Note: this article is aimed at people who are looking to create a relatively complex piece of software.
In the past, remote hiring was often associated with outsourcing and was just another way to reduce costs.
But with the advent of product development frameworks that promote autonomous teams such as SCRUM, and modern project management tools like Jira and Slack, remote teams became very effective, and many companies started hiring remotely to reach the most talented people.
Jason Fried from Basecamp (formerly 37signals) put it best:
As an employer, restricting your hiring to a small geographic region means you’re not getting the best people you can. As an employee, restricting your job search to companies within a reasonable commute means you’re not working for the best company you can.
— 37signals, Remote: Office Not Required
There are many places one can go to find remote talent. Unfortunately, The Paradox of Choice is real, and many companies struggle figuring out where to focus their hiring efforts.
To simplify things, let’s group all available platforms into five categories.
That being said, each platform is characterized by its own set of pros, cons, and idiosyncrasies — especially in the realm of nontrivial software development.
Let’s explore each type of platform individually.
Price: Low | $5-$40 or more per hour
Talent quality: Mostly substandard
Failure rate: High
Time spent to find a candidate: Moderate
Disadvantage: Heaps of low-skilled spammy candidates
Advantage: An off chance of getting reasonable quality at low price
Openness is a trendy word nowadays; it invokes a warm, bubbly feeling within most of us. Platforms like Upwork are popular because they’re accessible to anyone, and while that is generally a good thing, it also means that the overwhelming majority of talent on these platforms will be of substandard quality. Most of your time will be spent trying to separate the wheat from the chaff; expect tons of copy-pasted messages from $10/h spammers.
In addition, there’s been a lot of talk about the way these sites treat their members, and in many cases it’s not pretty. They’re said to have poor customer support, and many of them force candidates to install apps that take screenshots every 10 minutes to prove that they’re working. To me that seems pretty Orwellian. While I might be generalizing to some extent, the sheer volume of complaints seems to point to a larger trend.
Most high-skilled professionals left these platforms during the last couple of years, but some have managed to rise above the masses and are still sticking around. As with any platform, it’s possible to find competent people if you invest enough effort into attracting them. Just remember that at $20 per hour, you’re not going to hire the next Steve Wozniak.
Price: Somewhat high | $50-$150 or more per hour
Talent quality: Decent
Failure rate: Low
Time spent to find a candidate: Relatively low
Disadvantage: Expensive for the level of quality you get
Advantage: Reliable, safe, relatively fast in matching you with a potential candidate
Exclusive platforms have surged in popularity lately, and with good reason — they’re a huge step up from open platforms like Upwork. A step up in quality, but also in price. These companies employ rigorous screening processes to vet their talent, and the overwhelming majority of the candidates don’t make the cut.
The candidates are sent through a number of language and personality assessments, technical skill reviews, and test projects. Most tests are conducted over Skype. Some platforms also take advantage of automated algorithm tests. When the candidate finally gets into the network, they’re expected to maintain a good track record while working with clients.
You as a client will be vetted too. You must have a clear understanding of what your requirements are, in addition to owning a budget of at least $5,000-$30,000 (depending on the platform). Once your application is approved, you will be matched with potential candidates usually within one or two weeks, depending on your requirements.
Keep in mind that these platforms often take a large cut, approximately 40 to 60 percent. In other words, if you’re paying $100 per hour, you’re probably working with a $50/h contractor. In return you get a nice safety net: if the contractor completely screws up, which is unlikely, the platform will hopefully reimburse you, and match you with a new candidate as soon as possible.
The main advantage of these platforms is that you can expect to get matched with competent candidates. Still, it’s important to manage your expectations properly.
While it’s true that the majority of candidates who apply to these platforms don’t make the cut, that’s because anyone can apply, and most applicants are sub-par anyways. Also take into account that the very best people won’t bother applying to such platforms in the first place. They’re already earning hefty amounts without the help of middlemen.
The truth is that most professionals use these platforms because they don’t enjoy searching for clients and tracking down payments. Others use them to generate part-time additional income. There are exceptions, but in general, don’t expect candidates to be super proactive and invested in the success of your business. You’re here to exchange dollars for hours of work.
