Ian Ozsvald picture

This is Ian Ozsvald's blog (@IanOzsvald), I'm an entrepreneurial geek, a Data Science/ML/NLP/AI consultant, author of O'Reilly's High Performance Python book, co-organiser of PyDataLondon, a Pythonista, co-founder of ShowMeDo and also a Londoner. Here's a little more about me.

High Performance Python book with O'Reilly

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ModelInsight Data Science Consultancy London Protecting your bits. Open Rights Group


29 September 2007 - 12:21Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 3)

Most people are helpful and supportive of freelancers. They know that freelancers survive by being good, trustworthy and helpful and so they try to help. Do remember to tell people that you are freelancing, what you do and what you’re looking for.

Don’t bore them, just let them know what you need and they’re bound to bear you in mind when they meet other people. Always let people know if you’re about to be available, you don’t want unplanned downtime.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources.

Meeting People at Events

There are plenty of events you can go to as a freelancer to meet potential clients and freelancers. Here in Brighton we have a great set of local geek events [Sussex Digital – thanks Dave & Josh!].

OpenCoffees are a great and relaxed way to meet local small companies (I’m co-founder of OpenCoffee Sussex).

Look out for Geek Dinners and Girl Geek Dinners (boys need a girl to invite them). Here we have the Sussex Geek Dinners and Brighton Girl Geek Dinners. Each are free to attend and great places to network. We also have Vine Brighton, your area is bound to have similar events.

Brighton hosts the £5 Apps meet (I’m a co-founder) – a meetup for those that are interested in start-ups and can-do techy types. Someone presents and idea or company they founded, everyone asks questions, beer is consumed, people network. See past write-ups of our last six £5 Apps meetings.

Make Yourself Known by Organising Events

A great way to get known in a local scene is to organise events. You can offer to help run existing events but if there’s something missing and you want to see it happen – organise it!

I wanted a venue to discuss entrepreneurship, my friend John wanted a geek event to discuss projects, we created the £5 Apps as a result. After 6 months we now have a successful event, beer is funded by local companies and we have 20-30 attendees every month. We’d love to hear about other £5 App events elsewhere in the country – drop us a line if you want to run one!

Similarly, with another Jon (Inuda) we wanted a relaxed coffee morning for local tech companies so we organised OpenCoffee Sussex at the Sussex Innovation Centre. We’ve had 7 great meetings now, bi-weekly, they’re also now funded allowing free coffee, each is attended by 12-20 local companies.

Organising events takes a few hours a month and is a great way to get yourself known. In part I wanted the £5 Apps as I’m a bit overwhelmed by public speaking – running an event is a good way to get essential practice at speaking in public.

I also felt that Brighton lacked a mailing list for tech companies to talk business. Along with Ivan Pope we organised the Brighton Digital mail-list. The list is small and building a list always takes time, it grows every week and over time it will become a useful local resource. We’ve already had some conversations between local companies discussing local resources and swapping ideas.

What’s the value of these events?

As ever – you have to offer value to other people when you organise things. Your own events and mail-lists aren’t a mouthpiece for shouting about your own company, they’re just a useful way of establishing your credibility whilst providing a useful feature to others.

Figure out what is missing in your local scene and build an event around that. Find a partner who wants to share the workload, make sure there is interest and then just do it. It’ll take a few events to gather steam, don’t be put off – most people will only pay attention when something is ‘more established’.

If you’re building a new geek event then feel very welcome to post a comment here. We’d especially like to see the £5 Apps syndicated elsewhere 🙂

No Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

27 September 2007 - 11:26Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 2)

Turning yourself into a freelancer is easy – you probably want a Ltd. company (see Part 1) and you need to know what you are offering, where you are offering it (probably local places that you can travel to) and who you are offering it to.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources.

Becoming a successful freelance programmer is harder – you need a constant supply of interesting work which pays well. You also want clients who will recommend you to others as this simplifies the job of finding new work.

You need interesting work else you will get bored. You need well-paying work as you have to cover yourself for holidays, sickness, down-time when you search for new work, accountancy fees and tax.

A simple rule of thumb is that you’ll pay 1/3 of your overall salary to income tax, corporation tax and National Insurance.

Finding new Work

You’ll spend a lot of time finding new work. Sometimes you can start straight away, sometimes you have to arrange a start date up to a month in advance. You don’t want to be free-wheeling without work so you’re probably going to be working for 1 client and searching for new work at the same time.

Searching for new work normally means sending emails, knocking on nearby doors (ideally in places like an Innovation Centre with lots of close and related companies) and talking to friends in the industry.

Remember – if you run out of work then you have to work hard, without getting paid, to find new work. This is an easy way to run out of your savings and get in a panic.

This is not nice, it will happen to you, you will work darn hard at solving the problem and you’ll get out of the mess and learn from it (I did, several times). Try to avoid it though, it really saps your energy and makes life crappy for a while.

