Many Freelance Software Developers Eschew Coworking Spaces? [Repost]

[This was posted earlier here]

Tallie Gabriel reports this month that a large fraction of freelance workers are “software developers” [1].  She is referring to a survey by Squarespace indicates that 29% of freelancers develop software, and this fraction may grow [2].

The survey indicates that these workers are a bit older (and therefore more experienced) than freelancers overall and more likely to have kids.  They are reported to be even more predominantly male.

There is, of course, tons of coding work available, and employers are happy to “pay as you go” for many tasks. So it is not very surprising that there is a booming “will code for food” sector.

The survey found that these coders report work less than a full work week, and earning a bit less than conventional employees.  This ability to earn enough with flexible hours is probably a key to the high satisfaction reported.

I’ll point out that this survey should be taken with a bit of care.  The definition of “software development” lumps together a broad range of skills and tasks, and the pay and opportunities vary quite a bit within this range. The needs of employers will continue to evolve, so past performance is definitely not a prediction of future success.

As a (retired) software engineer, I’m not overly surprised by these findings.

A lot of coding has always been done independently (at home, at night, down in the basement of the building next door (in the case of Mosaic), etc.), and a lot of coders essentially go from short term project to short term project, even in conventional organizations.  So working freelance fits the work practices of many “coders”,

The survey also notes that the freelance developers are generally enthusiastic about and participate in open source software projects.  This makes tons of sense, too, in that participation in OSS is pretty much a freelance activity.  If you like coding enough to donate your time to open sourcing, you’ll be even happier doing something similar for pay.

Gabriel’s article discusses the question of “learning as you go”, or at least trying to.  I.e., bidding on a contract that requires technical skills that you do not quite have, with the idea of figuring it out on the job.  As she says, this can get a freelancer in a lot of trouble, with missed deadlines, swollen time commitments, and customer dissatisfaction.

This problem is quite familiar to anyone in the field (I mean, who hasn’t taken an assignment that required new skills?) and especially to anyone who has had to recruit and lead software teams.  It is unusual to find people with exactly the skills needed for a new project, and such paragons are hard to get and probably expensive.  But on the other hand, taking a chance on a rookie is a risk, and teaching people on the job can be very costly (especially if you are tying up other skilled workers supervising the work of others).

Glancing at the survey report, I was struck by the list of skills and roles of the freelance developers.  Specifically, I was struck by what isn’t in the list.  Things like documentation, testing, software maintenance, configuration management, and, most of all “team leader”.

Now, in part this reflects the particular jargon used in the survey, which lumps some of the functions into categories such as “back end” or “full stack” or “product manager”.  But still, the freelance roles are really concentrated in the area of pushing out new products quickly, not on supporting products already in use—which I would say is what software work is mainly about.

The Subspace survey reports that workers in their sample really hates the social overhead of organized work (meetings, tasks other than coding, dealing with other people), and are “less motivated by company culture and more motivated by remote work flexibility”.  In other words, “I just want to code, I don’t want to bother with the rest of the business.”

That’s fine and good, but my experience suggests that this isn’t necessarily the best way to do software, even if some programmers prefer it.

The short term, project oriented commitment of freelancers that means that there is little opportunity to develop (and be rewarded for) “institutional knowledge” and memory.  (And, by the way, it can also mean that they don’t understand the big picture, which can lead to building totally useless software, i.e., solving the wrong problem.)

Beyond just plain experience (“been there, done that”), senior software people are valuable holders of knowledge about things like “why we did it that way” and “how that obscure module actually works” and “how we figured out that problem”.  No matter how good you might be, there is no substitute for this kind of experience.

In fact, I suspect that some freelancers are actually semi-permanent contractors, hired on multiple contracts precisely because they have this kind of knowledge.  And in such a case, freelancing basically amounts to a preference for one kind of employment relationship over another.