That being said, these platforms are still an excellent option for many. Especially if you need to fill a position temporarily, or if you’re in a hurry and you don’t want to take unnecessary risks.
Price: Varied | $1,000-$20,000 or more per week ($25-$500 per hour)
Talent quality: From barely competent to best in business
Failure rate: Moderate to low
Time spent to find a candidate: Moderate
Disadvantage: You often can’t pick the exact people you’ll work with
Advantage: Relatively safe and reliable if you do some research before hiring
Agencies and similar businesses are essentially just groups of people. The quality of their output depends on the quality of their teams. Most of these businesses tend to juggle several clients at once, which means that you often can’t pick the people you’ll work with. An agency might assign you to their inexperienced junior team, or whomever else that isn’t busy with more important clients. Keep that in mind before signing the contract.
They also tend to take on as much work as they possibly can, which often leads to teams having to regularly switch between working with different clients. Not all agencies operate like this, but a lot of them have to in order to survive. They have to make payroll every month while dealing with variable cash flows in an ultra competitive market. Ask for a guarantee that the same team will work on your project for it’s entirety.
You should generally avoid huge agencies and focus on finding a smaller 1-5 person shop that doesn’t outsource to weaker teams. Smaller shops will often be at full capacity, but they should be kind enough to introduce you to another shop from their peer network.
Price: Modest | $50,000-$200,000 or more per year ($25-$100 per hour)
Talent quality: Mostly competent
Failure rate: Moderate
Time spent to find a candidate: High
Disadvantage: It often costs money to post a job, it’s time consuming
Advantage: No middlemen, direct relationship with candidates
Job boards are mostly used to fill full-time positions within companies. Don’t use them for short-term engagements, for example if you need someone to build you a quick prototype.
There’s not much to say about this category. You post the job, then candidates get in touch with you. You can expect to deal with people of various skill levels and salary expectations. It can be quite a lengthy process hiring someone this way, as no candidates are pre-vetted, and everyone will submit their CV, portfolio, and other materials in different formats.
Keep in mind that most job boards charge monthly fees, for example, WeWorkRemotely charges $299 for 30 days. However, you won’t be paying the middlemen throughout the whole engagement which is a huge plus. In the long run, both you and the candidate will be better off.
Disadvantage: You will have to talk with tons of people, no guarantees
Advantage: You might meet interesting folks and receive valuable feedback
The internet is brimming with communities and message boards filled with tech professionals of all sorts. Why not visit those places and see what people have to say?
Every now and then I’ll receive a message on Reddit in relation to a comment I made. For example, two years ago I wrote about cultural differences between consultancies from different countries. Just last month someone messaged me and wanted to pick my brain. It turned out they were looking for talent to help them develop a minimum viable product, and use it to get some investors on their side. My team wasn’t interested in taking on another project at the time, but we had a nice chat about their business. I then introduced them to another consultant from my network. We still keep in touch, and their prototype is now coming along very nicely.
Hackernews is a great place to start snooping. It’s relatively diverse and filled with folks from all over the world. People who contribute to discussions in such communities usually love what they do — and that’s a huge plus right from the get-go.
Search for topics related to your interest and look for insightful comments. You can check out people’s profiles and their comment histories. Once you find someone interesting you can send them a private message and introduce yourself, ask for advice, or do whatever else you think is the best move.
If you’re in a hurry and you know exactly what your requirements are, use an exclusive platform. Just keep in mind that they’re taking a huge cut, and continue looking for a better long-term solution.
If you’re willing to wait, and you’re looking to fill a long-term position, post the job on a few job boards. You’ll have a direct relationship with candidates, and everyone will save money by keeping the middlemen at bay.
If you’ve never been involved in product development before, try visiting tech community boards and ask for advice there. You’ll probably find someone willing to lend you a hand.
Agencies, consultancies and development shops can help with most engagements, but the quality of their output varies wildly. Make sure you do proper research before hiring.
Open-market platforms are best left for low-ranking nonessential tasks. Try to avoid them if you’re looking to build a relatively complex piece of software.