Being a good freelancer

I’m going to assume that you’re an honest and reliable person. Your friends can recommend you in a heart-beat, you can honestly say what you are good (and bad) at and you can advise a potential client if you can help them or not.

Be honest and helpful, always recommend other people who might be useful. Help the potential client to understand what needs solving (often they need an outsider to help clarify things), offer to do some free work with them for an hour or two to help get to the root of any problems. Give them confidence that they can trust you to solve their problem.

Don’t be an idiot, never avoid communication, make everything clear (including costs and hours that you’ll work) and clarify what needs delivering and required timescales in writing (e.g. an email or printed document). Life is easier if both parties agree on what need’s doing, why it needs doing and how long it should take and cost.

Showing up

Woody Allen (probably) said “Eighty percent of success is showing up.”. It surprises me how many people avoid contacting a possible client due to their own fears – they literally talk themselves out of a possible contract.

Remember that if you have skills and you potential client might need those skills, they need to get those skills from somewhere! Don’t ignore that client, instead go talk to them. Analyse their problem, you can always advise them that the problem is outside of your skill set (bonus points if you can point them at a more skilled associate).

I’ve found a lot of consulting work comes because I:

  1. Talk to someone briefly about what they’re doing
  2. Talk some more, helping them understand the problems they’ve expressed and if/how you could help
  3. Offer to solve their problem

Lesson – talk to many people frequently, ask them what problems they have, try to help solve the problems. If you know people you can recommend then spread the love and help your associates – what goes around does tend to come around in your favour.

Here’s another article on successful consulting.

3 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, sussexdigital

26 September 2007 - 13:04Becoming a Freelance Programmer (Part 1)

Three years ago I dropped out of being a paid-employee and switched to being a consultant. I’ve had a number of people ask about my experiences as they’re interested in following a similar route. I’m going to write a short set of posts on the subject and I welcome questions.

Articles: Introduction, Successful Freelancing, Talking to People, Making a Sales Call, Books and Resources. First I should set the scene.

Why did I quit my job?

For five years I worked at the MASA Group developing A.I. software for ‘big industry’. Our company sat outside of the dot-com boom and bust, none of our products were associated with the web.

I was well-placed in the UK office as Senior Programmer and I ran projects between the UK and French offices, met clients and planned the technical future of our operations. Life was fun. I had however always wanted to be my own boss…

During the last year of my employment the company changed direction and the UK office was bought-out by my direct boss – the new focus wasn’t so much fun for me. The company had a tricky time figuring out who it serviced and what it offered and after a year I chose to resign and start my own consultancy.

The move was somewhat risky as I had no prior experience at being a contractor, no track record for agencies and no private client list for consulting work. I took out a £7,000 loan – enough to cover several months worth of mortgage payments, and resigned. I had no savings as I’d just bought my first property.

Lesson – you need several months worth of living expenses if you’re going to switch to selling your skills. You either want money put aside or a loan which you’ll need to repay. I opted for a 7 year repayment term to give myself plenty of room (I repaid the loan inside of 2 years) .

Freelancing as a Consultant A.I. Researcher

I founded Mor Consulting Ltd. in 2004 as a 1-man company. I needed a limited company as some of my consultancy clients would only want to bill to a Ltd. company rather than a sole-tradership.

Founding the company cost £250 via an accountant, for note my yearly accountancy fees are roughly £500 (paid after year-end accounts are completed).

My accountant (Bristow Still) made the process super-simple, I had no prior experience in founding a company yet the process was painless and completed in a few weeks with just a few things to sign. Having an account in the same town as you is convenient – visiting them to ask questions and sign forms makes life easy.

Spreading your Name (Marketing!)

The hardest things I found were the fact that nobody knew that I was:

  1. Available
  2. Skilled in certain niches (programming, artificial intelligence, leadership)

The solution was to talk to all of my friends and past associates and let them know about my change in status, my new availability and what I’d be interested in doing. Each email was hand-crafted, targeted towards their business (for past associates) and personal. Never spam your friends.

The response was very helpful and quickly I was offered various pieces of generic contract programming work, often for short term jobs (1-2 months each), all local to Brighton.

The Sussex Innovation Centre is a great example of a useful hub – 70 tech companies, all small, most hungry for extra resources. You can visit lots of related companies and obtain friendly referrals with a minimum of effort – maximising your ability to search for new work.

Spreading your name and skills around is likely to be the most important thing that you do whilst you get established (which could take a year). It is also the most time-costly – I spent 2 months spreading word around before interesting A.I.-related things came my way.

At first I had to be liberal in what I accepted – anything coding related that paid the bills was useful. Quickly I worked to accept only A.I.-related work as that would help to build my reputation, from there I never looked back.

Right now I’m going through a similar exercise with my second start-up and our new professional screencasting arm, a new part of business inside ShowMeDo.

What do you want to know?

If you’ve read this far then you probably have specific questions in mind. Do leave me a comment, I’m interested in answering questions.

