The Problem with Side Gigs as a Software Developer

Smokey night…too smokey for coding?

he problem with side gigs as a software developer is simply that it’s not as easy as it sounds. Some of us need or want more money from time to time, but acquiring those extra funds isn’t always as simple as clicking on a few forms and collecting some cash. It actually takes a lot of work.

For about two years — several years ago — I ran a one-man web development consulting business, which is what a lot of developers do as a side gig. I had one primary client and then a not-always-steady stream of small clients to pad the bank account. I learned some very important lessons during those two years.

I wasn’t just a developer…I was a business owner.

I couldn’t just click on a few freelance job ads and make money appear.

I learned that getting the work could be harder than doing the work, and that was the most eye-opening lesson from the whole experience.

Side Gigs are A Lot More Work than You Think

When I was first getting started, I figured I could just put in some bids at the various freelance gig sites and the work would start rolling in. Boy, was I wrong. I started out getting nothing, so I had to figure out what to fix and do it fast.

I had to improve my portfolio, figure out how to market my skills, and learn how to write great bids. Once I got all that nailed down and started getting work, I noticed another trend — a race to the bottom.

Freelance sites have a global audience and a global workforce. Many developers I competed against lived in low cost of living countries. Therefore, they could bid less for the same work. It really didn’t matter who was better, because a lot of the business owners looking to hire freelance programmers were looking for the cheapest option.

I had to spend more time marketing, more time writing more in-depth bids and further positioning myself as an expert who writes high-quality code. These activities take a pretty good chunk of time…time that I wasn’t billing to anyone.

Once you get all the business and marketing side figured out, you end up with a highly specialized skillset and sales process serving a limited customer base. The end result of all this is that to make money, you’ve got to put in a lot of work.

Work on Getting Better at Your Job while at Your Job

The main reason for getting side gigs is to get some more income. Even though developers make good money, we could always use more. Some people have massive student loan debt, while others are saving up to buy a house. Side gigs are one way to pad your income, but have you thought about just increasing your income at your day job?

Say you wanted to make another $15,000 per year on top of your current salary. The first thing a lot of people I’ve talked to will think about is getting some type of side work going. Starting a side business and making a little extra cash works…but what’s the time frame?

How long will it take you to get up to that $15,000 per year? You might hit it out of the park on your first try, but usually, it takes time to build up clients, processes, and your supplemental income. On a similar overall timeline, you can increase your value to your current employer and get a raise.

What if you could get the same result, but with less effort? You could be put in some work and get the same results in about the same amount of time over the course of a year or two, except you don’t have to give up your nights and weekends. To make side gigs work, you might have to put in 2–4 hours a night, every night, and work seven days per week for months before you see any real results. And those results might just be a trickle of money here and there.

By getting better at your job while you are at your job, you won’t feel like you’re working 24×7. Over time, you’ll provide more value to your employer and turn that value into real cash. As an added bonus, if you actively work to get better at your job, that job will become easier.

You’ll still have your nights and weekends for recreational activities, you’ll convert value into cash, and your job will become easier. This seems like a winning combo to me.

You’ll End Up as a More Marketable Developer

Most of us change jobs eventually. There’s just too much money to be made by getting a new job to stay at your current employer forever. Using the get-better-at-your-job tactic mentioned above can put you in a solid position when job hunting.

If you have a side gig on your resume (let’s say you want to highlight another set of skills or programming language), that could be a red flag to some managers. Our profession often requires us to fix production processes and clean up some code during our recreational time, and if you have a side business, how available will you be?

Instead, you could have a nice and clean resume highlighting the value you provide your current employer. That could really make your resume shine. You’ll have more skills and responsibilities, you can position yourself to step up into a larger role, and you’ll be in a better negotiating position for more money.

I know it sounds like I’m saying side gigs are a bad choice. I’m not saying that…exactly. What I am saying is that it’s hard work, and it takes a lot of time to get meaningful results. I don’t even know how many nights I spent tucked away from my family while I tried to build my side business. That life is not for everyone, and a viable alternative is to just use your day job to increase your income.

If you’re thinking about starting up a side gig to earn more money, try this other method for six months or a year instead. See how far it can get you.

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Technology professional in Hollywood, so naturally I also make terrible short films and adventure videos.

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