Another year gone but it was a very good year both professionally and personally, but there is room for improvement in twenty twenty.
This year I had a total of 4 contracts which meant I was working for most of the year without any big gaps. It was a year of 'firsts' for me; it was the first time I ended a contract early; first time I returned to working with a previous client; first time I got to work as an interaction designer for GOV project using the GOV.UK Prototype Kit.
Ending a contract early
I started a contract working with a company in the self-catering UK short breaks holiday space - but I ended the three-month contract early after only being there for one month. It seemed like the perfect contract - it was only an hours drive from home, which if you know where I live, you know that is not bad at all and after 2 weeks I was able to work from home three days a week.
So what went wrong?
I spent the first two weeks there without any work to do whatsoever. I was told to use that time to get familiar with the codebase - it didn't take that long to get familiar with it. So I had nothing todo, just waiting for the backend developers to finish their work so that I could do the front-end work. The project was delayed and eventually it was put on hold indefinitely - this was the project I was brought in to work on - the redesign of the checkout process for booking a holiday.
After that, I was given 'business as usual' work - to start with I had 2 tasks to work on. This was to get changes from the development environment to their QA environment - easy right - normally, just a case of creating a pull request to get your branch merged etc, except they didn't use version control!
Well, they said they did and what they meant was that their in-house 'CMS' was their custom version control - that was it - you had different versions of pages but no source control, no code changes were highlighted, so you had no idea what code had changed between versions.
Imagine taking work, previously worked on by three other developers, that have since left, without knowing what those changes were and no documentation - I had to go through work items and then figure out where the change was made and copy it over to QA, then a bunch of stuff would break, I'd fix it and then something else would break or a previous change got undone - more stuff would break, rinse and repeat!
This on-top of how miserable the place was - the town, the people at the company - I'd arrive in the morning and say "good morning" and barely get a response, most people were already on a 'call' so were unresponsive. Everyone always seemed to be on a call at this place.
I noticed that people were starting work early, have a short lunch break at their desk so they could leave work early. I didn't expect it to be a party over there every day, but this wasn't a nice working environment. I soon started doing the same, having my lunch in my car - I did start having lunch in the staff area, but everyone was always on their phones and no one ever said anything, so I may as well sit in my car and listen to music.
There was nothing to see in this town - no green spaces. It was a seaside town; but you couldn't even get to the beach!
I was not happy there and it was having an impact on my work, my mental health and also my family. I didn't like the idea of ending my contract early as I felt id be letting people down but after speaking to them several times about the lack of work and nothing changing, I decided it couldn't stay any longer.
I took a short term contract, six weeks, in Manchester - which was a lot further than I normally travel for work. But having left my contract early this had left me in a bit of a financial situation - I was still waiting to be paid from the contract I'd just left and I had also made that mistake of not saving enough money to pay my corporation tax, so there was that pressure too - which meant I had to take what ever contract came my way.
Apart from having to travel to Manchester by train and staying there for the week, it was a great contract - so much to learn - but most of all working with so many passionate and smart people - unfortunately, it was a short contract with no chance for an extension because the company had already hired a full-time interaction designer who was working their notice and had a holiday planned before they would start their new job - I was a gap filler.
After the short contract in Manchester with the DfE, I started a new contract working with Signet in Borehamwood, North London.
Signet is the company that owns the H. Samuel and Ernest Jones jewellers and this was initially to be a three-month contract but ended up being there for seven months.
I was expecting quite a big team at the Signet headquarters but was surprised to find that the entire IT team was quite small - I joined a full-time front end developer and another contractor who was there as a senior front-end developer. He'd been there for about 7 months and had been working on the front-end setup for the new CMS and also setup a component library.
At first, I didn't think there was enough work to warrant another front-end developer - but eventually, the work picked up and we started working on our first big project.
The first project was the redesign and rebuild of the website header for both brands. Both brands share the same HTML but have different designs. This proved to be quite the challenge and it meant we had to have more HTML and CSS than we would normally need to build out those components that made up the headers.
After the Ernest Jones header went live - the senior front-end developer decided it was time to move on and I was then in charge of building the entire header for H. Samuel. This was quite a bit of work due to not being able to change the HTML structure as it was the same code used for Ernest Jones, which was now live - means any changes would impact the QA testing.
Then the final and biggest project was the redesign and rebuild of the product list pages and the product detail pages for both brands - for this they hired another three contractors and another permanent front-end developer came back after a six-month break. This was a huge undertaking in a small amount of time, but we did it - not 100% perfect and even though not live, a lot of the issues have now been fixed and will be released in the new year after the code freeze.
My last contract of the year has taken me back to the Chartered Management Institute (CMI). I first worked with CMI back in 2018 - another contract that that was initially 3-months and then got extended for seven months. This was the first time for me - returning to a company I had previously worked with - it's a great feeling and must mean I am doing something right.
With freelance work, it seems its more common to get repeat work from previous clients whereas I think that's not the same with contract work.
Every year I say I'm going to stop doing freelance work and just focus on contract work to make life less stressful and every year I fail at this - and 2019 was no different - this means I did a bit of freelance work, got some new clients and also lost some.
