Why I quit my Corporate Job as a Software Developer to become a Freelancer

In late 2013, I decided to quit my job. I just bought a flat on credit a year ago, had little savings and no real job opportunities in front of me. I went all-in into the freelancer market by the start of 2014. Maybe you will recognise yourself somehow in this story or find an inspiration for you personally.

Today, I feel like reflecting on the life-changing decision I made, how I got there, where I am now after more than four years, and how I got here.

  • Do you feel exhausted but you love what you do for a living?
  • Your colleagues are constantly complaining about their job, boss and company?
  • Does one salary raise after another not satisfy you?
  • Do you start things offside your corporate job, but you break them off?
  • Do you strive for more over and over again?

If that is you, I can relate to you. That was me some years ago.

The story from my youth to my first corporate job

I want to start reflecting about where my story might have started in the distant past. If that is not of interest to you, feel free to just skip this part.

Building websites for fun

I think it all started when I was 13. I was building websites for fun. I really enjoyed doing it. I redesigned my sites every two weeks. I created a fun-site that contained some jokes and funny animated gifs. To build it, I learned some basic HTML from a computer magazine and by reading the source code of websites I liked during that time. It was the time people switched from IFrames to table designs, but only a few sites I visited had already made the switch. I copy and pasted, I changed, I understood how it works. I liked it so much, I almost gave up school to start as a freelancer in web-design which was already a competitive market by the time. My parents advised me to finish school. Lucky me.

Digressing into IT security

During that time, I was also interested in IT security. My passion was driven by the hacker ethic, by the believe that all information should be free. I learned PHP to code dynamic websites. I read a lot about programming in general, even about low-level languages like Assembler, which I did not quite understand. I read a lot of semi-professional security papers, shared them on my page with the community, collected IT news feeds, started an e-magazine with a few people I never met in person, did the editorial stuff, opened up a phpBB self-help computer forum. By the time we created the e-zine, we also started a website where you could post your MD5 encrypted password and got the clear-text after some hours. A guy named Ole with the pseudonym "Monochrom" maintained the backend that was built with shell-scripts and used rainbow tables to scan for the right match. The last thing I did was to code an online forum that was used as a bugtracker for the German community. In my mind, it should have become an alternative to the English bugtraq mailinglists. One day, this project was linked on the German heise.de news site after a credit-card data leak. I had to give evidence to the police, because one of a contributor's bug reportings somehow lead to an unencrypted zip-file with the data inside on a public server. Of course, all these small projects were at most semi-professional. I was kind of the kid you would call a computer freak. I explored. I was curious. All the time, I was sitting in front of the computer, before and after school. I never did any stuff that is illegal and all I was interested in was the "white-hat" stuff. I soon put Google ad-words on my page and made a few bucks to pay the bills for domains and webspace. I think by that time my interest in starting a business grew.

Switched school to match my interests

After some years on a general grammar school, I switched over to a business high school because of my increasing interest in business. The school also seemed to promote informatics, so a switch made absolute sense in my mind. There I was, leaving my friends and surroundings to begin a new chapter. Of course, this was not an easy step to take. I soon lost my interest in IT security after realising that it was something companies did not care about that much, and therefore did not invest a lot of money into. There were just a few official job titles that included something like "Pentesting", at least when and where I searched for on the internet at that time. In the end, I wanted to get a good job after school, who does not? My goal then was: I wanted to be a programmer and to have a background in business education. Fast-forward three years, I finished school and graduated with honours.

Studied business informatics

The next step was quite obvious for me. I applied at some companies for a dual studies in business informatics after graduating in 2007. In the final phase, I had to decide between a close by IT security company and a concrete job offer at an IT & business company in Oldenburg. I chose the latter and started my dual studies. That means I worked at the company for three months in different departments and studied at an IT and business school the next three for the coming four and a half years till March 2011. Meanwhile, I completed my apprenticeship as a programmer in 2009. I did not think about starting my own business by the time I started working at my corporate job, but apparently that seemed to always been dormant in me.

During the time at work and university I learned a lot and got some insights that taught me how big companies with over a thousand employees seem to work. From 2009 on, I was working in huge software development projects and I was getting used to Java, a programming language I was new to and started with at the beginning of my first semester in 2007. After failing at programming a graphical Snake game in one exam by focussing too long on an exception, I realised I had to learn that new language. Java was quite different from how I used to program with PHP and how I built stuff before. I learned and became better at it. This way I set the course and worked out my path to become a professional programmer. Fast-forward, I graduated in 2011 with honours as a Bachelor of Science in business informatics.

Became a guest lecturer

In 2012, I was given the chance to help university students that failed on a Java exam. The students all did well at the second try, so I was asked to help out in the next semester as a tutor. I did and became a guest lecturer the years after. That is the one thing I do aside from my client projects since then. I like to get in touch with fresh-minds. I like to help people and share what I have learned. That is why I joined the courses of programming iteratively and object-oriented with Java. I also give lectures on the technologies that are used to develop small web projects like a time-tracker, a nutrition diary, a RSS feed dashboard and similar applications by the students for a course on internet technologies at the IT & Business School in Oldenburg. To get a little techie: the current software stack is based on JavaScript with Node.js (server-side JavaScript runtime), ExpressJS (MVC web framework), Pug (template engine), Passport.js (authentication), some other modules and MongoDB (database) --- all run by Docker Compose in containers for development.

