The technology freelancer problem
In 2013, The Economist estimated that almost 25% of 15 to 24-year-olds worldwide were neither working nor in school. They also indicated that more than 50% are outside the formal economy. The emerging markets or “developing” countries have this particular problem, and it had led to a lot of social upheavals instead of the demographic dividend that a lot of economists predicted a sizeable young population would bring.
Why do young people turn to freelancing?
Young people need to work and earn money. Technology has become the most accessible avenue to make that happen legally as freelancers or illegally as fraudsters. The problem is that those who engage in fraud seem more organised than the legal freelancers. Technology freelancers have a problem in Nigeria, and that challenge has always been with professionalism and structure. Those issues compound with unreasonable expectations and desperation.
I was once a freelancer; it was from freelancing that our company emerged. My co-founder and I turned a freelancing gig into a business. The luck we had was we had already worked with a technology company before doing freelance gigs. We had already learned from the mistakes of others, and even though we still made a lot of errors, we had some form of structure in our work. The vast majority of freelancers have never had any formal employment. They were self-taught under extreme conditions.
My young friend Elvis Chidera became an internet sensation recently when he revealed that he learned how to write programs on the phone. He couldn’t afford a laptop at that time, but he pushed himself to gain knowledge. A lot of people still learn under those harsh conditions and like Elvis, they excel when they are given a real opportunity to learn with the right equipment and environment. Elvis was pushed to become better because he saw that global technology standards as a benchmark and not a goal. I sometimes get irritated when people look at the work done by some local web designers and say, “it looks like it was built abroad”. There is no “abroad” in technology. Standards are global. You either meet or surpass them or you fall below.
Why do people hire freelancers?
Running a company is costly. The overheads of a structured technology company are usually reflected in the pricing of its services. A lot of people would want to avoid those costs by giving out work to those whom they think offer less expensive services because they do not have those overheads. This assumption is the first flaw in the freelancer hiring process locally. The freelancer has a lot of costs. It is in trying to save those expenses that they get into trouble with delivery and why deadlines slip.
The first thing that I learned when I started my Master’s program in the UK was that “Technology Projects” do not exist. What we term as technology projects in business are all some form of “Business Change” assignments. The problem in Nigeria is that a lot of people on both sides see projects done by freelancers as “technology projects” or even worse.
Building a technology product is not like fixing a generator or repairing a car. It is more like building a house. When you want to build a house, you don’t ideally give the bricklayer or carpenter the work of the architect, quantity surveyor and building engineer unless you are interested in just making a shed or something equally unstructured. Freelancers are consultants first before builders, and I always insist that the first job of a consultant is educating the client. This approach makes things easier when there is mutual respect, but from a lot of the accounts I hear from Nigeria, all respect seem to disappear even before deadlines start to slip.
The future of freelance work
I believe that freelance work in developing countries is only suitable for experimentation projects and it should remain that way so that both parties are aware that it is a learning exercise. Freelancers should not capitalize on the ignorance of clients to take projects they are unqualified for. Clients who can only afford freelancers should not expect them to build the next Facebook or Google. It is only when expectations are matched and managed correctly that progress can happen.
The DevCenter (Devcenter.co) platform in Nigeria is a startup built as an engagement interface between those who need to solve a business problem with technology and those who want to work on those projects free from the boundaries of formal, structured employment. DevCenter has built an exciting and valuable community of developers but what I have seen missing is a community where those who want to give out freelance work get educated on expectations and process. Maybe Devcenter can also take on this role?
The problem with freelancing in Nigeria is not with the freelancers or their clients; it is with lack of education on process and expectations prior to engagement. A lot of resources like Freelancelift are available online for freelance consultants to use and learn but they aren’t localised. Most importantly, there aren’t similar platforms available locally to educate potential clients. The job is typically left to the inexperienced freelancer who is already most probably not respected as they are seen as a low-cost alternative. Customer education is where it should all start and that is the most significant freelance opportunity in itself.