Episode 22 – The Price of Free Work



November 4, 2016

Welcome back to Front End Center everyone.

I’ve got a question for you. When was the last time you did something for free? What was it, and who did you do it for?

In most cases, I’m going to bet your answer will involve friends or family. We help out those who are close to us with challenges like moving, or difficult times, or just being there to lend a hand. There might be a variety of reasons, but you usually know that they’d do the same for you.

Now, I want to ask the same question with a twist. When was the last time you did something for free for an incredibly large amount of strangers?

Most people will be confused about that rather specific addition. Designers and developers, on the other hand, might already have an inkling of why I ask.

I greatly enjoy the connection and collaboration that happens in our web-centric communities. People gathering to solve problems, teach beginners, and generally enjoy their craft is a time-honored tradition. There’s a different environment that has been steadily growing, however.

Look online and you’ll find a nearly endless deluge of free icons, fonts, script snippets, guides, videos, and sometimes even bespoke services, all for free. These largely come in two flavors. The first is positive and fosters that beneficial sort of community cooperation.

These freebies are deliberate offerings for publicity or outright for the sake of the community. They’re often created by professional teams or companies, and represent the work they already do for actual clients. Sometimes it’s as general as a design team putting out a general icon set. It might also be as targeted as a “free” snippet of code that you can use, when their actual money-maker is a more comprehensive and useful code resource. Everyone wins from having the free access, and they convert paying customers to services they can actually use.

Problems begin to arise when this sort of collaboration and self-interested giving become the expected de-facto. I’ve worked with individuals just starting their careers, or even well underway, that felt a constant pressure to “give” to the internet at large. They would put out a new, completely free icon set each week. Some weeks, they got literally no attention. Other weeks, they might find their icon sets exploding in short-term popularity… somewhere else, unrelated to their actual offering.

Shady resource stealing is a topic for another day, but the issue still stands that they felt there was an expectation on them to have a constant flow of free “gimmies” to stay relevant and noticed. This isn’t a problem only for designers, either.

Developers can feel just as much pressure to give away time and attention without guarantee of returns. Pre-made code snippets are just as viable tender as free graphics, but there’s also a trend to place value on things like points on websites like Stack Overflow.

These websites operate on a question-and-answer format, where the best answer (or answers) receive points and recognition for solving the initial problem. Stack Overflow and similar services are often the saving grace of developers at all levels of skill and across any technology. Sometimes you have a unique problem, or sometimes you just need someone to point out that a semi-colon should never, ever, go there. Duh.

Where we enter that gray zone, though, is when people begin advising that you should have at least X many thousands of points in your relevant technology stack before you begin job hunting in earnest. That this somehow quantifies that you know your stuff. The expectation becomes putting in the time and effort to solve problems every day that have nothing to do with your own work. And maybe, just maybe, that will get you an interview at some point, that you might not have gotten otherwise. Probably.

Now, all of this comes with a big asterisk. Most designers and developers are aware, at some level or another, that all of this is NOT the case. I don’t believe there are tens of thousands of lost, naïve souls out there right now, tapping away at keyboards, dreaming that THIS particular free icon pack, or accepted Stack Overflow answer will be the last one they need to start a 6-figure salary.

From time to time though, even I get caught up in the idea of doing free things for purely free-thing’s sake. I’ve been making a point of putting on the breaks and figuring out my motivation to do so, though, in advance, so I can make the most out of what I do!

Sometimes, being helpful and community-oriented really is its own reward! Go skim Stack Overflow, or a web design subReddit, or wherever you feel connected. Help folks out and give good advice or resources. Just don’t do it with expectations of reward or unreasonable goals for yourself. Being a helpful community member is substantially different than doggedly gaming the system to ensure you get at least 500 upvotes daily.

Other times, you really should focus on yourself! Ask yourself how you can grow and benefit from something. Maybe you can’t or don’t want to make a literal monetary profit off your efforts. That doesn’t mean you don’t have anything to earn.

Let’s say you stick religiously to the weekly icon pack idea. Structure your work in such a way that it benefits you. This can happen any number of ways.

Focus on icons that you use regularly and need many variations of. Try using a new design program or set of tools with each week. If you quickly find a specific favorite, then focus on mastering its workflows and benefits.

All of this is to say: value your time. Don’t let yourself fall into the trap of making uninspired and mechanical motions just for the sake of having something new to lay on the community altar all the time. Maybe you WILL get lucky and that will eventually pay off. Most likely, you’re just going to waste energy and time.

Instead, pull double duty. Learn or grow, and then offer the results however you like. Give them away, sell them, it’s up to you. As long as you’ve learned or improved in some way during the making process, you could literally hide the results in a shoebox under your bed and STILL have earned experience at least. Churning out freebies that no one may use and don’t teach you a thing are genuinely a waste.

Everyone has something to contribute, to themselves and to others. Get out there and find ways that you enjoy!

Until next week, this has been Chris Landtiser, and Front End Center.

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