging programming services for money is a great idea in the long term, but it typically takes on the order of months until the first chunk of money arrives

Freelancers should require a deposit upfront. 50% for jobs <= 1 month, 30% for jobs > 1 month. The rest can be paid at milestones or hourly/daily. If it's hourly/daily , bill bi-weekly, and try to get paid net 15 [1]. For long term jobs, if the client does net 30+, increase the deposit to secure your cash flow. And always use a contract.

1: http://www.freshbooks.com/blog/2010/03/02/the-best-invoice-p...

> You say you're in a foreign country, and you don't have any family back home who could help with the price of an airline ticket? In that case I would suggest going to your country's embassy and explaining your situation.

Embassies aren't "get out of jail free" cards. Sure, it's better than nothing - but they get tourists without a return ticket home so often that there are strict policies on these sort of things. Even if they do help you, it might end up in you getting your passport revoked for a significant chunk of time, etc.

I'm not an expert, but I don't think the US gov't ever just gifts you a ticket home. They could probably help you receive a wire transfer from friends or family, but it's very unlikely they would buy you a ticket.

You could ride a bike from Vancouver to the US. If OP is a US citizen, and getting back to the US is a valuable undertaking, there are several ways to get it done for <$60.

Yeah, I wouldn't recommend approaching the U.S. embassy with this kind of situation. You're far better approaching a Canadian food bank or other social aid organization if things get dire.

Well it seems to me that while getting your passport revoked would be annoying, it would be far better than ending up homeless and starving in a foreign country where you don't know a living soul. That said, if there are other options, by all means try those first.

I don't understand by what you mean by "overseas". Are you not legally allowed to work in Canada? Why are you listing your money in USD? Sounds like you made a couple of bad decisions and you need to find yourself a full time job.

If you really have no money you should probably use your credit cards until you find a permanent job. Or ask your friends or family to loan you money while you are getting yourself back on your feet.

Rough situation.

I am not sure you will be able to find anything in the programming area on such short notice that will pay out that quickly.

However, this might be a case where you look outside of that, and take more pedestrian approaches to get you the cash needed to ride out the rough patch.

Day labor, its not programming, and it doesn't pay much, but it could be enough to put food in the belly, and a roof over the head. I know in the US there are all kinds of day labor companies, and construction will occasionally hire for unskilled on a job site, and pay cash.

Recruiters/Staffing/Temp: Find someone that has a client base of people that need software staff augmentation immediately. I am not sure it would solve the problem in 2-3 days, but you might get very lucky.

Original response was dead on though. Hard to say what can be done without knowing where in the world you are.

Depending on the attitude of the city you are in, your personality and what kind of creative skills you have, you could also potentially make some "hold-over" money quickly by busking (street performance). I personally am really not a big fan of busking, but I've thought about what I would do if I suddenly needed some cash in pocket very quickly and the quickest (legal) way I can imagine getting cash in hand with no initial investment is day labor, street performance or panhandling. Seems like a long shot, but if you're a super good guitar player or something and Vancouver doesn't have strict laws about street performance, you might be able to make enough to keep you fed and housed until a freelance job pays out.

I have been in that situation and I don't know the reason you ended up there, you can get many options of housing with friends and work online but I would like to send you some money for food so while you figure it out you always have a hot meal.

Have you considered applying for employment insurance?

"Employment Insurance (EI) provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed Canadians who have lost their job through no fault of their own, while they look for work or upgrade their skills."

Government assistance should be a safety net that is intended exactly for temporary situations like this, right? It's definitely not optimal, but perhaps it would be one avenue to follow up given the situation?

Have you considered applying for employment insurance?

"Employment Insurance (EI) provides temporary financial assistance to unemployed Canadians who have lost their job through no fault of their own, while they look for work or upgrade their skills."

Government assistance should be a safety net that is intended exactly for temporary situations like this, right? It's definitely not optimal, but perhaps it would be one avenue to follow up given the situation?

You have to pay into Employment Insurance for a few months first, before you can collect it. Freelancers and other self-employed people don't qualify. Also, the safety net is generally only for citizens of a country who pay income taxes, not visitors as this person appears to be ("overseas").

Life is full of ups and downs. If I were you, I'd make three radical shifts: i) Find a shit job for now. ii) Get the heck out of dodge - Vancouver is an insanely expensive city and if you've reached the end of your money-line, impose on a friend or some family else where. Hitch thee. iii) Find a perm development role until you can get back on your feet; this will be hard unless you can pull off (i).

Do you have any credit left? Can you take a cash advance from your credit card? Use that for rent. Then use the rest of your credit to buy peanut butter.

You said you have several projects all heavily delayed. Can you approach those clients and offer them a discount if they provide a down payment?

Also reply to Craigslist ads looking for temporary labor (e.g., moving boxes or doing outdoor work).

Get a food services job temporarily. Also, buy groceries and cook your own food. Even microwave meals only cost about $1 each.

I would also maybe try https://www.bountysource.com

Get a credit card. They accept credit cards at hostels.

Are you sure you cannot speak to mummy and daddy plus any other relatives, e.g. siblings? They may be the only people that can immediately arrange for you to have money for outgoings, as hard as it may be to pick up the phone to ask for help, they might just be worried about you and more than willing to help in any way possible. Of course you could be an orphan, disowned or with parents living on less than a dollar a day in the Global South, but I find it hard to believe you have no friends or family to help you.

If you are going to speak to them, one thing you can do to make things easier is to get the ball rolling with work. If you get your CV out today then you should be hearing from recruitment agencies tomorrow. If someone is going to put you forward for a telephone interview then that might be enough to persuade family that you are worth investing in.

Assuming that someone in the family can help you out you can pay them back with direct debit over six months or so, plus you will owe favours in return. This does mean doing a day job, i.e. getting out the door very early and getting back late with no life to yourself except the weekend.

You can also look for local work with rubbish pay doing things most people don't want to do. Pretend you are a student and that the job is perfect for you, in that way they will overlook any intellectual aspect of your character. The benefits of a local unskilled job are many: you can take on a challenge and 'win' (factory production lines are ridiculously fast to the uninitiated), physical hard labour does get you fit up to a point where you are just permanently run down, the travel can be easy and inexpensive saving you 1-2 hours per day, the camaraderie can be better than any office, you can get paid weekly, you can get paid for overtime, uniform/overalls are provided and although the experience may be utterly intolerable there will be retrospective enjoyment. Just pretend that you are going 'undercover' much like George Orwell in 'Down and Out in London and Paris' and all will be survivable.

If in an inane factory job read the trade press and look for vacancies that can combine the low--skilled in-depth knowledge of the job with programming. For instance, if you end up working in a bar then keep your eyes peeled for vacancies with the company that supply the POS software. If they want people to be support staff then they are willing to hire users (that know the software already and understand the pressures of their customers). A support role - picking up the phone and logging calls will lead to a second line role by which time you will have gained people skills and become a customer service focused person. That is worth more on your CV than any programming TLA's or half-baked open-source project contributions. It may not be rocket surgery and it might be hard work, but all I am saying is that a dead-end job really need not be dead end at all if you are prepared to be slightly enterprising about it.

It may take six months to a year of having to work at rubbish jobs before you can climb out of the hole into something nearer your true calling but that is not so long in the bigger scheme of things. As mentioned you will learn things along the way that they just don't teach in university.

Expecting to exchange programming services for money shows a slight lack of grasp of reality, in truth it is exchanging your labour or your time for $$$.

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