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Rachel Manning Talks Software Development and the Freelance Life

Because I publish this magazine, a family friend on Facebook shared with me an article about women in programming. In the comment section for the article, Rachel got into a back and forth with a few people interested in software development. Her energy in helping people understand what she does for a living, and how they might do the same, impressed me. Especially the part about living in Mammoth Lakes, California, in the high snowy mountains behind Los Angeles. In this interview, Rachel expands on her comments and offers a lot of insight into the good and the bad of life as a freelance software developer.

Tim: For you, what's the best part of being a software developer?

Rachel: My favorite part about being a developer is actually being able to work from home, on my own schedule. I started doing it as a way to pay my bills and was taking whatever work was available. As my skills have progressed, I have been able to work on many projects I feel passionate about. I may not have loads of money to give to veterans, but I was recently able to work on a project that aids disable veterans in finding careers. I may not have the life stability to go and teach children, but I was also recently able to work on a website that teaches children about currents and water ways and the importance of recycling to keep our water clean.

Every project is something new and brings it's own challenges. I feel like I'm constantly solving puzzles which is something I always loved doing as a kid.

The part I like the least is that sometimes people really don't understand the value of what you are doing. It has taken me more than 11 years to get to the level I am at now. I am not an employee therefore I have more taxes to pay, I need to cover my own insurance, and I am the one who spends hours searching for the right projects to work on. I put a lot of time into finding clients who value my skill set.

There are of course developers in other countries that will do what I do cheaper, so it can be discouraging bidding on projects where I know there is the possibility of the project being outsourced. I try to make it clear that it is valuable to the client to hire someone in their country. If there are any issues we are both much more protected by our legal system. It's much easier being in the same or similar timezone. I know the standards with privacy and terms of service as well as commerce requirements used within the US. In many cases, I am also likely their target audience and much more capable of making recommendations for improvement.

Tim: How did you learn to be a software developer? How hard was it for you to learn?

Rachel: I grew up with parents who were photographers/videographers. I learned how to use Photoshop on Photoshop 4 (not CS4, but 4). Then in high school, I saved up from my job and purchased a mini DV camera and right away started working with Adobe Premiere 5. Then I started playing with Macromedia Flash to create intros. I was surrounded by digital media and obsessed with it. I used Geocities as a way to post what I was creating. Social Media only existed in the form of AOL profiles, so a website was my only option. As I played with web builders I soon learned and started using Dreamweaver as well.

When I began college, I had every intention of either making ethnographic documentaries or being an archaeologist. I needed money to help pay for school, so I got a job working in the brand new Digital Media lab. I was quickly teaching faculty, staff, and students how to do everything from edit Excel documents to editing video in Final Cut. I loved the position and when I wasn't helping someone I was increasing my own knowledge.

My friend's band was in need of a website. They had just signed to a record label and were allowed to hire who they liked. They hired me and it ended up being my first paid job, which just so happened to mean my first paid gig was from Capitol Records.

Tim: What kind(s) of programming do you do?

Rachel: I build websites and web applications. Some people will argue about using the term programming with websites. I typically call myself a developer. For my position I need to be an expert in Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, SEO/best practices, comfortable working with Git/SVN version control software. I develop with HTML and CSS and then I use JavaScript and PHP to control the functionality of the web site/app. I also use content management systems such as Drupal, Magento, and WordPress to handle a lot of the heavy lifting.

Tim: What tools do you use to program?

Rachel: For me, I really only need a few simple things outside of the visual programs. A text editor, an FTP program, Terminal (I use Apple products), and a web browser. In reality I use a paid-for text editor called Coda 2 that is all 4 of those things wrapped into 1. It speeds things up for me quite a bit, but I think it's best to learn to use the individual applications before you jump right into something like Coda. Then I use virtual machine software on my computer which allows me to run multiple versions of Windows and IE7 through 11 so that I can test sites on Microsoft web browsers. Then on top of that I have an Android phone, an iPhone, and a tablet that I use for testing as well.

Tim: What kinds of problems do you work on (and solve!) as a developer?

Rachel: A lot of programming is thinking "if I do this, then this will happen, otherwise something else will happen." It's almost entirely logic with some math and reasoning thrown in.

Right now, there is a massive amount of free to use open source code available. It is a great time saver to tap into this world. However, this can leave you with bloated, unnecessary, or conflicting scripts. Sometimes you have clients with massive budgets that want to take every step to make certain that every line of code is perfect. Other clients just want things to work as best as possible with their budget. It's sometimes difficult working with the budget clients because you want to go the extra mile, but what could take you 3 hours of clean up may only impact the site speed by less than a millisecond and put the client over budget.

