By James Murphy March 23, 2016

Code Your Way Out of Debt

Articles about working your way out of debt are a dime a dozen these days, even more so after the last financial crash of 2008. However in this particular article, I plan to take you on a rather different route to debt freedom.

As developers who ply their trade using their fingers, brains, and wits, we are blessed with very lucrative talents. The world is a developer's oyster, with many of the wealthiest people in the world hailing from a technology based background. Even SpaceX and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk made his fortune from building web-based companies to get him started on his path to success.

Perhaps life has thrown you curve balls.

You got married, had a child, and stepped on the property ladder, all within a very short space of time. That's what happened to me over a period of four years, and as a member of Generation Y/Millenials, one of the worst off economically in recent generations, it can be really tough from a financial standpoint. Especially if you don't happen to have well-off parents!

First Things First

Before following any of the other points in this article, I strongly suggest you “get your house in order.” What I mean by this is to take some time and seriously look at your finances:

  • Budget and only spend this month’s paycheck.
  • Cancel everything you cannot afford.
  • Shift credit card debts from high-interest rates to 0% balance transfer cards.
  • Concentrate on paying off the highest interest card first.
  • Negotiate debts either by reducing interest rates or agreeing to pay off debt with creditors by paying your debts now (you may even be able to negotiate a discount if you pay it off now, saving you interest in the long term).
  • Automate all bill payments to be withdrawn from your account as soon as you get paid, so you know what's left;
  • Open a specific bank account for paying bills, possibly a paid account that gives you other benefits you regularly use such as phone insurance, holiday insurance, or breakdown cover for your car, saving you money in the long and short term.

“You must gain control over your money, or the lack of it will forever control you.” ― Dave Ramsey

Having completed the above, you should immediately be in a much better place. Following this advice will automate your finances and free you up to concentrate on more important things.

If you increase your earning potential as well as concentrate on reducing your spending, you will dramatically increase your disposable income. Many articles shy away from talking about increasing your earning potential. People are stuck in the 9-5 drudgery, and many don’t have the skill base to easily break out of it and earn money on the side. Not so for us software developers!

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Coding With a New Intention

Here are some ways I've tried myself or learned from others that programmers can realize their potential and make use of our unique skills and ability.

Re-negotiate Your Salary

We've all been there. You've heard that a colleague of yours in the same role as you is on a higher salary, but they don’t do anything different. This is a very common story.

Now, I'm not suggesting that you should request a pay raise based on your colleague’s salary.

In fact, you shouldn’t.

Don't present your argument to your boss from that angle. Instead, have confidence in your abilities and talents as a developer. Make it clear what value you offer to the business and how much you're worth to them.

If you can approach your boss, clear in the knowledge of what value you offer to the business, what others are similarly earning in your role, and about what you can uniquely offer in the future to the business bottom line, then this puts you in a much stronger position.

If you make a great case and your boss still turns you down, despite paying others more for the same role, then maybe working for that company isn't the best thing for you. Especially if they won't pay you what you believe you are worth.

Successfully asking for a raise is a great first step to immediately increasing your earning potential.

Accomplish Your Quarterly Objectives

This point ties into the previous point. If the company that you work for is a half-decent and well-structured business, they will have career progression paths that are based on your performance record within your role.

At the business I work for, I am measured against quarterly goals that are aligned with the wider department objectives. If I hit those milestones, I can prove to my boss that I'm making progress in the right directions towards a promotion.

In one of my previous blog posts on Simple Programmer, I spoke about how to align your goals at different levels over the next few weeks, months, or years, always keeping it in line with what you are doing. The same goes for goals in your current job. If you always ensure you are aware of what these goals are, you can make sure you're making progress towards them on a regular basis.

Reviewing progress toward goals on a regular basis will help you maintain focus and will help to ensure they don't pass you by.

Complete those goals, and it will make your meteoric rise through the software ranks more and more inevitable.

Start Blogging

I first started blogging over a year ago after being inspired by John Sonmez's book, Soft Skills.

