David Robinson - web developer

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

I’m David Robinson and I’m a web developer. I find all my work through a service called People Per Hour. I work exclusively with WordPress, which involves building full websites from scratch, fixing problems for people on their website, or adding new functionalities to their website.

I’m self-employed – I kind of bounce between words: self-employed, freelancer, consultant – but self-employed is the most accurate one. I wasn’t familiar with the term 'gig economy', so don’t consider myself part of it. A lot of what I do is no different from working face-to-face – only the form of communication is different.

Discovering 'gig' work

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

I used to work with children as a play worker; picking them up from school when their parents couldn’t and facilitating their play until they were picked up. I started losing interest in this work because the career path moved you away from working with children and into managerial roles. The pay was minimum wage and I didn’t want to do managerial stuff anyway. I was frustrated about my work there; I didn’t even want to go to work in the morning. After two weeks of feeling like that, I quit, sat down and learned a book on HTML and CSS. Then somebody recommended the online platform People Per Hour to me. That was five years ago.

The thing I liked about them at the start is they seemed to be very UK-centric, because a lot of work marketplaces are based in America. Any company is a victim of its own success as they expand, and that’s what has happened with People Per Hour. There are more low-paid jobs – more Indian workers and companies looking for work.

People Per Hour probably don’t care because to them, it’s just money; they’ve got the throughput. It's not them being a victim of their success; it’s me being a victim of their success. When People Per Hour first started, it felt like they were a bit different – rates were higher, and there were people working on there charging £60 per hour.

Why do I do what I do? Because I like learning – it's a constant learning process and I enjoy that. I like being in charge of every aspect of the business. I like that I have a different spread of skills to learn and that I can exercise, from putting in proposals to communicating with people. I really pride myself in the way I communicate, which, as a developer, puts me way above most developers. In my experience, a lot of developers are really bad at communicating with the client and they’ll just disappear if they get challenged.

Personal autonomy

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

The broad spectrum of things that I do, along with good pay, gives me the freedom to do stuff. I can plan my days creatively, so I can choose to go off climbing or meet with friends, or I can do stuff on the weekends if I want to. When I don't have to work, sometimes that makes me feel like I want to work, and it's nice to feel like that. I learn stuff in an informal way, through Google, reading stuff, and playing with new plug-ins and code. I do a bit of paid work at the weekends as well. It's freedom – freedom is a big thing, not having to work for someone else. I work well with people, but I'm done with that.

I work from my flat in Brighton. So I live here and I also work here. A great day of work is a combination of me being self-disciplined, having a good amount of paid work that isn't too frustrating but is also challenging, and then maybe time to learn some new stuff. The time around the work is important – time to relax and chill out a bit, so that I'm being a good boss to myself and ensuring a good work–life balance.

A terrible day is a rare thing for me. It would be super frustrating work that I haven't negotiated pay for, so I’m working essentially for free, or what I'm charging per hour is reduced because I’m really struggling with something technically. Or it's disagreements with clients or issues with communication. Poor communication at the start of a project can be a problem that can come up later on.

Finding work, pay and dispute resolution

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

From start to finish, there are two ways of getting work on the platform. The people who are putting out the jobs will either say they want you to do a certain job for a certain amount, or they use a pound symbol system: '£' means low pay, low skilled; '££' is medium pay, medium skilled; '£££' is high pay and they are expecting someone of a high skill level. So you don't know how much the job is for; you just give them either a fixed amount, or most of the time I give them a time estimate based on my hourly rate. All of my work comes from the medium- or high-skilled jobs.

I charge an hourly rate or a fixed quote. The client pays me a 50% deposit, which goes into escrow. Upon completion of the project, the escrow is released and the final payment is made. I am charged a percentage at this point, which goes to People Per Hour. I don’t think the client is charged anything by them.

There is a dispute process on People Per Hour, but I’ve never had to use it.

Basically, you have a stream of conversations, so everything that you talk about with the client is there. So if there are issues with payments, either side can raise a dispute. You have to pay People Per Hour around £12 to raise a dispute. They'll come in and look at it, and they'll just decide either way, and I think that's generally at the point when an invoice has been raised.

I came close to raising a dispute recently but it was a low-paying job, so I dropped it and thought, ‘Do you know what? I’ll let them have my work for free, for the stress that it might cause me.’ I’m pretty careful and I outline what I’m charging for and how much I’ll be charging, so I don’t feel that I need any other outside bodies like unions. It’s never occurred to me to join one.

People Per Hour was quite new when I started, so I’ve grown as they've grown. Generally, every decision they make is not in my interest, but in theirs. It’s never too bad, nothing that's put me off working with them completely. Generally I'll voice my concern about a change they make on the site, or a change to their charges, or something that’s not working that should be working. But that’s still quite rare. I think I voice my concerns to make myself feel better, but there is never any response. If there is a response, it’s super generic: ‘Thank you for your input human number 75/A.'

