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Short-termism, is it for me? Is it for you?

At one point in March/April this year I found myself reading a lot of articles with the title having this format:

  • X ways to be a better freelancer
  • Y steps to turbocharge your freelance career

All had a list of items to “adopt”, “follow” or “unlock” to arrive at this “fulfilled” freelancer status.

The two main points I could glean were:

  • Manage your time better.
  • Ensure your pipeline always has 2/3 projects/clients. Never focus full-time on one project/client.

I can do better in both. No question about that. But after some time, the main doubt I have about freelancing is unrelated to both: short-termism.

What do I mean by short-termism?

What one person might see as “short term” another might view as “long term”. I’ll be specific. By looking at my last three roles on my developer story.

In December 2019 I ended a 5 year full-time role as a senior engineer. I still have friendships. I made mistakes. Learnt a ton from them.

In January I worked on a contract via Toptal for Motorola. I developed the application from scratch. And delivered the solution they were looking for. By end April the “working relationship” was over. From May till July I worked on a specific part of a Django project for Caterpillar. Again via Toptal.

Same epilogue. Do the work. Final signoff on staging. Deploy. One last presentation. Bye bye.

I am currently on another similarly “finite” engagement. To help a small business transition from a bunch of Google Sheets to a more consolidated, databased-backed, business process. And building out a team of full-time engineers around this. At which point again I will “leave”.

Will I know if I made mistakes? How do I accumulate lessons-learnt working on contracts this “short”?

How do I explain this?

One voice in my brain asks: “You have a job, an income, while others are looking for work. Can’t you be thankful?”

At first I accepted this.

But then I somehow stumbled onto this clip below. And it made “being thankful” feel more like an excuse rather than an answer.

The clip features Steve Jobs. Now, whether you think he is a genius or a not-so-nice human being, he articulates aspects of this problem much better than I ever will:

I’ve transcribed the most relevant part and added emphasis:

I don’t think there’s anything inherently evil in consulting. [Audience laughs…]

I think that without owning something over an extended period of time, like a few years, where one has a chance to take responsibility for one’s recommendations, where one has to see one’s recommendations through all action stages and accumulate scar tissue for the mistakes and pick oneself from the ground and dust oneself off, one learns a fraction of what one can.

Coming and making recommendations and not owning the results. Not owning the implementation. I think is a fraction of the value and a fraction of the opportunity to learn and get better.

Cherry on the cake at the end 😅

You’re also a variable expense. and in hard times you find yourself [priceless facial expression, watch the video].

But that’s a topic for another day. So far I’ve been lucky (or inexpensive) enough. Back to the main topic.

But does this apply to me?

In the above transcript not everything applies. I do own the implementation. But only up to a certain date when the contract (and/or budget) ends. Then I “fuck off” and away from the proverbial “trenches”.

At that point all the missed learning opportunities Jobs describes come into play. Ownership till a pre-set date. And then poof! None at all.

How come I didn’t realise this sooner? Why didn’t I look for a long-term job right after a five-year stint at the same company?

Yeah, good questions. After five years at the same company I was looking for a different kind of experience. From which I learnt that I’m incompatible with “short-termism”.

Way Forward

So what’s the plan now? Determining the best way forward is easier said than done.

I now know short-termism feels detrimental for my personal career long-term. I find it results in lack of ownership. Lack of mastery a clear possibility.

The sooner I find a longer-term working relationship, the better. What form this will take, i.e. a full-time employee job, or a full-time freelance role, that depends on what I manage to find.

Whether I stick to “my” current stack is a factor as it limits the applicable roles. So some doubts about this still persist.

The common denominator in my last ten working years was my focus on Python/Django. Or what Steve Jobs would call “accumulated scar tissue”. So in a way I did go long-term techstack-wise.

I do like Python as a language and Django as a framework. But can too much of a good thing be a bad thing when it comes to tech stack? Is a decade too long? Did deepening my knowledge hinder me from broadening it?

I aim to revisit these questions in a year’s time. To record progress. And hopefully learn from it.

And you?

Do you work as a freelancer? Yes? How do you handle short-termism?

And if you’re working full-time for a company, would you rather have short-term projects? Or longer-term ones? Why?