You’re good. Way too good to be on UpWork.


When I left my previous company in 2014, I started out as an independent developer building mobile and web sites and apps.

I needed to find work. UpWork (formerly oDesk) was one of my first places to look.

So I read some job postings… stuff like this:

“I have created a store in magento. It is almost complete, but there are few small changes/features to be added. These are the tasks to be done:

– Create a menu “Sales” and add items in it. Also, explain, how to manage these items
– Replace Add to cart button with Buy now on products detail page and have a popup (Screenshot attached) displayed when clicked on this button.
– Add two more tabs with custom cms block on product details page.

Budget: $50

These are small tasks and would need a quick turnaround time, so please only bid if you are ready to start immediately and can complete in a day.

I’m thinking … Seems like a quick job … some open ended stuff in the description, but a quick job.

But for $50? What? Am I going to actually get my hands on their code, publish the changes, test it all out before and after launch, confirm the changes with the client, explain Magento products administration … for $50? This will easily take 5 or 6 hours when all is said and done.

Looking at it from the employer side… if I ran a successful e-commerce site myself, would I want to have someones hands all over my site for that little money? Even at 3rd world rates – it just doesn’t seem right. I’d want to pay enough that there was some counterbalance with the trust I placed in them (that they wouldn’t hack me, steal my e-commerce data, steal or SPAM my email list etc.)

So I went through (one of many) cycles of humiliation. The insecurity sets in. The competition appears to be much better/younger/talented than me. How can I possibly survive doing this? I live in the United States and have a family to support. Was I just spoiled by my past job? Maybe I’m too old, not good enough, etc.

Humble Pie

But then I start thinking…. is there a trick here? Maybe something going on behind the scenes. I started to hear that once you got your first job, more jobs would start to come in…

So I upgraded my profile. I applied for more jobs. I lowered my rates (again). Apply again. Nothing. So this is it … noone is interested in hiring with me, huh?

Now, I don’t claim to be the world’s best developer/IT person. There are many that are way better than I. But I know I’m very experienced, highly competent, dogged and extremely responsible. I’ve made a lot of clients really happy. I have a master’s degree from a top engineering school. I’ve “lived the Internet” for a long time, read Hacker News forever, wrote and read too many blogs to count. This has never been a part-time gig for me; this is a profession. Surely that’s worth something? I can’t find work in this climate, even after lowering my rates well below what most US developers earn? Seriously?

So I tried upping the ante a bit. I posted multiple times for jobs. I wrote my intro and then rewrote my intro.

Still noone interested. No requests for interviews.

But at the same time, I got to see the employer side. You see, I was also hiring some UpWork people as an employer. I was getting projects in more conventional ways (through friends mostly) and needed the help.

Here’s what I experienced on the employer side:

  • “Send me the requirements?” (always in broken English). This means the ball is immediately thrown in my court. Everything is expected to be “written out”, which really means “pre-planned”.
  • Developers with very little practical judgment about how to approach a problem.
  • Code is “thrown over a wall”, and promptly put into my court.
  • After 5 minutes of posting a job, you’ll get hundreds of requests to Skype interview etc. These people are super agressive, and not always what they say they are.
  • Lots of requests for “5 stars” at project completion.
  • UpWork is a place to introduce yourself and your work – not do work for an extended period of time. An introduction service, really.

Back on the worker side, I finally get a few emails came in offering to interview me. I quickly respond. But then no one at the company is reachable the entire day (and after that completely unreachable). Dead end.

I started questioning the premise that people asking for work on oDesk have successful sites/apps/projects etc.

Imagine you are a plumber during the day and have an “app idea” for a pipe fitting app. But you don’t want to put more than a few hundred dollars into it, and think you can build a product for a few hundred dollars.

What I’ve found is this:

  • Most Employers on UpWork have little or no experience maintaining software/web sites, etc.
  • Employers see low wages and think they can get in on the Internet’s gold rush – with little risk.
  • Most Employers have never developed a website/software or even hired someone before.
  • Most Employers will fail in their Internet venture.
  • Many developers with highly ranked profiles are simply gaming the system with tricks and illusion.
  • The UpWork experience isn’t what it appears to be. For many, it’s a gigantic waste of time – it would appear the time wasted is the employee, but the time wasted is really the employer’s.

On other fronts, the projects I found outside of UpWork started to grow in 2014 and 2015. The projects got bigger and people kept asking for more work. I was now able to invoice more and see real results.

I never got a single job on UpWork after spending probably 20 hours applying for projects.

And I’ve moved on. I’m still not completely sure what went wrong. I guess I could try to “game” the system, which seems to be how it’s done. But I’ll never try UpWork again, and I won’t bother to post jobs there either.

Since then, I’ve also confirmed what I (should have known) all along:

  • Trust is huge.
  • That real relationships are not commodities.
  • A developer can’t throw work over the fence at an employer who never wrote a line of code in their life (and expect a success)
  • That the quality of the employer is as important as the employee the success of the project.
  • Generally the client doesn’t know what they want. And that’s OK. But finding trusted experts who can guide you is where the value really is.

I guess I should have taken this advice re UpWork/Elance/oDesk – “It’s a battle you won’t win“.

For all my fellow developers out there, please don’t let this process discourage you. Give it a try. But …

You’re good. Way too good to be on UpWork.


Posted in Finding a Mobile/Web Developer