Possibly most important, short term deliverable-focused freelance coding makes it challenging to assemble and maintain development teams.  Software is really, really complex, and good software is generally a team effort.  My personal rule of thumb was and is that I might be the smartest programmer in the room (maybe), but I’m never smarter than the union of everybody in the room.

Some of my proudest achievements in software development involved fostering a great team.  This is a difficult challenge (programmers are notoriously egotistical, opinionated, and, shall we say, “boisterous”), and it is even more difficult if some or all of the team are short term contractors with limited commitment to the team per se–and never in the office.  I personally wouldn’t be totally happy leading a software project relying on freelance workers.

This last point raises the question of the potential value of coworking for these freelancers. I can see reasons why freelance programmers would benefit from a coworking space.  My impression is that in some cases a software project might be executed by a team of freelancers who work together (at least some of the time) in a coworking work space.  Coworkers might find work through community connections, and especially, might connect with a successful development team of local coworkers. A coworking community would also be extremely helpful for building such a team, and would also be an opportunity to successfully learn new skills.

But the survey data seems to indicate that few of these freelance software developers (~15%) mainly work in coworking space, and prefer small projects on which they work alone. Taking this survey at face value, there is clearly a large cohort of people who like coding alone, and are very satisfied to get reasonable pay for relatively small and time limited projects.  This group seems to have little interest or use for coworking space or coworking community.

I guess this should be filed under “coworking is not for everyone”.

  1. Tallie Gabriel, What most people don’t know about one-third of the freelance population, in Freelancers Union Blog. 2019.
  2. Subspace, The Rise of the Contract Coder: A Report on the State of Freelance Software Development. 2019.


(For much more on what makes coworking tick, see the book “What is Coworking?”)


What is Coworking?

Homo sapiens v. Cave Bears

It has long been apparent that the arrival of humans in the Western Hemisphere coincided with the decline and extinction of the megafauna.  Similarly, humans wiped out the megafauna (and sometimes all the fauna) on many islands, including the unique megafauna of New Zeeland.  This pattern seems to extend back to the earliest ancestors of humans— we are descendants of the most dominant hunter of the last 100,000 years.

To be fair, climate and other non-anthropogenic factors contributed to population changes as well.  But the arrival of humans is consistently followed by the decline in populations of large animals, whatever other stresses might exist.

In this light, a study published this summer that shows evidence that Pleistocene humans wiped out Cave Bears is far from surprising [2].  It would have surprised me to find otherwise.

Now, the case of the vanishing Cave Bears is not simple.  They lived pretty much all across Europe, though primarily in caves (i.e., a limited habitat).  They appear to have been vegetarian, though they were big fierce enough to be arned hard to kill.

They disappeared about the time of the Last Glacial Maximum, i.e., at a time when cold conditions would have decimated plant life that Cave Bears depended on.  This was also the time when modern humans spread in the area.  For that matter, there is evidence that they slowly declined for thousands of years before their disappearance.  So what happened to the CBs?

A team of European researchers analyzed mitochondrial DNA extracted from the bones of 59 cave bears from locations in Europe, which was augmented by 64 previously collected samples. In addition, the research sequenced whole genomes. This is the largest and most complete sample yet collected, and included individuals from across much of the geographical range and 20,000 years.

From this relatively detailed dataset, the researchers found evidence of migration patterns of different populations of CBs over the time period, probably reflecting the geographical displacement of habitats.

The dataset shows that Cave Bear populations were quite stable, even across several cycles of glaciation and thawing.  The authors note that this hardiness is consistent with the observation that “cave bears were well adapted to severe climate as indicated by their appearance beyond the Arctic Circle” ([2], p. 6)

This finer grained temporal data shows that the decline was rapid, and started 20,000 years after the beginning of the Last Glacial Maximum.  This decline started during a time when Homo neaderthalis was common, but accelerated at the time of the expansion of Homo sapiens.