Dropped out of university

In 2012, I also applied for a Masters Degree study in Business Informatics at the University of Hagen. I canceled that move one year later after realising that I had different imaginations about it before. I did not want to read lots of pretentious words and repeating phrases all over 70 DIN-A pages just to get a Masters Degree afterwards. Do not get me wrong. I started the studies because I wanted to learn and to explore the topics off the side. The courses I took did not work out for me. I would have put myself into continuing discontentedness if I did not quit. So I quit.

Searched for something to create on my own

During the year 2013, I continued my search for "something more" or "something other". I went to some meet-ups of the Gründeruni Oldenburg, a place where people like the founder of Parship and TopDogs for example shared their personal business stories to an audience of local entrepreneurs and students that were interested in building a startup. After each of these events I felt empowered, I felt a burning desire inside of me to find out what I am supposed to do with the upcoming years as I was not founding enough drive in the corporate job I was doing.

Leaving my corporate job to go all-in on freelancing

In my corporate job, I got the chance to be part of some major projects. I am thankful for been given these opportunities, because they made me grow. The one that finally got me into e-commerce was a project where my team and I were building a custom online-shop with Java (and the Hybris framework). After building the basics, we were merging a private label shop into it. It grow, we maintained it and we built new custom features in short time-periods. We all were working long and over-hours, because we were passionate about what we were doing. I got one salary raise after the other, but somehow I felt this was not quite the environment I wanted to work in. A lot of my colleagues were complaining about their job or the company. Me too. We were not quite satisfied with some things that went on, but nobody took the courage and resigned. We were using the same tried and tested Java-based software-stack for all projects. I asked for a small project I could work on, where I could try out something new, where I could be more responsible and not only be a 'slave to the code'. I wanted to use JavaScript more intensely as there was no one that was really into it by that time. I felt we were just putting things together that worked somehow. I integrated a lot of vendor tracking pixels and created dynamic view components like a complex customisable menu structure for the shop. I wanted to learn about software architecture, because I wanted to be able to create projects from scratch. Maybe I was not ready to put up a whole project from scratch by then, but at least I wanted to try and learn. I felt stuck and somehow lost my loyalty and trust in the company. It was me that not fit the place. I wanted to achieve more than I was able to. Therefore I had to make the next move.

Quit the job

I made the decision to quit my job. The day I wanted to hand-out my letter of dismissal to my boss, he took me aside and asked how I was doing. He somehow already knew what I was about to do. Of course, I was very surprised. I told him I wanted to quit. I did not want to wait another half year and be promised a change again. And that is what I did. I quit. That was in September 2013. The last three months I worked hard as usual until the termination took effect.

Getting into the freelancing business

In 2014, I started my freelance career. I registered my tax number and started with a small homepage project that unfortunately never went live because the client had not had the time to produce and provide the site's content. That was a first learning for me that should help me to prevent my clients to spend empty money on me in the future. I used to do the tax records on my own. Soon I was not able to sleep well, because I was not quite sure if I was doing my tax statement right. Therefore I hired a tax consultant. He told me afterwards that I did well. He was surprised about how much I already knew about specific rulings, but I decided to focus on my core strengths like I learned in my studies, and to let him do his job. The day I delegated, a big ballast fell from me.

I spent some time off, did some client interviews and other small projects but got my first well-paid job as a freelancer later in 2014. I worked at an e-commerce agency in Hamburg to help out with an internationalisation of three fashion Hybris-based stores. I was able to satisfy my first larger client and finished the project successfully. That was a great feeling! A prove that I was able to make money on my own, to make a living and to be responsible for everything I do. From there on, I got new opportunities to work on other online shops for other clients.

From January to March 2018, the latest job I was working on was in a very different business area than usual. I was building a multi-language application to manage the sowing density of corn fields in Italy. That job was different from the previous ones because I was working as a full-stack developer and software architect. There were different new technologies. For example, we used the MapBox JS API with GeoJSON and the Postgres PostGIS extension and created an Angular-backed application to manage the zones and fields of Italian farmers to further plan their sowing. The tool creates Shapefiles that are used in conjunction with GPS on the agricultural machines to push out the right amount of seeds on the farmer's fields. It went live and I left the project by the end of March. Although I worked with geographical data in the past, this was a quite interesting project for me.

Review

I am happy with the decision I made four years ago. I think it was the best decision I could have done at that point. I learned so much during the last years. I got to know some other companies and their processes. I met so many great and different people. I learned a lot about their work style. I was able to grow up with the teams and share what I have learned both in the past as well as on the side by consuming articles like those I share in my Twitter feed. I also learned about software architecture on the job.

I finally feel that I can do whatever I want to do and create value for other people. This is the satisfaction I need in life. It is what makes me get up each morning, lets me boot up my laptop and makes me wanting to go into the flow. Isn't that something we all are striving for in life?

What else I do

Besides writing software and being a guest lecturer, I try to stay up-to-date via Twitter and to stay healthy. I enjoy listening to podcasts and audiobooks (in 1.8x speed), reading books, going to meet-ups and spending time with my girlfriend, family and friends. I enjoy the silence (sorry for that catchy tune), because everything is moving so loud and fast that I need to focus sometimes. That is why I love being outside in nature and walking around in my leisure.

Final words (for now)

I will not say that going freelance is the last decision I have made in my professional career, but I am feeling and doing well with what I do nowadays. Some might find the same satisfaction as an employee at a company, some might start a company and have employees on their own. Everybody has different goals in life. Whatever it is, I had to find my own in the past and I hope you already have or will be doing so soon, too.

I would love to read about your thoughts. Please let me know through any channel you feel comfortable with, wether it is in private or in public on social media. Is there anything you want to tell me? Is there anything specific I may be able to help you with?