A Freelance Digital Ninja in the Philippines, Part 2

Junno Gonzales, my website guy

For me as a writer it’s gratifying to “publish” on the website every month without having to spend millennia trying to find an agent, which is what I’m doing with the first novel manuscript. But there’s a lot more involved with a website than I knew when I started this in 2009.

In Part 1 of this post, Junno Gonzales details what’s involved in setting up and maintaining a website if you do it properly, which I did not. In Part 2 we discuss the human side, like freelance work, possible communication problems, and the dynamics of international work. 

Junno’s story

I’ll tell you, I admire your drive in going into freelancing. I’ve always been grateful just to have a salary appear in my bank account every month. I’m not at all good at selling myself.

Let me tell you how I got started freelancing in the first place. I worked as a technical support representative in a call center, providing troubleshooting and assistance with regards to laptops or notebook computers. But more than a year later, I had to quit my job in order to finish my studies. After graduation, I wanted to go back into the corporate world, and I applied with another BPO or business process outsourcing company.

Unfortunately, at that time I discovered I was a diabetic. Here in the Philippines, there’s a lot more discrimination against people with health conditions than in first-world countries. Even though I was taking maintenance medications religiously and my blood sugar was under control, a job similar to my previous one was no longer possible. The work environment I was presented was not suitable, and that’s when I decided to do freelance work.

Freelancing is a very viable option not only for diabetics but for people who are differently abled. I’ve had a fair share of diverse workmates; paraplegics, senior citizens, mentally challenged people – and yet, they all thrived in the freelance industry. This made me realize firsthand

that it is possible for people to contribute while avoiding discrimination.

I’ve told you, and even posted about the software I bought for people with limited vision. The program can be very frustrating, so I don’t use it now, but it’s comforting to know I have it in case my vision gets much worse. (Link)

In working as a freelancer you’ve hooked up with Upwork, which is a platform where contractors and clients can meet. Can you explain a little bit about how that works?

Okay, at Upwork you can register as either a client or a contractor. When a client and a contractor decide to work together, they have a choice of either a fixed price contract or an hourly contract. We’re on the hourly one now. Before I start work, I have to download a time-tracker tool on my computer and turn it on. It records the actions made by my keyboard and mouse and takes a screenshot every ten minutes. This is done so that the client can see the work I’m doing, and it creates a log of my work. As long as the freelancer abides by Upwork policies, they are allowed to bill the client for their time.

On the flip side, the client can review the screenshots and use them in any dispute about actions not related to the work. In that case, Upwork acts as a mediator, providing the best experience for the client and making sure that the freelancer is paid for their work. Upwork protects both parties.

Well, I was impressed. Upwork will also help a potential client find a developer, something I could have used eleven years ago.

Of course, I’m curious about the international dynamics of your work with people in several different countries and time zones. So please talk about some of your experience with your clients— amusing or frustrating, or very easy or full of communication problems. 

I’ve had clients from Australia, New Zealand, Germany, London, Spain, and the USA. Most of my clients prefer to set a deadline and just let me work at my own pace as long as I meet the deadline. But sometimes I’m required to work in a particular time zone, especially for projects that require me to monitor something in real time. If we’re doing Google Ads in a US geo-location, we need to make sure we can check our advertising in real time. This guarantees that we can revise our ad budgeting in the time zone I’m working in.

As a freelancer I am given the liberty to choose which clients I work with, the work environment, and the schedule I want.

I don’t see any significant problems with communicating with clients because in the Philippines our second official language is English, a major language of wider communication. But I have had experience working with people whose English was not up to the level of professional competence.

Once I was working with a team of developers from another country. My client was in Australia, so we were working in three different countries. I was the project manager, and I discussed the project details with my foreign counterparts. They were good at matters of technology, like creating various applications or codes, but it was hard to communicate with them. I’d hear “yes, we can do it,” but when the work was submitted to me it wasn’t what I was expecting. Apparently, my instructions were not clear enough, maybe because I was too used to my old development team.

When you teach English as a foreign or second language, you learn that the directions you give have to be at least one level simpler than the language the students are studying. And you can’t assume that the details are obvious. 

Sorry—so the result was not what you expected. What else?

As a project manager I also ran quality assurance and software testing. We needed to establish a sort of compromise in order to work around communication problems.

