He came to oDesk because he had a unique problem: a client in Long Beach, Ca., requested integration with a legacy system, and the system — a VAX mainframe — had become so rare that there are very few programmers left who can write code for it. Olson needed someone who both knew VAX and had the newer networking and application development skills the project required. Even with nearly 120,000 providers on oDesk, it took awhile to find the right person. But find him they did, in Florida. So, remotely, a Florida provider worked for a North Carolina company serving a California client, and everyone was happy. (You can read the whole story here.)
Q: Since that initial project, have you continued to hire oDesk providers — and for what?
A: We've begun to start. We're looking to outsource odd jobs, tasks that we don't have skill sets for internally. First, we ask whether we have the skill sets in house for this. If not, we look at oDesk. Second, is this a one-time change? If it is, we look at oDesk.
Q: At this point, are you regularly relying on the same providers, or do you find yourself hiring from scratch as each project arises?
A: Honestly, hiring from scratch. We go after specialists, not generalists, so we need to find new folks often.
Q: Your product includes the ability to monitor the work developers do on a project, much the way oDesk allows buyers to look at providers' work in progress through the Work Diary. As software creates new levels of transparency in the workplace, what are the key challenges that come along with that change?
A: The number one challenge is the cultural challenge posed by full transparency. The second challenge is educating people on interpretation of the data. Facts empower better decision-making, but you have to understand that these facts can be distorted or taken out of context to make poor decisions. It's important, like with any data, to be smart and look at the whole picture.
Q: With the economy in such turmoil, do you find yourself planning to turn over more work to outsourced workers, or to minimize such projects entirely until the economy clears up?
A: I definitely think we'll look to outsource where it makes sense. Hiring a full-time person is a huge commitment for a small company and reduces flexibility. Outsourcing provides flexibility and the ability to be more creative in the sourcing of activities.
Q: What recommendations do you have for buyers moving forward in this downturn?
A: First, evaluate your technology needs and see what people you currently have who are absolutely critical and cannot be replaced. For all else, evaluate whether outsourcing makes sense. In the past, I had good people who simply weren't fully utilized. This is a great opportunity to use something like oDesk. Having a full-time employee and paying benefits for 10 hours a week of work isn't wise.
Second, don't shy away from business opportunities due to lack of skills. Often, folks will say, "It will take forever to hire someone with those specific skills," and they'll decide to turn down business that requires a unique skill set. Honestly, I never thought I'd be able to support the VAX legacy system the customer requested. I was fully prepared to fail. I was really surprised when I found more than one possible resource on oDesk.
In an economy like this, the companies that respond best to customer needs will do the best.
Q: What advice do you have for providers looking to continue their freelance success in the face of the current downturn?
A: Continue to work hard on broadening and deepening skill sets. It's absolutely survival of the fittest. I think most customers want the absolute best possible resource. Being just another PHP developer or something is not as attractive as being one who has a larger variety of skills, strong certifications, etc.
Q: What would be your top tip to providers on how to better present themselves in responding to a job post?
A: List all your skills, even the ones you think are niche or legacy. You never know when someone may be looking for that specific skill set.
Q: What's the most important lesson you've learned as a buyer, in how attract or select the best applicants?
A: Be specific in your requests. Conduct a detailed interview and ask how the applicant will solve the problem. Make sure there's a plan in place and that the individual understands what they are getting in to. The number one cause of failure in any software project is poor requirements. The better you can think about and document what you want, the better the experience will be.