Resources for Freelancers

Yes, Strongback Consulting is a full fledged company, but I started as basically a freelancer. In getting my business started I’ve learned a few things about the tools that are really necessary for the business. I’ve learned some hard lessons in the process. Some like to say that experience is the best teacher. That’s not quite true. Someone else’s experience is the best teacher. Here’s a few of my tips:

Software:

I’m a big advocate of Open Source, so I have a list of must have software for anyone doing technical freelance work:

  1. FireFox – If you don’t use firefox, you shouldn’t be Freelancing. See my prior posts for the specific FF plugins. This is number one for a reason.
  2. Open Office – This is single handedly the best money saver of the bunch. OO is a great tool. There have been occasions where MS Office provided functions that I could not find in OO, but its not enough (thus far) to justify the cost of MS Office.
  3. ClamWin – Antivirus tools seem like such a scam to me. They are expensive and rob your system of valuable computing resources. ClamWin is an open source product, and thus far seems to perform fairly well compared to TrendMicro. McAfee is the worst in my opinion. Now, if you run a Mac or a Linux desktop, well you could just go ‘naked’. ClamWin has also shown to be as effective at fighting viruses as the commercial products.
  4. Subversion – You need to version your code. Period. This is free, open source, and one of the most widely used version control systems in the market place. It also comes with nearly every Linux distribution. Thus, if you use a Linux desktop, you will probably have this out of the box (or out of the ISO as the case may be). Along with the subversion repository, you may also want to get TortoiseSVN as a file system based client to your Subversin server. It you use Eclipse, then use Suversive as the client.
  5. Putty – If you have a Windows desktop, and have clients that run Unix or Linux, you must have an SSH client. Putty is king.
  6. Cygwin – This one is fantastic, but a bit of a luxury. This allows me to have a Linux/Unix like bash shell instead of my ordinary DOS prompt. With Cygwin, you can add on RSync. This is a handly backup tool that allows you to synchronize directories. Its not a versioning tool, however. Sed, Awk, and Grep are other tools that are not matched by anything in a DOS prompt. Nonetheless, I recommend anyone get familiarized with Cygwin and a bash shell. Once you have, then you can use ANY operating system at a command line (Linux, Unix, Mac, BSD, and now Windows).
  7. Notepad2 – For those on Windoze, this is a slightly higher functioning version of Notepad. It does highlighting and parsing of code, properties files and text documents. It also provides number of lines on the left hand column. Its lightweight and in my opinion, more useful than plain old Notepad.
  8. Jedit – Another Notepad replacement, Jedit is a bit better at formatting and highlighting than Notepad2, at the cost of being a bit heavier to load. Its entirely Java based, which makes it less dependent on the OS. It can be used to edit Java code, but not compile it. Its great at editing properties files, and opening up JSP’s, ASP’s, HTML, CSS, and other web type files. Its MUCH lighter than Eclipse, so its great if you need a quick edit.
  9. CutePDF – Sometimes you need to deliver a file to a customer in PDF format. This acts as a printer, and you just print to the given PDF. Its lightweight and doesn’t prompt you to buy support like PDF995 does. OpenOffice will also export directly to PDF, but if you have MS Office, you’ll need CutePDF. This is also handy if you want to print a web page to PDF.
  10. GIMP – Unless your Freelance work is that of a graphic artist, you really should not need Photoshop. Granted, Photoshop is a great tool. Fantastic tool. Fantastically expensive tool also. Gimp is free and is a viable substitute for Photoshop. If you have the occasional photo to touch up, you need to make some buttons or widgets for an Intranet website, this is the tool to use.

Now, sometimes you just can’t really replace a commercial products. Here ar

e a few I have a hard time living without:

  1. SnagIT – From TechSmith. This is a great tool for doing screen captures. This image shows what you can do that a plain ‘print screen’ can’t. This is invaluable for system documentation and training materials. TechSmith also has Camtasia which is a great product for recording screen interactions. This also does note really have a viable substitue in open source.
  2. Cisco System VPN Client – There seem to be far more companies that use Cisco than any other VPN software, so it will be hard to justify not having this VPN client. It just works. There is a client for Linux, Mac, and Windows. A matching open source client is out there, but in my opinion, its not reliable. Open Souce is my preference, but only if the product is reliable.
  3. Quickbooks – Personally, I really get annoyed with Quickbooks. However, if you were to try to replace its functionality with custom written code, you would spend more time messing around with code than billing. You are in business for a reason – to make money. Writing code for yourself is does not bring in the dough. Bite the bullet and buy Quickbooks. Use the professional edition. Don’t use Quicken for home and business as it does not have enough functionality.
  4. Photoshop – Yes, this is a contradiction from my previous list, but I list this here only if you do Graphics for a living. Its expensive, but its the best on the market. See my previous post if you don’t do this for a living.
  5. Windows – Depending on what you do for your Freelance gig, you may have to use something other than Linux for your desktop. Believe me, I’ve tried to get away from Windows. My problem is that much of the IBM software that I use does not yet run on Linux or Mac. Thus, I’m stuck on Windows. Yes you should purchase it and not pirate it. Even if you run Mac, you will probably have some client software that only runs on Windows. I’m almost to the point to where I can recommend Vista Business over Windows XP. The drivers are better, the security is better, and the peformance with service pack 1 is much improved. If you are getting a new machine, bite the bullet and go with Windows Vista SP1 Business edition 64bit. That way you can maximize all available memory, and maximize performance.
  6. VM Ware Workstation (Fusion) – Sometimes you need a sandbox to put code in. I have a client that uses Checkpoint VPN client. It cannot be installed on the same machines as Cisco. Rather than uninstall and reinstall, I simply put them into their own VM. VM Ware Workstation is for Windows and Linux. Fusion is for Mac. They work extremely well. It costs about $169. When time is money, its easier to buy this than to figure out Xen on Linux with a command line. I can recoup my costs in a couple of hours of billing.