“Although the initial decline in population size started shortly before 50 ka BP during the end of the Mousterian associated with Neanderthals, the more drastic downturn of the European cave bear took place at around 35 to 40 ka BP at the onset of the Aurignacian and the expansion of anatomically modern humans in Europe “ ([2], p.7)

The study confirms a strong “homing” tendency, suggesting that Cave Bears lived their lives in their birth cave. This means that there would have been a fierce competition with humans for these caves, even if the humans weren’t preying on the bears for food (which they probably did).  The competition would have become acute during glacial maxima, when plant food was scarce and small populations—of both bears and humans—took refuge in caves.

There is always reason to be cautious about drawing complicated inferences from mitochondrial DNA, especially from just over 100 individuals scattered over tens of thousands of kilometers and years.  But the results here align with other information about the behavior of Cave Bears, not to mention what is know about Homo sapiens.

In short, there is pretty clear evidence that humans wiped out the Cave Bears, which fits the pattern seen with many species around the world.

  1. Helen Briggs, Extinction: Humans played big role in demise of the cave bear, in BBC News – Science & Environment. 2019.
  2. Joscha Gretzinger, Martyna Molak, Ella Reiter, Saskia Pfrengle, Christian Urban, Judith Neukamm, Michel Blant, Nicholas J. Conard, Christophe Cupillard, Vesna Dimitrijević, Dorothée G. Drucker, Emilia Hofman-Kamińska, Rafał Kowalczyk, Maciej T. Krajcarz, Magdalena Krajcarz, Susanne C. Münzel, Marco Peresani, Matteo Romandini, Isaac Rufí, Joaquim Soler, Gabriele Terlato, Johannes Krause, Hervé Bocherens, and Verena J. Schuenemann, Large-scale mitogenomic analysis of the phylogeography of the Late Pleistocene cave bear. Scientific Reports, 9 (1):10700, 2019/08/15 2019.


Book Review: “Gods of Jade and Shadow” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

Gods of Jade and Shadow by Silvia Moreno-Garcia

This story is set in a small town the Yucatan and environs in the 1920s.  Casiopea is a Cinderella girl (though she rejects that role) is a poor relation treated like a servant.  Her dreams are hidden away in a biscuit tin; to go dancing, drive a car, etc.

Without warning she is thrust into an adventure, forced to help a Mayan God regain his throne from his usurping brother.  Many of us would crumble, but Casiopea is stubborn and resourceful, and, in any case, this is a chance to travel and see the world.  Plucky, thy name is Casiopea.

And it’s quite an adventure, indeed.  The Mayan underworld and associated magical forces is no joke.  It’s dark and dangerous.  But there is beauty and wonder, too.  And she finds joy in all the new places she visits along the way, even the mundane ones.

Can young Casiopea survive this test?  And if she survives, what will happen then?  Will she attain some of her heart’s desires?  Does she even know what she desires.

I really liked this story, even the confusing and dark magic parts.

  1. Silvia Moreno-Garcia, Gods of Jade and Shadow, New York, Del Rey, 2019.


Sunday Book Reviews

Book Review: “Nuking the Moon” by Vince Houghton

Nuking the Moon by Vince Houghton

Houghton is the curator of the International Spy Museum in Washington, DC, which documents the history of espionage, covert operations, and, especially, technology.

“Countless books have been published about the remarkable and successful technology developed over the last century by governments for national security needs.

“This is not one of them.

“Most history books are full of stories of things that happened; this is a history book bull of things that didn’t happen.” ([1], p. xii)

This is a collection of short chapters about exceptionally cunning plans that, for the most part, were never executed.  And in many cases, we can only sigh with relief that they were abandoned.

Houghton strives to give historical context for these ideas, which generally involves understanding the level of desperation of the people involved.  As he says, when you fear for your very existence, and have no good options, then you will consider the wildest possibilities.

The vast majority of the material is from US and allied sources, but we can be sure that similar plans have been floated and sunk everywhere.  (Of course, the US has some of the most generous funding and advanced technology to draw on.)