Despite not always writing about topics directly related to my field, I've found that blogging opens up many different and unexpected opportunities, including being invited to talk on a webinar about Continuous Delivery and receiving LinkedIn invitations to talk at the Slinger Code conference (with no prior experience at speaking at a conference before). Of course, there is also the chance to be a contributing writer here at Simple Programmer, which I would never have had a chance to do had I not blogged in the first place.

While I've never made a cent from any of these things, there's one thing that all of this does do, and that's raise your profile as a developer. You may find that unexpected opportunities land in your lap. Maybe someone approaches you with a job offer or a contract, or perhaps you get a chance to appear in the community outside of your job (as I did).

Imagine being able to say you're a regular speaker at conferences — that's a great boost for yourself professionally as well as a marketing benefit for your employer, and it means you're potentially well connected in the developer community.

If you’re a well-connected developer, let’s say you’re working for a company that needs to expand quickly, this will put you in a powerful position. By knowing a variety of developers you can vouch for and rely on, you can immediately fill these vacant roles and fill the company with people you trust to deliver.

Whatever the case, even if you get no offers to speak at a conference, it really can't hurt to have a portfolio of content on your site that demonstrates to prospective employers you know what you're talking about and shows them you can articulate concepts and discuss a topic in-depth.

I know from my experience of being a hiring manager that I would be impressed if a candidate had spent a significant portion of time maintaining a blog and writing content. I would feel like I already knew the candidate and had formed an opinion before they even had an opportunity to sit down opposite me — that's a powerful thing. Having a blog (unless you write some really offensive opinions) can't really harm your chances.

Those are the indirect benefits of running your own blog. A blog can also be a platform to market and sell whatever services and items you might offer, whether it's consultancy, e-products such as eBooks, themes, or apps (more on these below).

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Speak at Conferences

As I mentioned earlier, by raising your profile in the wider software community, you'll be presented with opportunities to talk at local and international conferences.

At first, you probably won't be able to earn anything by talking at a conference. For the first few at least, the likelihood you’ll have any expenses paid for is slim, so don’t expect them to immediately pay-off.

After a while, as your profile begins to increase and people start to get excited about hearing you speak, you may be offered money to talk at conferences that charge a fee. For some people, this can form a very nice supplement to their regular income. If nothing else, you'll meet a lot of new people.

This is definitely one for the long game, but certainly won't harm opportunities to pay down that debt pile with the recognition and authority you build with these gigs.

Write an eBook

Earning a passive income is one of the hottest topics trending on the internet these days. After Amazon made it so easy for authors to become self-published with the advent of the Kindle publishing platform, eBooks have exploded with popularity. In fact, there's never been a better time to get into the eBook publishing business.

The important thing to remember about writing an eBook is you must find a need for it before you put pen to paper. Understand who your audience is and what problem they need solving. By concentrating on this need, you can better focus your content and ensure it sells.

It's much better to write an eBook focused towards a particular need than to make it so broad it fades into obscurity.

So, how do I find a need? How do I pick a topic that’s going to interest potential readers?

First, I’d start with an area that we are either interested in or have a particular expertise in. These may or may not be the same. Then I would look for growing trends in that niche using a Google Trends search. This can be helpful in finding out how certain topics compare and what their popularity is over time.

Next, I would become active in that niche and understand what people’s needs are. Why should they read your eBook? What others are out there? Is there a gap for yours to fill? To find out more about whether your audience would be willing to pay for an eBook, you can create a questionnaire using Typeform, post it on a community forum, and wait for responses. Use responses to gauge whether it’s worth writing an eBook before you invest any other time or effort.

In addition, eBooks and e-products tie in really nicely with writing a blog. A blog gives you an audience, potentially around a niche that you're passionate about, who may be interested in the wares that you are selling.

Work a Niche

This segues nicely into my next point: working a niche. You may be reluctant to focus your career or blog on a particular niche, but it's been proven that by focusing on a particular topic, it's much easier to stand out from the crowd and become an authority.

For example, Pinal Dave, the author of sqlauthority.com, focused his blog around SQL with a post every single day. His blog has upwards of 2,500+ blog posts, 2 million plus views a month, and 62 million views total (as of May 2013 — who knows what he’s at now!) Isn’t it amazing what you can accomplish with consistency and focus?

