Experiment report

In January 2020, I started a new experiment. I quit what was a dream job and became a freelancer. Today, the experiment is over. This post serves as omphaloskepsis – a short reflection on what went well and what could have worked better.

What worked well?

To sum up, I declare this experiment successful. I had a chance to work with several very interesting companies. I got exposed to business models of which I wasn’t aware. Most importantly, I met new intelligent and ambitious people. I also had a chance to feel by myself how it feels to be self-employed, to see the behind-the-scenes of several freelancers and entrepreneurs. I learned to appreciate the audacity and the courage of people who don’t rely on monthly paychecks and take much more responsibility for their lives than the vast majority of the “salarymen.”

Let’s talk about money. Was it worth it in terms of $$$$$ (or ₪₪₪₪₪₪)? Objectively speaking, my financial situation remained approximately unchanged. Towards the end of the experiment, I found myself overbooked, which means that, in theory, I could have increased my income substantially. But this is only in theory. In practice, I decided to end the freelance experiment and “settle down”.

What could have been better?

So, was it peachy? Not at all. For me, being a freelancer is much more stressful than being a hired employee. The stress does not come exclusively from the need to make sure one has enough projects in the pipeline (I had enough of them, most of the time). The more significant source of stress came from the lack of focus, the need for EXTREME context switching, and the lack of a team. 

I did receive one suggestion to mitigate this source of stress; however, when I heard it, I already had several job offers and was already 90% committed to accepting the position at MyBiotics.

To sum up

I’m am very happy I did this experiment. I learned a lot; I enjoyed a lot (and suffered a lot too), I met new people, and I changed the way I think about many things. Was it a good idea? Yes, it was. Should you try becoming a freelancer? How the hell can I know that? It’s your life; you enjoy the success and take the risk of failure. 

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

Photo by Miguel u00c1. Padriu00f1u00e1n on Pexels.com

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.

5 Basics of Consulting Success: Part 1

Being a data science freelancer, and a long-time AnnMaria’s fan, I HAVE to repost here latest post on consulting success

Last week, I mentioned that successful consultants have five categories of skills; communication, testing, statistics, programming and generalist. COMMUNICATION Communication is the number one most important skill. All five are necessary to some extent, but a terrific communicator with mediocre statistical analysis skills will get more business than a stellar statistician that can’t communicate. Communication…

5 Basics of Consulting Success: Part 1 — AnnMaria’s Blog

Not a wasted time

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

Being a freelancer data scientist, I get to talk to people about proposals that don’t materialize into projects. These conversations take time, but strangely enough, I enjoy them very much, I also find these conversations educating. How else could I have learned about a business model X, or what really happens behind the scenes of company Y?

The first things a statistical consultant needs to know — AnnMaria’s Blog

You know that I’m a data science consultant now, don’t you? You know that AnnMaria De Mars, Ph.D. (the statistician, game developer, the world Judo champion) is one of my favorite bloggers, and her blog is the second blog I started to follow don’t you? 

A couple of months ago, AnnMaria wrote an extensive post about 30 things she learned in 30 years as a statistical consultant. One week ago, she wrote another great piece of advice.

I’ll be speaking about being a statistical consultant at SAS Global Forum in D.C. in March/ April. While I will be talking a little bit about factor analysis, repeated measures ANOVA and logistic regression, that is the end of my talk. The first things a statistical consultant should know don’t have much to do with…

The first things a statistical consultant needs to know — AnnMaria’s Blog

How I got a dream job in a distributed company and why I am leaving it

One night, in January 2014, I came back home from work after spending two hours commuting in each direction. I was frustrated and started Googling for “work from home” companies. After a couple of minutes, I arrived at https://automattic.com/work-with-us/. Surprisingly to me, I couldn’t find any job postings for data scientists, and a quick LinkedIn search revealed no data scientists at Automattic. So I decided to write a somewhat arrogant letter titled “Why you should call me?”. After reading the draft, I decided that it was too arrogant and kept it in my Drafts folder so that I can sleep over it. A couple of days later, I decided to delete that mail. HOWEVER, entirely unintentionally, I hit the send button. That’s how I became the first data scientist hired by Automattic (Carly Staumbach, the data scientist and the musician, was already Automattician, but she arrived there by an acquisition).

Screenshot of my email
The email is pretty long.
I even forgot to remove a link that I planned to read BEFORE sending that email.

The past five and a half years have been the best five and a half years in my professional life. I met a TON of fascinating people from different cultural and professional backgrounds. I re-discovered blogging. My idea of what a workplace is has changed tremendously and for good.

What happened?

Until now, every time I left a workplace, I did that for external reasons. I simply had to. I left either due to company’s poor financial situation, due to long commute time, or both. Now, it’s the first time I am leaving a place of work entirely for internal reasons: despite, and maybe a little bit because, the fact that everything was so good. (Of course, there are some problems and disruptions, but nothing is ideal, right?)

What happened? In June, I left for a sabbatical. The sabbatical was so good that I already started making plans for another one. However, I also started thinking about my professional growth, the opportunities I have, and the opportunities I previously missed. I realized that right now, I am in the ideal position to exit the comfort zone and to take calculated professional risks. That’s how, after about four sleepless weeks, I decided to quit my dream job and to start a freelance career.

On January 22, I will become an Automattic alumnus.

BTW, Automattic is constantly looking for new people. Visit their careers page and see whether there is something for you. And if not, find the chutzpah and write them anyhow.

A group photo of about 600 people -- Automattic 2018 grand meetup
2018 Grand Meetup.
A group photo of about 800 people. 2019 Automattic Grand Meetup
2019 Grand Meetup. I have no idea where I am at this picture