Without looking for new freelance work, I managed to gain two new clients through recommendations - so it was hard to say no to them, but it always ends up with me having to do freelance work, alongside a contract which means that after I finish a days work, I end up going back to the hotel/AirBnB and doing some freelance work.
One of those new clients is a Day Nursery with three nurseries - they hired me to quickly get a new page up for their new nursery and change the website to have more content about the new nursery as they needed it to start showing on search results.
As part of the initial meeting with the client, we discussed the bigger piece of work they need - a redesign of their current website and a new CMS.
The other new client is an industrial design blog - they needed a front end developer to work with their backend developer to help implement new changes on the front-end - mainly helping out with HTML and CSS.
Losing a client
But the year ended with me losing a client - I suspected this was going to happen, but its never a great feeling when you lose a client. I have now heard back from them - I decided to email them and find out why they decided to abandon a perfectly good website and to get a new one.
I was originally hired by them to take an unfinished static website, finish it and add a CMS to it. At the time they couldn't afford my time to add the CMS to all pages, so they chose which pages they wanted to be able to edit and the others would be done at a later date.
After the website went live though, they approached me with a new project - an online store. I was excited about this project as I'd not done an e-commerce website in a very long time and it was an opportunity to move back into this line of work.
It was all going well...
The shop was built, I had tested it and it was over to the client for them to test it and populate the shop with their products. This never happened - due to illness and people being busy they didn't add the products or test the site. After a while, I needed to get on with other client work and I stopped chasing them.
Anyway, they now have a brand new Wix website created by the company they hired to help them manage their charity.
At the end of the year, I finally sorted out part of my pension plan - opened a Lifetime ISA - I didn't know about these - had I known I would have opened one sooner because you can only open one between the ages of 18-38 and pay into it until you're 40 - so that means I have 2 years to pay into it.
A lot of people I spork to didn't like the idea of a Lifetime ISA because you get hit with a hefty penalty if you take the money out early - but this is a good thing for me as it will stop me taking that money out before I retire. So this forms part of my pension plan. Also, with a Lifetime ISA, if you put in the maximum amount of £4000 a year, the government will top it up with 25% - which makes it worthwhile doing.
I opened an account with AJ Bell - there aren't many companies doing Lifetime ISAs and because I did it just before the end of the financial year of 2018/2019 - means I have until April to put in the 4k to take advantage of an extra year of this free 25%. Then I'll have 2 more years that I can pay into it before I turn 40.
My only tech side project this year was this website. I decided to join the JAMstack trend and rebuild the backend of this website using a static site generator - Eleventy.
The previous backend was built in PHP and used Perch CMS - I decided to add Perch to my site because at the time I was doing a lot of freelance work for clients that needed a CMS and Perch is my go-to choice. I used my website to test out new Perch features or plugins so I could sell those onto my clients if they needed it.
But I'm doing a lot less work with Perch these days that I didn't need my site to still be using it.
I decided to treat my site rebuild as I would a project, using a proper git workflow - rather than just working directly on the master branch, including raising issues and working agaist those.
As well as using Eleventy as my static site generator I also moved the site hosting to Netlify and for the CMS I'm using the NetlifyCMS. Again, I don't need a CMS, but I wanted to learn more about static site CMSs.
I've enjoyed learning more about the JAMstack, Eleventy, Nunjucks and Netlify - its been awesome.
I finally finished a non-tech side project - it was close to not getting it finished - but my wife and I spent a few days before the new year getting it finished. My wifes help was required to stop me trying to create any kind of pattern.
When we had our kitchen done in 2018 - we had this wall, that other than having a small breakfast bar was very empty. I came up with an idea - lets cover the wall in pallets!
No one could visualise this - nobody liked the idea but I persuaded my wife to let me put a few pieces of wood on the wall and she was convinced.
So, it turns out that dismantling about 30 wooden pallets takes a long time and it's hard. They have so many many nails holding them together - it was hard work taking them apart without breaking the wood. But it felt good to recycle (upcycle?) these discarded pallets - some of which I found washed up on the beach! (FYI water logged pallets are really heavy.)
I already have my next non-tech project picked for 2020 - an outdoor kitchen with built-in BBQ, pizza/wood oven and maybe even a smoker. This project will involve me building some brick walls - something that I've never done.
Looking ahead to 2020
I'm lucky to be able to start the year with a contract in place already - which carried over from 2019 - this was due to end halfway through January, but it has been extended until March.
I don't do New Year's resolutions because I believe you don't need to wait for a new year to do things or change how you do stuff - but there a few things I want to get done this year.
I still haven't had a fully remote contract and I want 2020 to be the year this happens - I think once I've had that first fully remote contract it will be easier to get more.
Finish setting up my pension - the next stage of my pension plan is to set up a SIPP (Self Invested Pension Plan) which I will after April. I just need to learn more about investing money!
I want to read more this year, I only just managed to finish 1 book out of the 10 I wanted to read. I also want to read more non-fiction books, but necessarily tech ones.
And continue working on this website and continue learning more about the JAMstack ways, including adding some more IndieWeb features like webventions now that I have removed analytics.
Happy New Year and thanks for reading.