Some of the most interesting material is about the decision making process.  As noted, wild ideas were tried when the situation seemed desperate.  And in many cases, a crazy project drifted on inertia and/or self interest for long after it was obvious that it wouldn’t work.  Many were cancelled by civilian overseers who grasped a broader view, or perhaps just did not feel obliged to continue every bad idea they inherit from previous administrations.   Hooray for civilian oversight, and even, sometimes, for Congressional oversight.

Houghton is well informed and keeps things light.  He pulls no punches about the dangerous and ethically questionable ramifications, but is pretty balanced toward the foibles of people working hard to do important things, however loony they seem to outsiders.

For example, discussing some of the exotic ideas for mobile launch systems for the MX missile (circa 1977), Houghton imagines a conversation about a (rejected) proposal to put the missiles on Ground Effect Machines (i.e., hovercraft), so they could roam randomly to evade Russian attack.

General #1: Ooh, how about we use a hovercraft for the MX!
General #2: Sweeeeeeet.
Some poor staff major:  Sir, that doesn’t seem to have any chance of working.
General #1: Of course not. But it’s a hovercraft, Major. Get with the program, son. [excited whisper] A hovercraft.
General # 2: Hovercrafts are awesome.” ([1], p. 345)

Every nerd on the planet, including me, would love to see a hovercraft mounted nuclear ICBM coming down our cowpath!  But it’s probably best that this was never built.

And if you think this is just ancient history, think again.  All the superpowers (and, I assume, many of the muscular smaller powers) are still coming up with these gems, and, for that matter, recycling some of them.

  1. Vince Houghton, Nuking the Moon: And Other Intelligence Schemes and Military Plots Left on the Drawing Board, New York, Penguin Books, 2019.


Sunday Book Reviews


Martin Green On How Solar Overtook Coal

In the last year or two, the cost of producing electricity from renewable solar and wind power has finally become cheaper than coal.  It is no coincidence that much of the new capacity coming on line is renewable—it’s just economics.

As an old solar head, I knew the day would come, even back when PV cost hundreds of times more and produced hundreds of times less.

But it wasn’t the faith of Silicon hugging energy hippies that made these electrons flow.  How did it happen?

This summer Anna Demming interviewed Australian Greybeard Martin Green who has worked on photovoltaics since the 1970s [1].   He recounts that the great strides in PV were accomplished despite inconsistent and often absent funding and political support.  Despite efforts to kill and/or ignore it, it has bloomed in a few short decades!  This is a robust and, seemingly inevitable technology!

Green’s work pioneered technology that is finally coming into production use, achieving 25% efficiency (40+% better than conventional cells).  This means that the cell produces up to 25% as much energy as the incoming sunlight.  Note that PV cells with 10-15% efficiency have been very successful already.

With regard to storage, Green likes “off-river pumped hydro where you make a swimming pool at the top and bottom of a mountain, and just pump the water uphill”.  Simple, effective, and you don’t need very many of them to store a lot of energy.  One of his students estimates 22 would store all the power for Australia for a day.

There will be even more advances in coming decades.

Notably, Green isn’t bullish on perovskite because it is very unstable.  There is lots of interest and lots of experiments, but until the stability is under control, it isn’t ready for commercial use.  This is true now, but he may be a bit pessimistic about future development, which may be faster than he expects.

  1. Anna Demming, How have solar cells undercut coal?, in PhysicsWorld. 2019.


Neat New Thermal Power Generation

This summer researchers from Tokyo Tech report on interesting experiments with what they call “a dream battery” [2].

The idea is a sensitized thermal cell (STC), which is a clever combination of semiconductor, metal, and electrolytes.  When heated (e.g., by a geothermal source), the semiconductor is excited and electrons flow through a circuit to the electrolyte.  There, a chemical redox with the metal (copper) generates electrons that flow back to the semiconductor, recharging it.  This system can cycle for quite a while, generating electricity directly from heat.

