How to Get Freelance Programming Work Using Tech Recruiters Part 1: When to Use Them

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Freelance Programming
Tech recruiters often get a bad rap. Some of it is warranted; too many of them harass programmers with unsolicited cold emails or LinkedIn messages that make us feel like numbers. How many of us have been pestered about “the opportunity of a lifetime” …with a company we’re not remotely interested in, using a programming language we hate?
That said, recruiters and staffing agencies can be fantastic assets, especially at specific times during your career.
This article, the first of a multi-part series on using tech recruiters and staffing agencies to get freelance programming work, will discuss what those times are. Subsequent posts will go into details about how to get work through tech recruiters, and how to move past it to build up your career.

The mindset of working with tech recruiters

First of all, I think it’s important to get past something I had to let go early in my career – I had to stop loathing recruiters. Mind you, back then recruiters would be known for cold-calling the phone on your desk and trying to poach you away from your current job—the number which they had gotten by stealing the company phone directory, or other sketchy means. They were really, really hard to like.
For starters, not all recruiters are like that, especially now. Don’t get me wrong; those shady types are still out there. Others will blanket message everyone with the word “programmer” or “engineer” anywhere in their LinkedIn profile with jobs that don’t match their skill set. (They send me Python job descriptions all the time. I don’t know Python.) The latter is something to try to look past since their job is partly a numbers game. Later in this series, I’ll give you tips to filter through this mess a lot more easily to find the jobs you want.
Another thing I had to get past was resentment—why the hell should a recruitment agency take home 50% or more of every hour I work, just because they connected me with the client? This is still a concern, and a trap you don’t want to get caught in for the long term. Some recruiters charge an amount for your time that is vastly disproportionate to the value they deliver. But they do provide a few very valuable things that are useful at different points in your career:
  • Work, when it’s not plentiful
  • Connections to companies and industries you haven’t gotten exposure to
  • Experience, if you need some
  • A variety of projects to choose from
Furthermore, not all of them take huge margins, and some provide value beyond a connection. Overall I recommend utilizing recruiters in a short-term manner for specific times in your career and specific career goals.

When to use technology recruiters

As a freelance programmer, designer, copywriter or other tech professional, there are a few specific situations I find recruiters particularly helpful:
Early in your freelance career
When you don’t have a lot experience, recruiters can give you project options you didn’t have previously. Getting experience when you have no experience is one of the biggest challenges when starting out as a freelance programmer. Leverage recruiters, and you’ll fill out your resume faster, which will lead to bigger and better opportunities that you won’t need recruiters for. Remember, every piece of experience you get is something to show off, which continues the cycle of getting work again and again.
To add popular companies your resume
This is a fantastic reason to use a recruiter and one that I used to build up my career. Recruiters will have connections to companies you might not have. Having big names on your resume and in your portfolio looks great to potential clients and employers. Check out my portfolio for example; saying that you worked with companies that everyone has heard of catches people’s attention, and leads to conversations that can lead to more work.
During downtimes, or when you need work quickly
When freelancing as a career, you’ll inevitably run into feast-or-famine periods or just times when work options are less plentiful. During times like these recruiters can present you with options for projects that you didn’t have otherwise.
If another project falls through unexpectedly and you want to make sure you have something in the pipeline, hitting up a few recruiters can help you land another gig in a pinch.
This is particularly good when you’ve built up relationships with a variety of recruiters; chances are when you need something, at least one will have something for which the timing, skillset and rate will be a fit.
To expand into a new tech stack or industry
If you’re trying to pick up some a new framework you don’t have tons of experience with, it might be hard to get a project for that through your existing personal network. Likewise, if you’ve been working in one industry for a while, your connections will reflect that—you may not know anyone in the new industry you’re trying to get into.
Recruiters in both cases can help you bridge that gap. There are plenty of recruiting agencies that also specialize in specific industries like healthcare and advertising. Similarly, for tech stacks, I’ve come across lots of recruiters that get an abundance of one type of framework (I know one that has lots of AngularJS work for example and another that gets tons of WordPress work).
There are also other companies out there that specialize in one technology like React Native for example—they aren’t exactly recruiting agencies, but consultancies that hire freelance developers. These are great shops to work with as well if you want to get your hands dirty with new tech.
This article is part 1 of How to Get Freelance Programming Work Using Tech Recruiters. In part 2, we’ll talk about all of the pros and cons to consider when working with tech recruiters and staffing agencies.
Thoughts on this article? Questions? Contact me or leave a comment below.