Like many of you reading this article, I love data. It’s my passion. That’s why I’ve spent my career working with and analysing data – building systems to store data and finding ways to help businesses make the most of their data.
One particularly interesting set of data comes from the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Its July Trends in Self Employment report shows yet another rise in the numbers of self-employed workers in the UK. There are now nearly five million workers like myself choosing the freelance lifestyle.
This growing segment of workers is certain to have a massive impact on the IT industry and the thousands of businesses which rely on IT skills.
The IT industry has faced challenges with skills gaps for several years now. According Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown, authors of A new culture of learning, the half life of a skill has dropped to just five years. This means professionals’ skills risk being outpaced by innovation very quickly.
Many companies, especially small businesses and startups, don’t have the money to invest in expensive training courses for their IT staff every few months.
The UK’s ability to attract international talent is uncertain following the EU referendum – it remains to be seen whether businesses will find it even more difficult to find people with the skills they need to tackle vital IT projects.
But speculation has begun, and last week Aneesh Varma, founder and CEO of credit scoring startup Aire, predicted that self-employment numbers would grow even more as a result of Brexit.
The growing army of IT freelancers like me are in a unique position to fill this gap for businesses. One of the key benefits of being a freelancer is that it gives you the opportunity to choose new and interesting projects and learn new skills.
This means, from a business’s point of view, freelancers are often the best choice because our skills are the most up-to-date.
Businesses can access flexible talent, with a portfolio of experience in the latest technologies such as Hadoop, R, PowerBI and cloud platforms like Azure and AWS just waiting to be tapped into.
New digital platforms like Upwork make it easier than ever to access this talent – anytime, anywhere.
My first major project as a freelancer, for example, was as far from my background in financial data as you can get. I worked for a small music company offering iTunes playlist recommendations from DJ Pete Tong.
The idea was that users uploaded their playlists to the app and our system would give them recommendations for new tracks. From a technical point of view this meant pulling together iTunes’ massive library with data from Pete Tong’s latest Radio One set lists and a whole range of other DJ’s playlists.
We then had to be able to draw matches across the data and deliver recommendations in a matter of twenty seconds or so.
I have always found “learning by doing” is the best way to become proficient at something, and with technical skills like business intelligence this could not be more true.
It’s hard to match the experience you get by diving head first into a project, finding a way through the challenges that a big data project necessarily entails – even something as difficult as debugging, where finding a solution often feels like searching for a needle in a haystack! It’s a level of understanding you’re hard-pressed to get from a textbook.
So how do I make sure I continue to learn in order to advance my career? I draw on a wealth of materials from sites like PluralSight, which provides a comprehensive overview of a new programmes such as Hadoop, Azure, AWS, R, PowerBI and many courses on Big Data.
StackOverflow is also an invaluable resource when it comes to troubleshooting or picking up advice on a specific challenge.
These resources are open to anyone but, as a freelancer, I have a real incentive to invest my own time and money into learning via these services. The more up-to-date skills I master, the more desirable I am for businesses searching for talent with this knowledge.
Recently, for example, I worked on a project for a small US based pharmaceutical company with big expansion plans. As part of the project, they needed a full database and stock management system – front and back-end – which could grow with the company.
Getting in on the ground level of this project with quite a small team meant I was able to provide my expertise as a consultant to guide the project. We are just coming to the end of developing the full system, based on the Microsoft Azzure platform, which a small team and I designed from beginning to end.
It’s the first time I have built a full front- and back-end system on Azzure. It’s been an incredibly instructive process, as well as delivering an ideal solution for a company which wouldn’t have had the budget or skills to deliver something like this in-house.
As a freelancer my career is a constant classroom – unlike university though, it’s one where I can earn money for attending.
And for a curious and competitive person like me, who loves to learn, it is the perfect way to test myself against thousands of other developers and hone my skills.
It also gives me the flexibility outside of work to spend time with my family and organise work around life, rather than the other way around.