The new study established that this is not a perpetual process (!), though it does run quite a while.

The coolest part is that they found that turning the circuit off and back on dissipated the electrons and restarted the process!  So, this is only a “semi-permanent” generator, you have to flick it off and on occasionally.  I’ll take that!

And, as they point out, using two units alternating on and off would provide continuous power.


As far as I can tell, this process works because the thermochemistry of all the pieces is carefully tuned so that they balance just right.  That’s just so cool, and so elegant. It is an inspiration.

As Professor Sachiko Matsushita says,

The STC does not rely on the wind; it doesn’t produce radiation; it doesn’t require oil to run; and, unlike solar power, it can provide stable power generation day and night simply by burying it in a heat source,” (quoting team leader Sachiko Matsushita, in [1])

I want one!!

  1. John Boyd, A Novel Thermal Battery Promises Green Power Around the Clock, in IEEE Spectrum – Energywise. 2019.
  2. S. Matsushita, T. Araki, B. Mei, S. Sugawara, Y. Inagawa, J. Nishiyama, T. Isobe, and A. Nakajima, A sensitized thermal cell recovered using heat. Journal of Materials Chemistry A, 7 (31):18249-18256, 2019.


A Blockchain Based “Monopoly” Game

Daniel Kuhn reports this month on Upland is a blockchain based game, where you buy and sell “property”, in the spirit of Monopoly [1].

And unlike Monopoly, the properties you acquire in the game you really “own”;  essentially, they are “collectables”.

The game is in Beta, so there is much that is not very clear.  Information is available via a Telegram group—which is not exactly transparent.  By the way, this is closely associate with the people who brought you the problematic EOS blockchain.

Their write up in Medium indicates that you’ll be able to “buy properties” in their virtual San Francisco, and they will produce a “yield” in some way I don’t understand [2].  They also suggest that you can “have fun developing your properties”, whatever that means.

What does this have to do with a Blockchain?  Not much.  Basically, the ownership is recorded on a blockchain, so it is permanent and unforgeable.  If you trust the blockchain (which is dubious in this case), this means that not even the game runners can take your stuff.

The game play seems to mostly be about buying and selling virtual real estate, and creating a collection of such.  They say that your avatar can move to properties you own (what you do there isn’t clear), or “Your Upland avatar will roam San Francisco for you at random, and the most recent properties it visits will be available for you to purchase.”  The latter sounds like a form of scrolling advertisement–how fun is that!

At the beginning, you can buy in for USD, but I don’t understand what happens after the buy in.  Presumably you trade your collectables with other players.

What can you do with these “collectables”?   Not a lot.  “You can sell it. Trade it. Keep it forever. Whatever you wish–it’s 100% yours!”

“Whether you want to focus on owning virtual real estate, have fun developing your properties once the game progresses or just admire your unique collectibles, with Upland you have the power to create an exhilarating new reality on the blockchain.”

Honestly, I’m having trouble understanding this game.  It certainly doesn’t seem especially fun to me.

It sounds like trading cards with pictures of real life real estate, except you don’t get a pretty piece of cardboard, just a certificate on a blockchain.

I’m  certainly not seeing how owning imaginary title to real properties is advancing “the Ownership Revolution”, let alone “an exhilarating new reality”.

By the way, the game seems to be tied to physical cityscapes, and “Upland will employ a franchise system as it expands around the world.”  So there’s a hint to the pyramidal business model.

For sheer pointlessness, this game might be in the running for Crypto Tulip of the Year.

  1. Daniel Kuhn (2019) ‘Monopoly’-Style Blockchain Property Trading Game Raises $2 Million. Coindesk,
  2. Upland, Introducing Upland: The Virtual Property Game Built On The EOS Blockchain, in Upland. 2019.


Cryptocurrency Thursday


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