From those millions of views, Pinal Dave will earn enough revenue from his site that he never has to worry about working a traditional job again.

When selecting a niche, we should concentrate on technical areas we’re interested in. We don’t even necessarily have to be an expert in that niche (but it helps!), because if it’s a specific niche then our competition will be much smaller than it would otherwise.

For example, we may particularly enjoy writing plug-ins for other proprietary software such as text editors and browsers. If we were to find a niche, we could just write plug-ins for something like IntelliJ IDEA, the Java IDE.

Start Your Own Podcast Programmer Podcast Best

Alongside writing a blog, you could start your own podcast. Podcasting is yet another great way to stand out from the crowd with your knowledge and content.

How many developers do you know that run their own podcasts?

Not many, right!?

There's a reason for this. Many developers don't have the confidence to be on a podcast. They feel like they have nothing valuable to offer, or their voice is worth less than others, so they aren't willing to put themselves in that position. They fear the criticism and exposure that comes with it.

You can be different, though. By putting yourself out there, you can break that cycle of fear.

Recording for a podcast does require a little equipment, but once you're set up, the only thing stopping you is fear and creativity.

Many podcasters make a good living from sponsors of the show. Obviously, this will be dependent on whether you can build up a good following from your audience and how compelling your narrative is.

Even if you don't rake in the cash with your show, it's going to be a great way to help you build confidence and move onto better projects. If podcasting doesn't work for you, at least you can say you've tried it.

Freelancing or Consultancy

If you've ever read Tim Ferriss' book, The 4-Hour Workweek, he discusses how you can become a member of the New Rich (NR). For example, someone who earns $50,000 for working an entire year is significantly “less well off” than someone who earns $10,000 from just 10 days work!

This concept all comes down to optimizing your time and reducing the things that don't benefit you. The New Rich have the freedom to pick and choose where they work, what they work on, and how much they earn per hour doing what they love.

Now freelancing and consulting may not seem like something the New Rich would do, but freelancing and consultancy can get you that freedom you want. It’s all part of the DEAL (Definition, Elimination, Automation, and Liberation) acronym and strategy mentioned in Tim's book. With freelance rates being anything from $500-$5,000 per day, this type of work can be a very lucrative alternative to traditional employment.
If you've worked on building your brand, then you should be able to command even greater rates with bigger businesses. Not sure how to get started? Check out sites like Upwork (formerly Elance and oDesk) to see what people are looking for, and what they might be willing to pay you for your expertise.

Run Workshops

With the trend of more job automation by Artificial Intelligence technology, I can only see more of the general public flocking to safer careers like programming in an attempt to avoid their livelihoods becoming automated.

The future is very ripe for developers. With a huge, widening skills gap, people will want and need to be trained to learn how to code; there just aren't sufficient people with the skills out there at present to fill these jobs.

This is a big opportunity for us. We can become teachers and mentors to a new generation of programmers. With the likes of Udemy, Codecademy, Coursera, Udacity, Nettuts+ and Pluralsight, there are many online options where people can learn.

As an author for one of the above sites, you can produce course content and get paid royalties based on the number of people who take your courses.

No better passive income!

“The task of the modern educator is not to cut down jungles, but to irrigate deserts.” ― C. S. Lewis

Sell Themes

If you're passionate about web technology, web standards, and design, you could always think about becoming a theme author for one of the many different blogging frameworks such as WordPress, Drupal or Ghost.

If you have a flair or eye for design, then this could be the avenue for you. Many of the themes that sell well tend to have rather simplistic designs and don't even have to be too feature heavy. Just find a framework you enjoy using and dive in!

While this is a viable passive revenue stream (for some sellers, it's been very lucrative, earning anywhere between $5,000-$10,000 per theme), I certainly wouldn't advocate it as one of the best earners. For one thing, you're pretty much at the whims of the taste of your audience. Don't forget you'll have to maintain and support it, even if you aren't making many sales.

Still every little bit of revenue stream helps, so if you think you're a capable web developer and marketer, it might be worth a try.

