Career advice. Becoming a freelancer immediately after finishing a masters degree

Will Cray [link] is a fresh M.Sc. in Computer Science and considers becoming a freelancer in the Machine Learning / Artificial Intelligence / Data Science field. Will asked for advice on the LocallyOptimistic.com community Slack channel. Here’s will question (all the names in this post are used with people’s permissions).

Read more career advices [here].

Let’s begin.

Will Cray 

I’m hoping to start a career as a freelancer in the AI space after finishing my Master’s in CS with a focus in AI. I don’t, however, have any industry experience in AI or data science. Do you all think it’s feasible to start a freelancing career without any industry experience? If so, do you have any tips on how to do it successfully?
[I worked for] two years at a major tech company, but I was a systems engineer. It was experience that isn’t necessarily relevant to what I want to work on as a freelancer.

Let’s divide the response to Will’s questions into two parts that correspond to Slack’s two discussion threads.

Thread #1 – Michael Kaminsky

This is a copy/paste from Slack.

Michael Kaminsky 

LocallyOptimistic.com — a valuable source for data folks

My hunch is that it’s going to be pretty tough to get started, though not impossible. You’re probably looking at a pretty lean year or two to build up a reputation out of the gate

Michael Kaminsky 

AI work in general is sort of difficult to contract out — so you might have more luck if you team up with a larger consulting outfit that can handle the other non-AI parts of the work

Michael Kaminsky 

very rarely is someone like “we have all of the data pipeline and pieces working, now we just need to hire someone to do the AI part” — in general, the model-fitting part of an AI project is the easiest and fastest

Will Cray 

Thank you so much for the info–it’s really helping me getting a better understanding of the landscape. Would your opinion, especially regarding that last message, change if the AI work I was doing was more custom model/agent design and training, rather than doing something quick like .fit() in sklearn?

Michael Kaminsky

ummm maybe? but like who needs custom model/agent design and training that doesn’t already have in-house data scientists working on it?

Michael Kaminsky

I don’t want to dissuade you, but my point is that you should think about who your customers are, and how you can market your services in such a way that it will provide them value. If you don’t have a clear map of the three concepts in italics, it could get rough — you can definitely figure it out by doing it, but that’s what you’ll be up against

Will Cray

You mentioned “larger consulting outfits” earlier–do you have any examples of organizations that you think could be a good fit?

Michael Kaminsky

so Brooklyn Data Company and 4 mile consulting are the two that jump to my mind — they specialize in BI and data but might want flex capacity into DS — they might be able to give you deal flow, etc. I know there are a number of others, maybe even folks in this channel

Thread #2 – Boris Gorelik

This is a copy/paste from Slack with some later edits and additions. 

Boris Gorelik 

Another thing to consider is what your risks are. If there are people who depend on you financially, starting with a freelance career might be too risky, especially if you don’t have 1-2 (better 2) customers who already committed to paying you for your services.

If you can afford several months without a steady income, or no income at all, being a freelancer might expose you to a larger variety of companies and business models in the market. I know some people who used to work as freelancers and gradually “adopted” one customer and moved to full employment. In these cases, freelance projects were, in fact, mutual trial periods where both sides decided whether there is a good fit.

Will Cray 

I greatly appreciate this insight. I have little risks. I’m single, my living expenses are low, and I have some financial runway. Part of the reason I like the idea of freelancing is for the reason you stated–I’ll get to see many different business models. As an aspiring entrepreneur, I think diversity of experiences and exposure would be useful to me. I also think being flexible in how many hours I work will allow me to allocate more time to developing my own ideas/projects; although, I understand that’s a luxury that comes with being an established freelancer. I don’t have any clients currently. Do you have any recommendations for channels to try and garner clients?

Boris Gorelik

> As an aspiring entrepreneur, I think ….

Even though a freelancer and an entrepreneur’s legal status may be the same, they are different occupations and careers. An entrepreneur creates and realizes business models; a freelancer sells their time and expertise to fulfill someone else’s ideas. That’s true that most of the time (not always), combining freelance with entrepreneurship is easier than combining entrepreneurship with being a full-time employee in a traditional company.

 > Do you have any recommendations for channels to try and garner clients?

Nothing except the regular facebook/linkedin/ but mostly friends and former coworkers and, in your case, teachers/lecturers. I got my first job interview via my Ph.D. advisor. Later, when I helped in hiring processes, I asked him and other professors to refer me to proper candidates. So yeah, make sure your professors know your status.

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