How much does a freelance programmer make? How much per hour can freelance programmers charge?

As I describe here, I got into freelancing somewhat by accident. I was offered a project writing a Pascal-based compiler for a former employer on a part time basis — 2 weeks per month — shortly after I got my MSCS degree. If I remember correctly, the rate was $30 per hour — doesn’t sound like much, but this was back in 1978. $30 back then is the same as $119 today, according to this inflation calculator.

I believe I was making about $15,000 per year as a full-time employee (equivalent to $63,000 today), so the $30/hour for 80 hours/month was a lot more than what I had been making, and allowed me to work on a side project the remaining time which eventually brought me in a lot more money than even the consulting.

By the mid-1980s I was back doing consulting full-time, and I remember my rate was $50 per hour because the San Francisco design firm I was working with actually billed me out at twice that. That annoyed me a little, but $50 in 1985 is $123 today so I was keeping pace. I believe I also got the same rate working direct, for example a contract I had with Apple in 1986.

In the mid-1990s I worked on three different satellite TV broadcast systems, and was getting $66 per hour ($115 today). That was again through a broker, so I was being billed out higher than that.

The best rate I ever was able to charge was $120 per hour direct, for almost all of 1999 working on the Y2K problem. That’s the equivalent of $191/hour today. Definitely a seller’s market. That was short but sweet.

After the dot-com bust, I had trouble getting work and resorted to the Internet, getting jobs through Elance (now Upwork) and Freelancer. I found I couldn’t get my previous rate there, and I was initially getting only $50/hour ($72 today) in 2003. My wife and I moved from Silicon Valley to the Phoenix area where the cost of living was much less. After a few projects I was able to raise my rate back to $60 ($82 today).

In 2016, I had been freelancing for 38 years. In my last full-time job, which was on-site for a local medical device manufacturer, I was getting $77/hour ($85 today). Like many workers in the US, I had not kept up with inflation over the years. (For a short duration job though, I got $100/hour, or $120 today).

A manager at a major microchip manufacturer saw my resume on-line, called me, and asked if I would be interested in an interview. I hadn’t really considered becoming an employee again, but their offer was too good to turn down. Although it was less than what I was used to making as a freelancer, my wife and I were eligible for social security and that made up the difference.

I was an employee again for the first time since 1978. At the time, I was 69. Frankly, it was a relief not having to look for new contracts every few years. Five years later I’m now 74, and still working full-time at the same company.

So except for one up-tick in 1999, my rate varied from $120 per hour down to $85 per hour, all based on the value of today’s dollar. Someone just starting out probably isn’t going to be making even $85/hour, but after some experience and several projects behind them one should probably be in that neighborhood — and much higher if you are in Silicon Valley or New York City for example. It’s going to be a combination of several factors:

  • Education — I have both BSEE and MSCS degrees, and can work on either hardware projects, software projects, or a combination.
  • Experience — I freelanced for almost 40 years, and completed over two-dozen projects that have gone to market. I also have been awarded 28 patents.
  • Versatility — I’ve done mostly embedded systems (hardware and/or software), but when that didn’t pan out, I worked in other areas: mainframes, web programming, desktop and cellphone apps, etc.
  • Location — I’m based in the US, currently in the Phoenix area. When I was located in Silicon Valley, I got higher rates (based on today’s dollar). Rates are going to vary for freelancers based outside of the US.
  • Project duration — The best rates I got were on-site, short duration. Next were on-site, long duration (sometimes several years). Projects obtained through on-line sites paid a little less.

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