Stories about Software


Coders in the Hands of a Missing God: How Newly Minted Freelancers Badly Miss the Point

As any follower of this blog knows, I regularly answer reader questions, both with blog posts and videos.  Usually, these are fairly specific to an individual situation.

But sometimes, I get many variants of the same core question, such as “help, my boss sucks.”  When that happens, I answer a composite question.  And that’s kind of what I’m going to do today.

I say kind of because we’ve got two mitigating factors here:

  1. The questions actually differ considerably, but all miss the point in a common way.
  2. I won’t answer the question directly, but will instead try to get people asking these questions to think differently.  (I want to include this caveat because this is the equivalent of you asking, “how do I do X in Java” and me saying, “don’t use Java,” which is not the same thing as answering the question.)

How Can I Optimize ____ to Bring in Business

So with that aside, let’s look at what people ask me.  And bear in mind that the people asking this are either newly minted freelancers or freelancer-curious, considering going off on their own.

These people ask me questions like:

  • Which Stack Overflow tags should I answer to bring in lots of business?
  • How can I optimize my Upwork profile to get the most business?  (My five second answer here, if you’re interested.)
  • What’s the best title to give myself on LinkedIn to attract interest?
  • Does my current website copy sound polished and will it appeal to potential clients?

These are at best tactically different questions.  I’d actually call them nominally different, myself.  Underlying them is a common pattern.

All of them put the spotlight on you, personally, and not your prospective clients.

In other words, all of them assume that if you dial up the right and optimal magic sequence of words, points, layout, and presentation, you will earn business.  Notice that the client here doesn’t matter or have any agency; clients are almost like NPCs that simply have to hire you because the game dictates as much when you activate the magic stones in the right sequence.

My answer to any and all of these reader questions is both simple and bleak.

What you’re asking about doesn’t matter. And as long as you continue to think that it does, you’re going to have a painful journey likely to end in failure and an eventual return to salaried employment.

The good news is that you can easily avoid this fate and flourish.  You just need to grok and adopt a rather fundamental mindset shift.  Today I want to try to explain that shift with a bit of humor and metaphor.

“I’m Hungry” — The Things that Matter to Clients

In order to start with the fundamental mindset shift, let’s leave the modern era of hyper-division of labor and hearken back to simpler times with simpler forms of commerce.  Imagine that you’re a member of a primitive, ancient culture.  And then imagine that your thing is that you’re really good at hunting deer.

You come home from the hunt one day, flush with field-dressed deer meat, and you realize that it’d be a lot nicer to eat your deer inside of a yurt, warmed by a fire.  Inconveniently, however, you don’t have time to build a yurt and you have no firewood.

But you do see an opportunity for commerce.  Wilma, who lives nearby, specializes in building yurts.  And your friend Barney spent all summer chopping firewood in preparation for winter.

Importantly, both Barney and Wilma are hungry.  So you approach them with a simple value proposition.

You’re hungry?  Well, I’ll be happy to share some delicious venison with you in exchange for a yurt and some firewood.

Everything hinges on their hunger.  Barney and Wilma don’t care how sharp your spear points are, how lovingly you craft your hafts, or that you just field dressed a deer in 15 minutes flat.  None of those things will drive them to give you firewood or yurts; they’ll just feign interest and wait for you to get to the point.

And the point is that you can fix their hunger.

Divide the Labor with Internal Specializing, and Things Get Fuzzy

Let’s now say that your hunting operation becomes so prosperous that you can no longer keep up with demand.  So you go out and you find yourself a partner.

Initially, both of you just double up on effort: two of you hunting together, field dressing deer, carrying them back, and selling them.  And that works to a point.

But after a while, you devise another scheme and realize more efficiency.  You send your new partner out to kill and field dress, while you haul back the results, setup a storefront, and sell venison steaks.

With this scheme, your operation becomes significantly more efficient.  And, while you still measure the business by deer meat sold, you devise ways of measuring your own individual progress as well.  Your partner’s KPIs include kill rate efficiency and time to field dress, whereas yours include gross sales.

