Career Opportunities

The High-Tech Career Handbook

A weekly ComputorEdge Column by Douglas E. Welch


February 4, 2005, 2005

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As any high-tech freelancer will tell you, one of the major problems of working for yourself is knowing when not to work. Unlike the traditional office hours of corporate work, freelance work can happen nearly anywhere at any time. I could just as easily write this column at 2 in the morning as 2 in the afternoon. Unfortunately, this freedom can lead to the feeling that you are never “at work” or “at home”, but always at an odd combination of both. If you aren’t careful, you could end up working 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, or, at least, you might come to feel that is that case.


I started thinking about this issue when we visited friends and relatives in Ohio over the holidays. Many of them hold traditional jobs that ask for 8-9 hours a day and nothing more. When work is over, they go home and enjoy the company of their families, without thinking, too much, about work. In some ways, my wife and I are envious of this. Since we both work from home, the office is always there. The computer is always calling out to you, sometimes mocking you, “shouldn’t you be working on something?” Too often we find ourselves sitting at the computer at all hours of the day, fixing that last paragraph, sending a quick email or researching computer issues on the web. If we don’t pay special attention to developing time for ourselves, work never ends. Too much of this and we find ourselves irritable, tired and just plain worn out.

Since I also use the computer for “fun things”, I am in even more danger of working when I shouldn’t. Too often, reading web sites and RSS feeds for pleasure can turn to heavy-duty troubleshooting research as one topic leads me to another. I read the web much in the way I would read a magazine, but sometimes I can do the online equivalent of moving right from Wired to a textbook on Windows networking protocols. Just like in my life the line between work and home can become dangerously thin.

Customers and clients

For most corporate high-tech workers, a direct call to your home from your customers or clients is a rare thing indeed. You might get called in to provide emergency service or answer a quick question, but for most of you, the office stays at the office. In my work, my clients contact me directly and frequently. I am luckier than some of my peers, though. They have clients that contact them at all times of day and night. Even without an established “office hours” policy, they instinctively known when it is inappropriate to call. Conversely, I know that when I receive a client call at an odd time of day, it must truly be an emergency.

If your clients are like mine and don’t require a firm rule on office hours, you may need to set one for your own good. Some people who work in a small office/home office environment find it beneficial to have the office isolated from the rest of the house. When they leave that room for the night, they are off-duty. Such physical separation doesn’t seem to work for me, since I also use the computer for recreation, but I am looking into ways of providing some sort of split to my day.

Since I am the main cook of the family, dinner time provides one possible dividing line. Starting to cook dinner removes me physically from my office, even if a client will sometimes call. I try to let the answering machine pick up calls during this time, but even that is difficult for me. I am a telephone junky and a ringing phone seems almost irresistible. Having separate phone lines for work and home would help in situation, but the added expense doesn’t seem necessary.

Even though I might dream about a job with no responsibilities once I leave the office, in truth, the freedom my freelancing life provides me far outweighs any advantages. I can set personal appointments, school functions with my son and just plain fun during the middle of the day, if I wish. If I work on a Saturday, I can take a Wednesday off. If I work one evening, I can set another aside for a date with my wife. This flexibility is probably one of the biggest joys of working for yourself, even if it opens up the possibility of overworking.

If you want to make the best of your freelance, high-tech career you need to manage your own time and the expectations of your clients so that work doesn’t take over your entire life, but still supports you and your family. Do whatever you need to do to divorce work from life and don’t let 24/7 become the reality of your high-tech career.


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