I recently had a client where they were using a premium WordPress theme that made their not all that complicated homepage more than 2000 lines of html and thousands of lines of css. After creating a custom new theme, the homepage used less than 400 lines of html and only 1300 lines of css (before being minimized). The speed difference will only be noticed by people loading the site on 3G or Edge networks, but it will be far easier to maintain and will save those mobile users some time.

Tim: How do you find companies and people to hire you?

Rachel: Finding clients is probably the most difficult part of being a freelancer. If you don't mind working in an office, there are tons of positions available to skilled applicants. If you want to work in your pajamas, it's a bit more challenging.

Initially all of my work was through referrals. Social media still wasn't that popular and sites like Elance and Freelancer were non existent. As Craigslist became more popular, I was finding jobs on there. Three years ago when I finally decided to only be freelance, I joined Elance.com, updated my LinkedIn account, made my Facebook profile public, and had a website with a contact form. Within a year I had too much work. I pulled my website down, made my Facebook profile private, and decided I would no longer do work for friends or family.

This has been both good and bad. Freelancing sites are fantastic for quick turnover jobs. I have even found a few longer term clients through then. However, they also take a lot of work to maintain and the invitation process can become overwhelming. It takes a lot to turn down invitations, but it's critical to learn to say no. All of my most rewarding clients have been ones who either reached out to me via my website (when I still had one) or found me through LinkedIn, and in a few cases, creative agencies that I reached out to.

More recently I've noticed the importance of making sure you have a balance of large and small clients and a variety of ways to find new ones.

Tim: What's your typical day like?

Rachel: I spend most of my days managing my clients. It's a lot of work to get new work, and even more to get started on new work. This is one of the reasons I've found that doing overflow work from creative agencies is fantastic, everything comes wrapped in a bow and ready to be worked on. If a project is going to take more than 8 hours of actual work, it probably takes 3 hours to find the project, another 2 hours to get hired for it, then another hour to actually go through the specifications. I tend to do all this during the day and then in the evenings, I do the work I get paid for.

There are times when I have complete creative freedom and they just want something beautiful that works, and there are times where the client wants to manage every detail. It really just depends on the job.

Tim: What do girls and women bring to the party as developers?

Rachel: I actually find that I get hired a lot because I am a female. I find that clients find it just as important as I do that I'm excited about what I'm creating. I'm as excited about making a commerce site that sells jockstraps as most men would be creating websites that sell beauty products. There is always an overlap. I love skiing and love any opportunity to work on websites related to the snow sports industries. But there is an increasing amount of websites targeted towards female audiences with a very small pool of female developers, so when you show genuine passion towards their project, it's equally beneficial for both you and your client.

Tim: How did you wind up in Mammoth Lakes, California?

Rachel: I knew of Mammoth due to my obsession with skiing and my final year of University I helped start a ski team that competed here. I tried to leave 3 times, going to Los Angeles for work twice and then once to work in Colorado. Mammoth was temporary in my mind.

Honestly I thought I was going to end up in Los Angeles. I grew up in and around Minneapolis. I was/am entirely a city person, but I'm also a community person. Sometimes I go crazy and can't handle the small town news and that everyone knows my business and I end up spending the next week or month with friends or family in Los Angeles.

I tried to stay in Los Angeles after college, but the things I love the most are skiing, traveling, science, and design. In Los Angeles I can have traveling, science, and design but I lose skiing. In Mammoth I can have all 4. There are some greater risks with being in Mammoth. If things go sour with my freelancing, I can't just go get hired at a company. Meeting with Los Angeles clients takes a lot more effort and planning. I had to learn how to say no to anyone in town because, when you are in a small town, everyone falls into the friend category and I do not want work relationships to tarnish my friendships.

I have since realized that Mammoth is home, but not likely my last home. I'm very open to living in a large city, as long as there is skiing near by. Mammoth works right now because of my connections with Los Angeles and right now the five hour drive is manageable.

Tim: What's the most fun you've ever had (and what made it fun)?

Rachel: As I said before, my favorite things include skiing, traveling, design, and science so anytime I can combine these things, I'm having the best time ever. Being a freelancer really gives me the opportunity to do the things I love. In January I was able to spend 10 days skiing in Switzerland before heading to Sochi, Russia to volunteer at the Olympics. I had actually lived in Switzerland for 6 months a few years back, but had never skied there. I was traveling and skiing alone which was a bit intimidating, but the first time I made it to the top of LAAX and was ready to ski down, I cried because I couldn't believe everything I had accomplished that let allowed me to stand there. I've been as happy since, but that was a moment I'll always remember.

Rachel’s View from her Work Desk in Mammoth

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Rachel Manning