Now, let’s say that you two decided to part ways and hang out your own shingles.  You would be used to speaking your customers’ language about hunger, since you do it all day every day.

But your partner?

Well, until he course corrected, he’d default to talking about things the customers don’t care about: like kill rate efficiency and time to field dress.  They’d look blankly at him and say, “I’m hungry.”

Rise of Bathos, The God of Grading

Thus we have a simple and powerful precedent.  Unless you’re in sales, specializing within an enterprise makes your efforts highly relevant to that enterprise (or direct competitors with similar staffing models), but generally irrelevant to the broader world.

Let’s put a pin in that for a moment, though.  Instead, let’s take a quick trip from our ancient enterprise to the modern day.

Commerce in my metaphorical situation was a lot simpler than today’s commerce, obviously.  What started out as primitive deer-stabbing would evolve over the millennia to something unrecognizable.

The two person enterprise would have evolved further specialization: hunters of different kinds of animals, hunting equipment manufacture, supply chains, food processing, storefront leasing, customer service, cashiers, etc.  Commerce, and individual roles therein, has become unimaginably complex over the years, thanks to the general division of labor in society and, more recently, an understanding of economies of scale within global organizations.

Bathos, God of Grading

And our education system and general preparation for “the real world” have responded in kind.  No longer can you reconcile any individual’s performance within an enterprise and the customer’s interests.  There is no single person in the modern food retail industry, for instance, whose job it is to make sure you’ve gotten enough to eat.

So we’ve responded over the years by learning to measure human competence in proxy metric after proxy metric, until we now enter the workforce not as people with any idea of how to solve someone’s problems, but rather as the sum of countless scores and grades across countless generic proxy metrics.

Division of labor and economies of scale have given rise to an entity that I’ll amuse myself by calling Bathos, the God of Grading.

Worshiping and Pleasing Bathos from Cradle to Grave

We make the acquaintance of Bathos at a very young age.  I certainly did.  In my earliest memories of elementary school, he blessed us with Satisfactories and Excellents when we behaved and Unsatisfactories when we sinned at altars of spelling and social studies.

As we aged, the avatars of Bathos’s approval became the letters A through F (omitting E, of course), and his dominion became more complex, including European History and BC Calculus.  Bathos was there to usher us into the adulthood transition in the form of standardized tests, admissions essays, and college entrance boards. And then he walked beside us through college GPAs, GRE exams, and, for some of us, graduate school.

Of course, it’s easy to think of Bathos as a child’s God.  But Bathos is no Santa Claus.

You discover that after college, when you leave the children’s worship for adult services.  These take the form of the job interview initially, where Bathos examines your GPA, extra curriculars and internships before admitting you.

And, once admitted, he soberly judges your actions, meting out Exceeds Expectations, Meets Plus, Meets, or Sometimes Meets.  The adult church of Bathos is powerful enough to pay your mortgage and grant monetary awards for righteous behavior.  These take the form of the Cost of Living Adjustment (COLA) or Raise, given out in a holy annual ceremony.

Bathos walks with you from cradle to grave (or at least retirement) if you will have him.  And, if you do, within the church of Bathos, only you and your relationship with him matter.

As a Bathos acolyte, you learn an important lessons: your own virtuousness in your grading categories is all that matters and it brings monetary rewards.

Atheism in the World of Bathos: Children of a Missing God

So what happens when you, as a believer, step outside of the dominion of Bathos?  What happens in a world where, in your heart of hearts, you know that Bathos isn’t real?

Well, you cling to him.  You look everywhere for him and you despair in his absence.

  • Which Stack Overflow tags should I answer to bring in lots of business?
  • How can I optimize my Upwork profile to get the most business? 
  • What’s the best title to give myself on LinkedIn to attract interest?
  • Does my current website copy sound polished and will it appeal to potential clients?

Please, Bathos, GRADE ME!!!!  I know Javascript!  I have social media and design experience!  Tell me I meet expectations plus!  Give me an hourly rate increase!

In the familiar world of Bathos, only you and your actions matter.  So it’s just a matter of finding the right vector for commercial virtue and righteousness and then trying really, really hard.  Financial reward then follows through the alchemy of Bathos.