19 Comments | Tags: Business Idea, Entrepreneur, ShowMeDo, sussexdigital

25 September 2007 - 16:45Python at Google (YouTube, Groups, code.google)

Alex Martelli (uber-tech-lead at Google) writes in a thread on Google’s use of Python. I’d heard before but it is nice to see it confirmed:

“YouTube (one of Google’s most valuable properties) is essentially all-Python”

and there’s a link to a short slide presentation on Making YouTube Scalable with Python. He makes the following point about their general philosophy:

“Python where we can, C++ where we must”

A jucier quote, referencing a nanovirus that might mysteriously drop from the sky and attack Google:

“if the mutant space-eating nanovirus should instantly stop the execution of all Python code, the powerful infrastructure that has been often described as “Google’s secret weapon” would seize up. “

Greg Stein (chairman of Apache, big-wig engineer at Google) also states in early 2006 that Python is used for:

“…A few services including code.google.com and google groups.”

It is always nice to hear that Python is used on the larger projects, not just behind the scenes.

No Comments | Tags: Life

20 September 2007 - 16:28ShardCore exhibiting @ Tin Drum (Kemptown)

Those of your who attend our Five Pound App event will have seen some of ShardCore’s intriguing artwork – most recently he spoke about Tycho Brahe (the man with the missing nose, a dwarf and the moose). Picture from the event here.

He’s just begun his first public exhibition at Kemptown’s Tin Drum and I for one am counting on an invite to the private viewing…

£5 App plug – we’re a few weeks away from hearing Jeremy Keith speak on ‘The Session’ and social community building. Mark your attendance at Upcoming please so I know how much beer to buy.

No Comments | Tags: sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

16 September 2007 - 16:15BarCamp Brighton

Last weekend we held our first BarCamp (blog) here in Brighton. 80 or so geeks attended both days, many were here anyway because of Friday’s excellent dConstruct.

Jane took excellent pictures and many of the talks are listed in the schedule on the BackNetwork which Madgex kindly provided. My talk isn’t listed (duh, bad me) – I did an ad-hoc and thankfully smooth presentation (pic) on ‘sales for geeks’ recounting some of my experiences building my own companies over the last few years.

We were blessed with excellent food which was sponsored by Inuda, Nixon McInnes, Ryan Carson, BT OsmoSoft, Microsoft and RealMacSoftware.

Thanks to Matt Weston for organising the food and to Paul Silver as main organiser. Thanks also to Glenn and staff at Madgex for hosting the event and keeping it running so smoothly.

I also got to meet Jeremy Keith who will be speaking at next month’s £5 App.

Roll on the 2nd Brighton BarCamp!

No Comments | Tags: Life, sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

14 September 2007 - 13:06BrightonDigital mail list keeps growing

Two months back Ivan and I started the Brighton Digital mail list for tech companies here in Brighton. We wanted to build a list which local companies can use to discuss their services and talk more openly about business.

To join – email ‘brightondigital-subscribe@yahoogroups.com‘ and you can find the archives here. Anyone in a small/mid-sized company with some some relation to technology is very welcome to come and introduce themselves on the list.

The list has been growing nicely over the past 2 months and now we’re at 51 members. We’ve had a bunch of interesting posts including:

No Comments | Tags: Business Idea, sussexdigital

14 September 2007 - 12:36Using OpenID for blog commenting

To leave a comment on Simon’s £5 App blog post I figured I might try OpenID (given that Simon is such an advocate).

Previously I’d looked at MyOpenID and I figured it couldn’t be too hard…it took 5 minutes to configure my user (http://IanOzsvald.myopenid.com/) and 1 minute to sign-in on Simon’s blog.

I can use this same ID on anyone’s site if they’re using OpenID – no need to make multiple sign-ons just to leave comments. Yay!

No Comments | Tags: Life

14 September 2007 - 12:24Jeremy Keith talks for £5 App on October 9th

Jeremy Keith will talk on building a social community around Irish Folk Music at our 7th Five Pound App meet. Please sign-up on Upcoming so I know how much beer to buy.

Simon Willison blogged about our 6th event and I wrote a short history. For those new to the idea – we took inspiration from a blog post on the ‘five buck idea’ to create the first event.

The Five Buck Idea pretty much lays it out, I love to closing description:

“…You want something simple, almost to the point of ridiculousness, and heck, worth probably about five dollars. Extra points if someone under 20 scoffs and says,
‘Shit man, I can code that up in a weekend.’”

I’ve grouped all of the write-ups for each evening under the £5 App Tag.

No Comments | Tags: sussexdigital, £5 App Meet

13 September 2007 - 12:01Brighton’s Open Street Map

Mikel Maron spoke at BarCamp last weekend on his progress towards finishing the Brighton OpenStreetMap.  The demo was really nice – apparently it’ll be ‘finished’ by November in time for the Digital Festival.

I just tried out a demo – you can see the centre of Brighton with all the roads, train station, some of the footpaths and open spaces.  The map looks really nice, I’m dead impressed.  Now all I need is a GPS aware moby which could use this data.

No Comments | Tags: Life