Every so often, data scientists who are thinking about going off on their own will email me with questions about my year of freelancing (2015). In my most recent response, I was a little more detailed than usual, so I figured it'd make sense as a blog post too.
If my response comes across as negative, that's certainly not the intention -- being straight-forward about my experience is.
I learned a lot, it just wasn't for me. Working by yourself on short(ish)-term things can get old.
Generally, it was good and I learned a lot.
My reason for setting out on my own was really about scratching an itch I've always had (and I suspect many of us have) - can I strike it out on my own?
The freedom was really nice and if you're able to find the work, you can likely work less than you would full-time while making more money. That said, it's certainly not for everyone.
I didn't find it very rewarding in a non-monetary sense.
Freelancing/consulting doesn't really give you the luxury of thinking long-term about something like a product company does. Typically, a client hires you to do something, you do it, and then you're gone.
Thinking long-term and deeply through all the ways data / data science can be impactful upon a business or product is something I really enjoy -- "ohh, we can build a recommendations engine with this ... the search results we're displaying to the user here aren't great -- we can use this data to improve them, etc." I definitely enjoy a more of a slant towards data scientist + product manager than I do data scientist + software engineer.
As an individual freelancer, landing this sort of "feature" work is very hard because:
Companies often have a Thing In Mind they want you to do -- or, they want to "buy" your time for some period (e.g. 80 hours over the next three months at $/hour -- a retainer).
When they have a Thing In Mind, it is much more likely to be dirty work that they do not feel is the best use of their existing team's time than it is to be something they need you, the consultant, for.
When on retainer, I found the experience to be similar, except it can be a bunch of ad-hoc tasks that come up ("can you pull this data for me") that you didn't know would be the case when you signed the contract.
This is all a long way of saying, in my experience, a non-trivial portion of you has to be ok with being a mercenary -- do the thing you're being paid to do and not worry about the rest.
I struggled with that internally and thus did not find the work very stimulating -- I like buying into something, giving it my all, and thinking about the various directions it can be taken.
So many, but here are a few:
This isn't specific to freelancing per se, but it was something freelancing emphasized.