In the atheist world of the freelancer, you don’t matter.  Nobody is going to grade you — nobody cares enough to grade you.

The ancient hunter’s world is one free of Bathos.  You prosper when you find out what people need and deliver it.

The ancient hunter’s world is also the freelancer world.  If quailing before Bathos and obsessively answering Stack Overflow questions happens to bring success, it’s because you lucked out — not because Bathos is real and watching over you.  Sooner or later, your luck will run out.

Succeeding as a Freelancer

If you’re a regular follower of my blog, you’ll know that I touch on this topic from time to time.  In fact, if you’re looking for advice on how to stop navel-gazing and start figuring out what people need, I’ve written an entire post on that subject.

So why this post?  Why now?

Well, first and foremost, it was kind of fun to write, and “fun to write” is the primary driver of this blog these days.  But secondly, it’s because of the sheer volume of questions I get that amount to “Erik, how can I, as an aspiring freelancer, best please Bathos?”‘

This concept is hard to explain simply, not because “stop obsessing over your skills/traits/accomplishments and start thinking of others” is an intrinsically difficult concept, but because of how thoroughly it’s beaten into us from the time we start walking.

You’ve spent your entire life waiting for a grade.  Even when you become aware of this, it’s hard not to slip back into that mentality.

So my hope is that this whimsical, silly treatment of the subject will create such a memorable mnemonic for you that it helps you keep your eyes on the prize.

If you leave your role as an individual contributor to become a freelancer, and you pitch yourself to companies the way you’re used to pitching yourself to companies, your best case scenario is becoming a staff augmentation.  You’ll basically just be an employee, but without health benefits.

If you want to thrive as a freelancer, you need to stop caring about proxy metrics and grades.  You need to find a hunger in your prospective buyers — one that you can autonomously slake.

You need to make yourself comfortable in a world without Bathos.

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4 years ago

Great article! Had to research a bit to get that Bathos reference. I just read “The Lesson to Unlearn”, by Paul Graham, and it echoes the sentiment, since the lesson to be unlearned is getting good grades. Upwork, for example, used to monetize this desire to be rated by providing technical tests, but you will probably find it refreshing to know that they no longer do that: “Our research found that clients don’t find skill tests important when making a hiring decision. They found profile introductions, portfolios, and job feedback to better showcase a freelancer’s skills and experience.” Lisa Simpson… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
4 years ago
Reply to  Santi

Oh my goodness, that Simpsons clip is awesome! I wish I’d remembered that, as it’d have been a great thing to reference while I was writing. And I just googled that Paul Graham article and saw that he must have just written it. Kind of surreal, since this is the first time I’m seeing it and you might otherwise think I read it and wrote my own take. I didn’t know Upwork did that in the first place, but I’m certainly glad that they’ve stopped. And I don’t necessarily mean to bag on sites like Upwork, per se, but I… Read more »

4 years ago

I’d also add that people seem to like to feel that there is a right and wrong answer. For example, when a person is queried about his approach to a past project, he tends to panic, in my experience, since a rote answer doesn’t exist. Yet, having a conversation with a person about how he solved a problems, without judgement or angry cross-examination, tells me so much more than any test or grade ever could, because doing so gives me some insight into how that person thinks. However, that conversation seems to make people more uncomfortable than quizzing them does.… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
4 years ago
Reply to  Collin

I’m not sure I follow. Are you saying that people are more thrown off by open-ended questions inviting anecdotes than by, say, multiple choice questions or simple quizzes?

4 years ago

You might like “The Lesson to unlearn” by Paul Graham (founder of Ycombinator) http://paulgraham.com/lesson.html which more or less reiterates the idea in your article 🙂

Erik Dietrich
Erik Dietrich
4 years ago
Reply to  Ultcyber

Santi mentioned that (without the link) in an earlier comment, and I was curious, so I read it. Definitely interesting stuff, and I remember thinking it was kind of a surreal coincidence that I happened to be writing about a very similar topic at the same time.