Impostor syndrome, women in tech, freelancing

When I was seventeen or so you would find me staring at lines of code, resolutely programming a custom CMS in PHP or designing yet another layout for my blog. I was that kid, the one terrified of speaking to people. Who had a bizarre fear of the telephone. Whose social circle was limited to playing D&D and who truanted from just one class – Physical Education.

By all rights I should have ended up a developer. Maybe a designer. The place I actually ended up was… communications and marketing.

It seems bizarre now, looking back on it. The kid who once let a store short change them rather than risk making a scene ended up managing relationships with people for a living.

The reason I didn’t study computers or programming at University is probably down to a combination of things. Neither of my parents went to Uni, I had a vague idea I wanted to create comic books for a living, my career advisor was crap. I ended up doing English & Creative Writing. It was a good degree. It even had a web design module, which taught us how to use Dreamweaver. (I sidestepped it and just wrote my code directly.)

My first ‘proper’ job after University — after a six month stint in a call-centre — was working for a Video Game start-up. I was super-excited! They hired me because I said I wanted to work in something that would use both my writing and my tech skills.

I used my writing skills. My tech skills were limited to copy&paste. Somehow I got pushed more and more into the marketing and PR side of things. I organised LAN sessions — but I didn’t play in them. I wrote peppy news-posts and managed the forum.

At some point, I got the chance to write a fiction blog detailing the lives of two ‘background characters’ caught up in the video game’s universe. I developed a character: an older woman, struggling with arthritis, a missionary in a strange land. The artist did a fantastic job drawing her.

Then our lead designer came back: “What is this shit? She looks sick! We need her to be SEXY.”

I quit not long after. For lots of reasons. I wasn’t getting paid even minimum wage, I was expected to be on call at 7am and 11pm. And I had realised I would never be much more than the peppy female face of the company, not someone who had any real input into the games.

All the designers, developers, programmers were male. The PR staff were mainly female.

After that I ended up in a part-time admin job, and decided to set up a freelance web-design business on the side. I worked pretty hard, coding up around twenty websites over the first year or so. I even built another custom CMS, this being before WordPress and its like had really taken off. I developed e-commerce sites. I learned Magneto’s templating system.

Then my part-time admin role went full-time. I couldn’t really afford to say no. I kept the freelancing up but on a very ad-hoc basis.

After three years or so doing the admin job, I eventually landed a new job. Digital Communications Offer for an environmental charity. Some of the essential skills included HTML, CSS, experience with Drupal, even Flash. There was to be a core coding component to the role.

But it was still a marketing role, not a tech role. It was the most ‘tech orientated’ of any of the jobs I have had. I built internal sites, including custom php scripts to manage an internal bulletin system. I built a localhost site for a touchscreen. I managed a linux server. But day-to-day? Producing fun graphics and running social media. Writing newsletters. Managing bloggers.

Don’t get me wrong. I have come to enjoy that side of my job — and I’m good at it. I tripled web traffic and increased conversion rates. I launched our social media strategy. I gave presentations to rooms full of people. But the days I really enjoyed my job were the days I spent picking apart php code.

I struggle with impostor syndrome — the feeling that I’m never good enough, that I’m out of place. When I meet ‘real’ developers I stay silent, unable to contribute.

Whilst working for this charity I liaised with a web development agency that managed our main website – one of the top London agencies, charging £750 a day — and discovered that many of their coders were no better than me. I frequently suggested solutions to the bugs I found. We had many problems that I ended up working around with code over-writes (a terrible solution, by the way).

I left that job, to try and move to the USA, and in the last couple of weeks I’ve launched myself as a full-time web developer.

I do know my stuff. I’ve been reading tech blogs for fun my whole life. I love learning about UX principles. I can solve css issues. I’m not up to speed on things like Ruby on Rails, but I can build a damn website.

But the voice that says I’m not good enough doesn’t go away.

Sometimes I wonder how different my life would be if I’d ever managed to get one of those developer jobs at an agency that I applied for. I applied to so many of them! Was it my skills that weren’t up to par? And yet my social skills, my marketing skills, they really were not ‘up to par’ when I started my career, and that’s where I ended up.

I guess I will never know.





B is for… business

The Letter BI’ve been a freelancer for over ten years, starting my career with a gig colouring comic books. Currently I’m focused on two areas, webdesign and writing. (I also currently work full-time, but in the past I’ve been completely self-employed).

