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Yoren Chang
Yoren Chang

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Changing lanes after freelancing for a decade

NOTE: I originally did this guest post on 24 Days in December and think it'd be great to be my first post on DEV ;).

PHP is the first server-side programming language I learned. My story might be very familiar to yours: after I built a few static websites with HTML, CSS, and JavaScript, I was trying to add a contact form to my sites, then a discussion board, then a news system, etc. By the time I had two major languages to choose from: ASP and PHP. I picked up the later because of the “Open Source” tag on it. Of course, I knew nothing about open source then, I just thought I could get all the software I need for FREE and that made perfect sense to pick that side.

I labeled myself as a PHP developer for a while and started to meet small business owners that wanted a website for lower costs, and they’ve heard enough good things like PHP, MySQL, Apache, and Linux that you can get for free. In the beginning, it’s just doing a favor for a friend’s friend and then it turned into a freelancing business. Then the WordPress era came and I switched to be a WordPress developer and happily migrated my clients’ sites to that platform.

In my story plot, I never thought to seek a full-time job as a PHP or WordPress developer and it’s just natural for me to be a freelancer because the open source ecosystem empowers me in a highly affordable way that the only cost is almost only my time. So that’s pretty much what my career was about in the past decade, and I will always be grateful to the PHP, WordPress and Open Source communities that provide me a prospering life.

The unique WordPress freelancer community

My business was not always on sunny days, especially when I started to realize that doing my work with open source software didn’t mean I couldn’t charge a premium rate. I kept increasing my rates to test the local market but it didn’t respond to it well. So I started to look for web development gigs in the U.S. or Europe (I am based in Taiwan).

To get more global clients I applied for Codeable and got accepted in 2017. Codeable is the only freelancing market designed for outsourcing WordPress projects and it created a totally different freelancing experience for me. As the New York Times bestselling author, Paul Jarvis, always says to freelancers, “work for yourself doesn’t mean you have to work by yourself”, a freelancer community is actually very crucial for our emotional wellbeing. When I joined Codeable, I suddenly had like 100 coworkers whom I could talk to in the virtual office space (Slack) about WordPress and business. You also get a top-notch support team to back you up when you’re in need. From there I found myself actually have been longing for a professional network that I haven’t had for quite a long time.

The uniqueness of Codeable is that experts (developers) on the platform are collaborating together instead of competing with each other. It may not make sense that why are we willing to help each other since the client would only hire one of us and you surely don’t get a share for helping the person who wins the project. However, it’s the culture carefully developed that way so once you’ve been there and gotten helped by your fellow experts, you have role models to look up to and follow their steps.

The right community channeled me with more opportunities

I also benefited from Codeable for landing high-quality clients that pay decently and run their businesses successfully with WordPress. To be precise, I was getting more and more work about Gravity Forms, the leading premium form builder in WordPress which works in a developer-friendly way to extend its functionality. I have been using Gravity Forms for a couple of years for client projects but I rarely added any customization. Working with clients on Codeable (including Steve Henty, the founder of Gravity Flow, who is also the lead developer of Gravity Forms) is eye-opening that I had the first-hand experience to validate how one plugin could have its own ecosystem (set aside from the WordPress ecosystem) and how its partners are profiting from it.

With so many inspiring experiences happened consecutively to me, it totally changed my mind and view about businesses running with open source software. I saw different business models and found a spot that I could fit in perfectly. The joy of fulfillment that something I contributed would live long in the software and benefit its users, makes me think about a different job role in my career. And the image was getting more and more vivid that I couldn’t resist.

In October 2018 I got the offer of a full-time developer position in Rocket Genius, the parent company of Gravity Forms and started work in January 2019. Jotting down this brief history of my career is not only as a self-reflection at the end of a year, but I also wanted to leave something for latecomers to see a different career path that is less talked about.

For me personally, when considering such a move, I was still struggling despite this was something I asked for deep inside my heart. The struggle came from a self-identity shift from a freelancer to an employee. I couldn’t help but feel guilty to say goodbye to my old self. However, I learned to see it as the “growing pains” that we human beings always have when we’re teenagers. Once you overcome that pain, you’re a better version of yourself.

A full-time position that equips me with more resources

After joining Rocket Genius I get more resources in improving my development skills. In the past year, the team has added a lot of accessibility and security improvements to our products. Through the process, we’ve learned together from our consultants. While these topics are not PHP specific, I’m sure they are as important as creating new features in the web industry that developers should all spend time to dive into.

To deliver stable products we also add new tests (both unit tests and acceptance tests) when applicable. I have to admit that these are something I’ve always wanted to invest more time in but failed when I ran my own freelancing business. The mindset of doing outsourcing projects is totally different that if your clients are not willing to spend time and money in accessibility, security and automated tests, even if you are fully aware of the importance of such matters, things you can do in the projects are very limited. It’s not that freelancers can only deliver inaccessible, insecure or unstable results, I’m pretty sure a lot of my beloved freelancer fellows are doing much better than me. But in my case, these are really positive points why I chose to work for Rocket Genius after more than a decade of profiting freelancing.

Things are changing from time to time just like how PHP evolves along the way! Changing isn’t always just about being better or worse, I believe if we could properly document the difference, we can learn from history and help newcomers. So that’s what this little story is about! I’m also looking forward to hearing from you if you have something to share. I hope this tiny piece can bring some fresh perspectives for you this holiday season!

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