I’ve heard there’s no greater cultural distance than between Westerners and Asians. You’ve got western individualism vs. Asian agrarian collectivism, rigid or lax hierarchies, hard or soft ethnic boundaries, guilt cultures vs. shame cultures. Even among the three Confucian countries—China, Korea and Japan—the dynamics of the workplace are very different. The problems can be very basic, like what does “yes” mean. Does it mean “I’ll do it” or does it mean “I can’t say no because you outrank me?” Does “no” mean “no” or “ask me a different way”?

And then you also find conflict between the Asians who stayed home and the Asians who fell under the influence of the west. Much less often, conflict between ordinary westerners and those who are said to have spent too much time in Asia. 

Well, those people can also serve as a bridge over the culture gap.

True. Not coincidentally, the free downloadable textbook I wrote for my advance Korean students is designed to do exactly that. It’s called Bridges: Intercultural Conversation. (Link) I always explained to students that I considered part of my job to be preparing them to get and hold a job working with people who look like me. The book proved to be very successful, although if I used it now I’d add new discussion questions to bring it up to date. 

What I love about working with westerners is they don’t blame you if you confess to having made mistakes as long as the results are good. It’s sort of a challenge for some of my counterparts. Their Asian bosses can be very defensive if they think a subordinate is talking down to them—and that’s the way the always take it.

It doesn’t help that they’re working in computer technology and probably know a lot more than the boss, who may be embarrassed at knowing so little. You find that in the west too. 

No, I meant the boss might think you’re criticizing the way they run the business even if you didn’t mean that at all. Or it could be a co-worker you’re talking to. They might feel you’re stepping on their turf, their territory, and resent it. Filipinos or other Asians might worry that they’re doing something wrong, even if they’re working with westerners.

But what I think you’re saying is that westerners tend to be more open to suggestions and constructive criticism. We don’t come from a shame culture, so we’re less concerned about being blamed if something goes wrong or saving face or making sure the boss doesn’t lose face. 

One of the major problems westerners have in the Asian workplace is our tendency to be not sensitive enough when offering criticism to subordinates. For the business people that I knew in Korea, this was potentially a really big problem. 

My Filipina housekeeper is good about accepting criticism or suggestions, and I’m grateful for that. Her cooking is very

good, as I often tell her, so if I occasionally say something about the meat’s being overcooked it’s not a big deal. 

In the Philippines domestic workers may be afraid of criticism. Our housekeeper is a very good cook, but there are times when we need to speak to her about the cooking or cleaning. That’s just something we learned to live with.

So more situations where communication might be a problem? 

Many westerners don’t seem to give much consideration to the process because they are too focused on the results. One of my American clients wants to get me to increase my output. He’s all about crunching the numbers. When we were talking about clearing backlinks he said, “I expect you to deliver 50 items per hour. If you deliver 40, you’re only working at 80% efficiency.”

While I understand where the client is coming from, the communication problem comes from the fact that I don’t have an internet speed of 100 mbps, which is standard in the US. I’m already paying a premium rate for my 25 mbps. Some factors such as internet speed and reliability might be an influencing factor in my output. Because my client and I are working remotely and not in the same office, he does not see the challenges I encounter. These differences are things I need to communicate clearly in order to give clients a better idea of my output. Fortunately, the client who is so concerned about efficiency is also my mentor when it comes to SEO (Search Engine Optimization) and PPC (Pay Per Click Advertising), so there are no hard feelings. Relative to results of SEO and PPC, he understands the variation due to infrastructure, cultures, time zones, language, amongst other factors.

Well, it’s maybe unfair, but I don’t have much patience with my compatriots who either assume all the world is the same as it is at home or that nothing is. 

Anyway, I don’t have any more questions. Can you think of things that need to be said? 

Grow your skills, grow as a person, and continue learning. One particular thing I’ve learned from my freelancing experience is that, whatever I’m doing, I need to expand my skill set So I’m always taking courses in digital marketing.

Connect with people.  Although this might not apply to everybody, I treat my clients as friends. This is on both a personal and a professional level. I do things that contractors usually wouldn’t do for their clients, like favors beyond the scope of my work—the sort of things you do for friends.

Even though I provide a service, I believe they can offer me something beyond financial reimbursement; like information and insight into their vast experiences, life lessons – that sort of thing. I try to bring an open mind and learn what I can learn from them. I try to avoid burning bridges and try to keep in touch. You can reach me on Digital Uno Solutions if you need help. Thanks!

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Bob Barton
Bob Barton
7 months ago

A very personable and well motivated professional!