Keep as many irons as possible in the fire til you find out which get the hottest!

Build a Mobile App

With the advent of mobile apps, pioneered by Apple iOS and the Android platforms, it's proven a very lucrative opportunity.

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Over the last decade, mobile growth has grown exponentially with the number of physical devices now exceeding the number of people in the world — a cool 7.2 billion. This means that the app market presents you with a huge market to sell to.

Interestingly, Android has a huge lead in market share at 82.8% with iOS a distant second at 13.9% in 2015. This may mean the app market is quite saturated with 1.6 million and 1.5 million apps for Android and iOS respectively, but there's still room for more players in niche markets.

Let's be honest. Even the most ludicrously crass and ridiculously simple idea can make you a lot of money if you get lucky. Remember the name Dong Nguyen?

Probably not.

What you might remember instead is the “viral hit” Flappy Bird game that Dong Nguyen created that took the mobile gaming world by storm. It made him a cool $50,000 in advertising revenue per day, despite claims the game ruined his “simple life.”

You probably don't need to make a hit as big (and the likelihood is most of us won't), but this story offers an inspiration. If you create an app that fills a niche or hits a chord with the audience, then you too can make something from it.

Build a Web Application (SaaS)

I have an ex-colleague who’s also a landlord. He had some problems with the agencies who were managing his tenancies; they were quoting him significantly more for fixing problems than he would have been quoted to fix the work himself. Also, they handled tenancy complaints and would often not handle issues, instead opting to contact him each time at the earliest opportunity.

As a result, he became despondent with them. Why did he need an agency to handle his tenancies? What services were they providing / not providing that he could do himself? Could he use his skills as a developer to make handling tenancies easier?

Consequently, he decided to embark on writing his own software that would allow him to track current tenancy occupants, namely keeping up with when their contracts would expire, how much money they paid each month, and when those payments were made. He started building a business.

If we as developers thought long and hard, we too would notice a need that should be filled. We too can write our own web applications to solve our problem, and we don’t need to leave our current roles to do it. Many entrepreneurs did not quit their day jobs until they were absolutely sure they could survive without the need for full-time employment.

Writing and maintaining your own SaaS (Software as a Service) that you charge customers for on a monthly or pro-rata basis, can prove to be some of the best revenue streams long term. Owning and starting your own business is ultimately the path to true freedom since you can make the day-to-day decisions yourself. Obviously, running your own business comes at a price and isn’t for the faint-hearted!

Read Books

I've left the most important section for last. I can't express enough how important it is to read regularly. Some websites will suggest you only read books that are going to benefit you and move you towards your goal from an applicable knowledge perspective.

I totally disagree with this idea. I believe that, to be a well-rounded individual, you need to be reading both fiction and non-fiction books that enrich who and what you are, but don't necessarily lead directly to wealth creation and paying down debts.

When it comes to getting that major promotion or major break, people remember those who are interesting. If you're well read, it'll always give you something to talk about and something in common with someone else. Life is about building relationships, and books offer a great hand in that.

“‘A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies,’ said Jojen. ‘The man who never reads lives only one.’” ― George R.R. Martin, A Dance of Dragons

Reading books is like having many different, very cheap mentors. You can always find someone better than you at something, and it'll cost you next to nothing to hire them. The only major investment is your time.

What Are You Waiting For?

With a list as long as my arm (and we've only just scratched the surface), there's no real reason why as software developers we can't make a life for ourselves, achieve our dreams, and take off the shackles that debt can bestow upon us.

Our talent is one we can share with the world for both good and for profit.

So what are you waiting for? The only person holding you back is you.

About the author

    James Murphy

    James is currently a Senior Software Engineer at Rental Cars with over 10 years experience working for some of the UKs largest companies including the BBC, AutoTrader and The Hut Group. On top of being a former England Youth chessplayer and when he's not looking after his terror of a 3 year old daughter, he can be found blogging over at his personal space devangst.com and otherwise attempting (badly) to be an entrepreneur. You can also follow his mind numbingly boring exploits on Twitter @jmurphyuk if you're into that sort of thing.