Job security and the marketplace

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

When it comes to job security, you never really know what the technological landscape is going to look like one, two or three years from now. It doesn't worry me too much, but I need to keep learning stuff. It’s not an area where you can stand still for too long. It can be difficult to balance client work and learning time when I’ve got a lot of work on. Learning comes at the point when work is slowing down; if I’m in a space between work finishing and new work starting, or if I just haven’t got any work, I’ll try and learn some new stuff. I prefer learning on the job.

At the moment, I’m in a quiet patch. It's been about a week and I’ve been treading water work-wise. For someone like me who’s not well known and hasn’t got people pursuing them, that’s quite normal. It doesn’t stop it being scary, even though it happens in cycles. I see it happening each time; it triggers quite primal fears about not being able to provide for myself and not having enough money and resources.

But it seems to always happen, and I just need to kick into action when it does happen to make sure I get more work. It would be nice to have fewer of those times, but sometimes I’ve got too much work on, so it follows from that that sometimes I’m not going to have enough work on. I don’t subcontract work out – if there is too much on, I’ll pass work on. Generally, it’s not work that’s too much; it’s work that’s not quite right for me, so I’ll pass it onto friends.

I’d like it if People Per Hour managed who puts in jobs. They have a system where anybody can put in a job, and it’s sometimes just people who’ve had an idea, and they think an idea is equivalent to a business, and it can take up time looking through that stuff. It dilutes what the marketplace could be. For me, the marketplace would ideally be people who are business-oriented, who really want to run a successful business or already are running a successful business and value their website, and who have money to back that as well. I don’t want it to be people who are testing the water using the platform as a probing thing. Sometimes I get the impression it's some 16-year-old who’s had an idea and wants to see how cheaply they can get it made for.

Tax and pension

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

I do all the admin stuff myself. I don’t know whether I’m doing it wrong, but I hear people talking about how challenging it is to manage taxes when you are self-employed. I find it quite easy; I just create a spreadsheet, and everything goes in there. When you are self-employed, and you don’t employ anyone else, it’s a fairly simple system. I’ve never felt the need to look for outside help, apart from what’s on the government website.

I have a pension, which I’ve only recently started paying into. Because I’m self-employed, I have to set that up myself and go investigating pensions. I found it super easy. I probably haven’t got the best pension deal I possibly could have, because I didn’t want to spend too much time investigating, so I used the government one, the NEST pension scheme. It’s great; I can log in and select how much I want to pay per month. I don’t have insurance – that’s a blind spot for me based on cost and a psychological denial that I will get ill. It could potentially be an issue in the future, not having insurance if I get sick.

Well-being and personal development

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

My well-being is actually paramount to me. I’ve been seriously ill in my life, and because I’m self-employed, it’s important to me that I am healthy. It’s also important to me as somebody that works a sedentary life, just sitting in a chair, that I look after myself so that I can keep on doing what I want to be doing. My lifestyle is amazing really; I create space around the work that I do to lead the life I live. I work to live, not live to work.

There are mental health support networks for web developers. There are big issues with web developers and mental health. I think this kind of work attracts personalities who will just work 14 hours a day and not necessarily communicate that well with a client. It can be very isolating as well, if you’re not socially outward. It’s a way to avoid social situations because you can just sit at home, work and earn loads of money. At Word Press meet-ups, there is generally someone giving a talk about mental health for web developers.

In the future I’d like to move more into design; it would be a broadening from development and into design. The way I’m doing this at the moment is mimicking what I did when I first started working. I just did very low-paying jobs, because I didn’t have the confidence to charge more than that. At the moment I look for quite simple design jobs, and I’m happy to charge less than if it were pure development work because I’m learning on the job and I’m not a fantastic designer. I do ones where I think the skills that I have are sufficient for the client to be happy with what I’ve done. But I’ve only recently started doing that, so I’m interested to see how it plays out.

Would I change anything about the work itself? I don’t think so. More money would be nice, but I’m kind of at a level where I’m happy with the stress and challenge versus what I get paid for what I do.

Social life

Gig economy photo story of David - a web developer

If I were to say something was missing from my work, I think it’s working directly with people. I work well on my own and I’m happy to spend time with myself. I tried working in a shared office before – I thought it was the thing you were supposed to do. When I was in one of these co-working spaces, I wondered if there was something wrong with me, because everybody else comes in everyday and loves it, networking with friends. I thought I just don’t like the space; it doesn’t work for me. I did it for two weeks and stopped.

I make sure I’m very social outside of work, so I’m not wanting in that respect. Networking-wise, because I work on People Per Hour, I don’t really need the networking aspect. For me, it just felt like a way to make myself less efficient by having people around and noise, hearing other people having phone conversations and stuff, and paying for that as well.

Is anything missing from my life? I don’t know, my life’s pretty sorted.

You know you do those circles of your life, where you have family, friends, sex, work, finances, and so on. If I look at them at the moment, they are all really good. Maybe a bit more creativity. Comedy improvisation covers that, but maybe there could be something else as well that brings me alive a bit more. But apart from that, it’s pretty sweet.

Photography and research conducted by Curtis James, Fieldwork, on behalf of the CIPD