Can I freelance as a developer without knowing the latest tech?

Short answer: Yes, with limitations.

When you’re a programmer, especially in the web or mobile industries, the tech world is always moving. New frameworks and languages are launched at a high rate of knots. It can be hard to keep up, especially if you do long projects, or if you’re trying to move from working full time to being a freelancer.

You might feel that to go freelance, you need to be bang up-to-date with the latest skills and techniques, to have a full set of buzzwords under your belt. Not got experience in containerized services and micro framework architectures? Why are you even going freelance?

This is bullshit. There is work around for all level of skills, and in all sorts of languages.

I am a case in point. One of the languages I use behind websites is ColdFusion. I have been told ColdFusion is dying for the 17 years I have been freelance. I’m still working with it for one client, and getting offers of work using it every few months (and that’s with me having a message on my website saying I’m not available.)

Currently, a client who owns a group of companies has me working on a website using Classic ASP, i.e. VB Script. I last worked on a site using that language 15 years ago, and was told that client should upgrade back then. The replacement for Classic ASP, .Net, came out three years before in 2002.

People forget that although older languages become less popular, there are lots of codebases around that use the older language and often clients can’t afford to do a wholesale re-write of what they’ve got to replace it.

The downsides of working in an old language

  • There is a smaller pool of work
  • You will mainly be working on old, existing codebases

This second point can be the main irritation. Very few people want new sites or apps in an old language. If you’re working in an old language the vast majority of work you do will be fixing bugs in existing code that other people have written, with all the problems that entails. Expect a lot of digging around, working out how things work in undocumented, uncommented spaghetti code. If you can cope with that, and there can be a certain amount of joy and satisfaction in investigative work, there will be work that you can do.

The upsides of working in an old language

  • A much smaller pool of competition for the work
  • Easier to pick up long term clients

It is easier to pick up long term clients as they cannot find other people with the skills to work on their project. This may not lead to constant work, but can often become a steady drip feed which gives you some financial security. The caveat to this is that eventually, the company will want to replace the old project with something new. If you also have some skills in more recent languages and frameworks, your experience with what they need can put you in the running to be the person who creates the replacement.

How to find work in an old language

In order of importance:

  1. Set up a profile on LinkedIn, write about the languages you work in and the experience you have in them, and that you’re available for freelance work in them
  2. Set up a website with the same information, and preferably some explanation of problems you have fixed in projects written in the languages you are seeking work in
  3. Find forums talking about the language(s) and answer any outstanding questions on them, and do the same in the relevant part of StackOverflow

If you are interested in contracting, follow the guidance in our how to start contracting article.

Long term, there is more work around in recent languages, so unless you are very successful at finding clients, or are able to charge a fantastically high rate, you should look at learning some current languages too. It will only help your chances of consitently staying in work.

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