Freelance Product Manager

Talent Spotlight: Dimitri Abalenkov

Meet Dimitri, a freelance Product Manager and Product Owner and a member of CodeControl since 2020. He’s originally from Riga, but travelling and working from anywhere.

We’re talking to him to learn more about his freelance journey and to get his advice on how to become a great freelance product manager, how to find the right projects and how to manage your time as a freelancer.

How did you decide to become a freelancer, and what did you do before that?

I studied information security in Germany and Norway with a focus on biometrics and cryptography. After that, I started my journey at Deutsche Bank in the IT department. I was working as an in-house consultant there, and I was going around from project to project, sometimes for two months, sometimes for one and a half years. That was a bit like freelancing in itself already. It gave me exposure to very different teams, very different challenges. Then I became a product owner, and I stayed in that role for two years. After that, I moved to Berlin and worked for Finanztip, and I started my freelancer journey in parallel.

My motivation was to be independent. I didn’t want to have a manager anymore, didn’t want to fight for a bigger salary. I think employees are often disappointed with their salary and with the value they feel the company sees in them. And then there are the yearly performance reviews, where you talk about your development. If you want a bigger salary, you are asked to achieve specific things first. I didn’t want that. I wanted to have full control, wanted to be in charge. And I also wanted to be exposed to different projects and teams, because that helps you grow fast.

What do you think a freelance product owner needs to be successful?

That’s a good question. I feel like the product owner role is pretty hyped right now, similar to UX/UI designers. Almost everyone is becoming a product manager or product owner. But in my opinion one thing that helps a lot is a strong IT background. That makes it easier to talk to developers, to understand what they tell you, and even to make suggestions for an approach. You should understand digital products in general, and you should know which technologies are currently important, how things are done at the moment.

It also helps to have an understanding of business and the market. Your product should make users happy and make money too. You need that understanding to make the product successful. You should be data-driven, meaning that you should understand the KPIs and see what you need to do on a day-to-day basis to contribute to them.

By the way, I’ve noticed a lot of companies want to hire a product owner as an employee, because they want the person to live the company values and understand the strategy completely. As a freelancer, I often get hired as an interim product manager to fill a gap. When the company finds someone for a full-time position, I hand over everything.

How do you usually find your projects?

I always find them through my network. The longer you work in a field, the bigger your network gets. If a former client was happy with you, they will say, “You did a really great job back then. We have a new product where we might need your help.” Even if the people moved to other companies, they will remember you and they could become clients again. Step by step, you grow your professional network, and that helps you find projects.

What has been the biggest challenge in your freelance journey?

Taxes are the biggest challenge. And it’s always challenging to start a new project in a company, to get to know the technology and the processes. But that’s also exciting. Time management is another challenge. Sometimes I have three projects in parallel, and I use three different Outlook calendars I have to update, so everyone knows about my availability and the clients don’t block time when I have a meeting with someone else.

Do you have any advice for freelancers on how to manage their time and their projects?

A lesson I’ve learned for myself is that if you need to divide your energy between three different projects, you always jump from one to another, and you’re losing time and energy. So in the end, you’re not spending 100% of your energy, but you spend maybe 130%. There is a lot of jumping and this is responsible for the additional 30%. I would rather try to find projects that fill your whole time for a while, and then move on to the next project. You might earn a bit less, but you save yourself so much stress.

In terms of workflow, I think it’s best to do the most important things in the morning. But that’s not always possible. I also advise people to make time for yourself to do sports or just go outside. It takes an hour off your day, but by spending this hour, in the end you win much more energy, which will help you to stay focused even longer. It’s great to spend time with yourself, not with clients and projects, not in front of the computer. That gives you a boost, and this boost helps you to be more productive.

What does a typical day look like for you?

I’m travelling a lot and working from different places, so it’s always a bit different. But normally I wake up, do some jogging and eat breakfast. Then I work until lunch break, when I go out to see the city and eat something nice. I go back to the second part of my day, maybe until around five. Then I take some time for myself, and later around eight or nine I come back for a little third session, respond to urgent emails and so on. But I’m not sure if that’s good, because it helps the client, but not me.

Does a community like CodeControl help on the freelance journey?

Yes, it’s helpful. For getting projects, but it’s also great to know that there are people around doing the same thing. It gives you some sort of security that you’re not a solo guy running around. That there are lots of solo guys or girls doing the same thing. It gives you some warmth, a good feeling and some security that you’re not alone.

Last question: What does the Future of Work look like?

I think the future will be more of what work has been like since the start of the pandemic. When you have the flexibility to work from anywhere, your quality of life is changing. I think people will not want to give that up. If someone asked me to move to Hamburg for a project, I wouldn’t do it. I think companies will have to stay remote or find new hybrid models.

Want to learn more about Dimitri?

Check out his LinkedIn profile.

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CodeControl works with top-notch freelancers, provides them with services to make their professional life easier, and matches them with compelling projects for companies who need their services.