During that time I’ve written articles and blog posts for money, taken commissions for artwork, and even experimented with things like Mechanical Turk. I’ve made some money – and also made lots and lots of mistakes. Here are some of the lessons I learned:

1. Always charge more than you think you should

There are an awful lot of desperate people out there. Students who build websites for free. Fans that colour comics just to get their name on the cover. People that fill out surveys for a few cents. Working for free is okay – sometimes – if it’s on your terms. I’ve done work for charities and the like, which has helped build my portfolio. But if you want to make a living, you have to charge. You have to charge enough to cover lean times, to save, to cover taxes. You have to charge enough to make it worth your while, so you don’t burn out out on a hundred tiny projects (trust me – I’ve been there).

I’m not going to tell you how much to charge, but I will give you some tips:

  1. The living wage in the UK for 2012 was worked out as £8.80 per hour. (The actual recommended wage was lowered, to make it easier for living wage employers to meet). Don’t forget to add National Insurance and Tax on top of that. I usually allow about 50% extra for all the additional taxes, pension, costs of running a business (e.g. software purchases) and unpaid time doing things like filling out your self-assessment form. 
  2. Whatever you charge, get it paid into a business account and then ‘pay yourself’ a salary out of that. Leave all the money ear-marked for other purposes alone.
  3. Figure out your desired annual salary, and divide it by the number of working hours in a year. (Don’t forget to exclude vacation time)
  4. Look at the industry averages.

If you sell a product, I’ve got less advice, but don’t ever underestimate the power of premium pricing.

2. Every project will take longer than you think

I have a little dream, where I can crank out websites and books at top-speed. After all, the work itself doesn’t take that long. I can type something like 50-100 words a minute. I’ve coded so many websites I can get a framework up in about an hour. Except… except…

Work doesn’t work like that. There’s those rabbit-paths, where you have what you think is a brilliant idea (I’ll make this website mint green! It will look so fresh!) and then it turns out to be a terrible idea and you spend hours and get nowhere. Writing is particularly prone to these. In my current WIP, for example, I randomly decided to have this strange romance-sex-scene with robots. I blame nanowrimo. Either way, it’s about 2000 words of complete rubbish. Then there’s that time when you have no ideas. The only solution is a long walk, a noodling session, or cleaning the house from top to bottom.

So I figure a book will take me six months, actually it will take a year. I figure a website will take 30 hours, actually it will take 60. Your mileage might vary, but when quoting for work it’s better to lean toward the far end of the scale.

 3. Choose your clients/customers

You know that advice about interviews, where it’s as much for the interviewee to check out the business and the job as it is for the employer to check out their potential new-hire? Yeah, it’s a bit bullshit when you are first starting out and are desperate to get a job (any job! I’ll lick shoes! Dance the cancan! Be on call for 29 hours a day!) but gradually it makes more sense. You start to have an actual career, and you want something more than just money from your job. Running a business works the same way. To start with you’ll take any old client that offers to pay you in shoe-laces, but you quickly realise this is a bad way to do business.

There are some terrible clients out there. Clients that won’t pay. Clients that have no idea what they want, and make you produce thirty thousand revisions before deciding to abandon the project altogether. Clients that will be rude, aggressive and over demanding. Clients that think they can do your job better than you.

Once you have a steady stream of business, focus on the good clients. The ones that pay on time, respect your opinion, and keep coming back. Those clients will be worth so much more than the nightmare client who might cough up £100 once in a blue moon. Remember, your skills are in demand. A good freelancer is much more than a dancing monkey.

4. Structure your day

So I work from home one day a week, and I don’t get dressed. It’s like, my dream, to work all day in my pyjamas  I love pyjamas  and would totally wear them all the time forever if it was acceptable. What I don’t do, however, is futz around. I have a set timetable to my day: I start at 8am. I take a break at 10am and then a lunch at 1pm. I finish at 6pm. It’s difficult, but there are things you can do. I use the pomodoro technique to keep myself focused for a solid chunk of time. I make sure I email my manager at least twice during the day with an update on what I’ve achieved.

If you’re running a business, you can do the same thing. Set yourself a chunk of time that you are going to work for. If it’s a writing business you’re doing in your own time that might be 4 hours on a Saturday, or a half hour every evening. Decide what you are going to achieve in that time, and then … do it.

Yeah, a lot of advice comes down to ‘just do it’.

5. Take regular breaks

The other thing I like about the pomodoro technique is that it forces you to stop for breaks. I spend those breaks making tea, stretching (try doing a search for five minute yoga on youtube), or stepping outside for some fresh air. The important thing is to step away from the computer and take five minutes to just recharge your energy. Let any frustrations and anger go, take a couple of deep breaths and then go back to the work feeling refreshed.

So those are my tips… but I bet you have a few tips of your own. Share them in the comments below (or write your own blog post and let me know about it) or let me know about them on twitter.