Now, what is missing from the above list? Email? Entertainment? Backup? All of the above. Here are some services or other related products that are not open souce, but are FREE!

  1. Google Apps – My domain (http://wordpress.strongback.us) is hosted on Google Apps. Therefore I get free email with over 6GB of storage per employee. I get free web pages and hosting for those web pages. I have over 12 years expertise in Lotus Notes and Domino. Yes this is a contradiction, but as a business owner, I must be concerned with costs. This means nearly zero TCO for me as a small business. I don’t use Outlook (I despise it actually). I only use the web interface. It syncs my email and calendar with my Blackberry Curve. The only thing that does not sync are my contacts. Ok. I can live with that. I still sync those with my Lotus Notes address book, so I do have some love for Notes as a business. Google Apps really brings down the barriers to entry for a new business. Its fast, its reliable, and it simply works. I also have instant messaging with my employees and subs. Google Talk does VoIP. It blows me away that its free.
  2. Blogger.com – Blogging is an underated, highly effective marketing tool (you are reading this blog aren’t you?). Blogger is a Google product. TCO is zero (not counting the time it takes to write the blog of course).
  3. Skype – I don’t use a landline telephone for my business. I use only my cell phone. I cannot call international on my cell phone. Skype has rediculously low rates for international calling. It allows me a channel for IM to my customers and business partners. It also allows me to video conference with my family. It too is free.
  4. Google Earth / Maps – Ok, so there is a trend here. I like Google. My confidence in Google Maps went down a little when I was in Puerto Rico last week. Those maps are WAY out of date. Nonetheless, I like it better than Mapquest for finding directions to customer site. It also runs on my Blackberry.
  5. Google Desktop – Google’s integration is great at the desktop level. It also integrates with IBM’s DB2 Omnifind product. Imagine Googling your entire corporate enterprise across everyone’s desktops and across all your content management systems. Powerful.
  6. Remember the Milk – an excellent site for tasks lists. Integrates with Blackberry and Gmail.
  7. LinkedIn – Online resume. This is the single best marketing tool I have. More leads come in from LinkedIn than any other site.
  8. Facebook – Not quite the same focus as LinkedIn, it is a good tool for keeping up with friends from prior customers and employers. In this day an age, a current employer may become a future customer, or future employee. Your online presence is as important as any paper based marketing material you own and perhaps more important than your corporate website. As a freelancer, you rely on your repuation and word of mouth. Facebook and LinkedIn should be front and center in your marketing effort. Plaxo Pulse is another site that is worth mentioning, but not enough to give it its own listing.
  9. Last.FM – No, this is does not help bring in the money. Its does not help your marketing, or help raise your rates. It just makes that lonely office a little more inviting. Its also nice to experiment with new music.
  10. Mozy – Free online backup upt to 2GB with options to buy more. You could take an old desktop, throw a lightweight linux distro on it and use Rsync. Sometimes you need additional protection and you need access to it when you are not at home. Mozy is pretty good. Check out XDrive also. At the very least, use it to backup your contact list, and any critical, non-replaceable work such as Quickbooks files, certificates, etc.

5 Responses to “Resources for Freelancers

  • 2 alternatives to your software list that I really like..

    ClamWin: I haven’t used it myself, but I’ve for many years used the free version of AVG and have found it to be an excellent Windows antivirus tool. Far better than the popular Symantec/Norton tools and while I like Trend Micro for payware, AVG is excellent on the Windows platform.

    Putty: While Putty is a must have in the toolbox, I’ve recently found an alternative that adds a good bit more than Putty provides. That would be mRemote, http://www.mremote.org

  • Ohh, and while its not freeware, as a text editor, and even an IDE for a lot of things, Visual SlickEdit is always my favorite choice. My current version is a few years out of date but it still provides extremely useful services to me, especially when I encounter any Ant based projects.

  • Great Advice!

  • What backup tool(s) do you recommend for Vista (free, fixed price, or licensed)?

  • I have several tools I use.

    The first is I always have a live backup hard disk that I travel with. I use Acronis TrueImage to create it. Its a commercial product with a free introductory version. It is rock solid and I’m working off a drive created from it. My laptop drive and spare drive are identical (320GB 7200 RPM Western Digital Caviar drives – http://www.newegg.com). I’ve been burned by a crashed hard drive one too many times. In just a few minutes I’m back up with a working operating system that is a close image of what I was working with.

    Next, I use Rsync with Cygwin (www.cygwin.org). These are free tools that emulate a Unix/Linux environment on Windows. Rsync is a tool for incremental synchronization with another file system. I run an rsync at least weekly, more often if I’m on a busy project. I synchronize key directories to another file server (running Linux of course). Then if I do have a hard drive crash, this allows me a quick and easy way to sync up recent incremental changes.

    Next, I have Windows backup running incremental backups twice a week. These backups go to another file server in my office and handle system settings as well as a few of the directories that rsync handles. It gives me a second line of defense in case the first does not work, but quite frankly I’d rather not rely on MS tools.

    Finally, once or twice a year I archive off my Eclipse/RAD workspaces, Lotus Notes data directory, and portions of my client project directories to optical media. I have found that I’ve often need to go back to one of these disks to find a file I’ve long forgot about, but need in a rare instance that is only on one of these older disks.

    So… In summary
    -Acronis True Image for full hard drive failure
    -Cygwin with the Rsync option for incremental changes
    -Windows backup for system settings
    -Optical media for archives