I get asked all the time whether or not using an outsourcing middleman website like Odesk, RentaCoder, or elance rates a try or not. I have to admit that the thought has crossed my mind before. I have even had conversations with people who have had a go at Odesk and Elance. I’m not sure about RentaCoder, but I don’t like the name any more than I like the phrase “staff augmentation”. My preferences aside, I think that these outsourcing middleman sites can be helpful under certain circumstances. Unfortunately, most people are not in a position to make the most of these circumstances. Keep reading and I will elaborate further on this.
Earlier this year a friend in the Washington area PHP community introduced me to Owen Byrne who is perhaps the most celebrated elancer of all time. Note that elancer needs to update their account as Owen has since moved on from Elance (all about that here on another Washington area entrepreneur’s blog). The thing I can say about Owen is that his peers think of him as a solid guy and as a solid software engineer. I’m not privy to the methods that the guys from Digg used to interview him, but I would say that there is a pretty good chance that would have simply been willing to roll the dice after having a conversation with him. However things went down, Digg ended up in a pretty good place.
Whether it was luck or a good interview process doesn’t really matter. When the average person off the street considers using a one of these middleman get a coder to do work for me sites the odds are not in their favor. Even if they were in a position to pay for someone to do work for them via one of these sites, they would not be in a position to evaluate the quality of the work or the person until after much time has gone by. This puts them in a precarious position. So the first circumstance that I would like to point out is that before you run off and start using a site like this, you should at least have a technical enough background to set up a good interview. If you are not a techie then you need to find someone who can be that technical person who guides your search. In other words, you need to hire someone as a consultant to help you evaluate people through a site like elance.
So start off by finding yourself a techie if you are not one, and wait until you have one one the hook before you begin your outsourcing adventure. I’ll describe how to find one in just a moment, but for now just know that you are going to end up spending around $500-1000 bucks. Someone who likes you might charge much less so keep in mind that the first person who offers to take your money is not necessarily the best person to be your guide.
So how can you find someone? There are tons of good places. Don’t assume that you have to go through a middle man site – not even Craigslist – to find someone good. If you are looking for some help the best place for you to start would be attending your local developer user group. If you are not a techie then you will probably be bored to tears for parts of it so bring a book or something to read. I was a developer, then got out of it for a while, but then got back into the mix. When I first got back in I had a lot of learning to do before everything being said at user groups was making sense. Some things are still over my head.
Attending a developer user group is a lot like learning a new language. Don’t let this intimidate you though. Developers are usually easy going and if you attend a user group meeting or two you will probably be asked to join them afterward for beers or just for conversation. Take the time to get to know them and tell them what you are looking for. You will learn a lot and might even meet someone who can help.
There are some important decisions to make before you go to a user group. In the Washington area there are a ton of them. All user groups are not created equal, but there is a pretty good chance that if you follow some simple rules that you will end up in the right place. The first major rule is that you should go to a user group that is for programmers, not for social media consultants and marketers. If you want to get your toe in the water without getting too far in I would recommend starting with Refresh DC. Refresh groups meet all over the country so a little google work can help you find one elsewhere if you are not local to the Washington area startup scene. Refresh is a great place to get the big picture, to meet some really good people, and to even get some insights from people there who are willing to share their insights over beers after the group’s monthly meetup. After you get your feet in the water you will want to check out a programmer user group meetup. If you are in the Washington area this is really a matter of choice and free time. Most programmer user groups meet monthly. There are groups that meet around downtown Washington, DC, out in Reston, VA, in Arlington, VA, in Columbia, MD, in Frederick, MD, and in Baltimore, MD. The biggest decision you will need to make is where to go first. The groups you probably want to check out first are the Ruby on Rails, Python / Django, and PHP user groups. Unless you have a specific reason to be using Java or C or C++ or some other language then these are a good place to start. I personally prefer Ruby on Rails, that is what I work with mostly, but Python and PHP are solid options too.
The big thing that you need to know before you start going to these groups is the difference between a programmer and a CMS developer. CMS stands for Content Management System. Examples of CMS systems are WordPress, Drupal, and Joomla. If you are looking to build a custom application then you need to start off with a programmer in most cases, not a CMS developer. Just about any programmer you encounter can help you with a CMS, but they are going to be able to do a lot more. Often, people will try to make CMS systems do things that involve a lot of constraints and compromises that will add up over time. That said, there are some really valid uses for CMS systems for some startup ideas. An example of that is Groupon. Groupon started out as a WordPress site. It really depends on what you are trying to build. If you are not really well funded or in possession of a means for raising capital then you might want to consider starting off with something less ambitious initially. It worked for Groupon and it has worked for a lot of others. If you plan to build the next Facebook or Google there is no question here – you need a programmer, not a CMS Developer. Having the right developer as a consultant early on, even for a few hours, can help you work through what might make sense and what would not.
One thing that I have found to be true far more often than not is that when someone has a good idea that they are excited about, others will get excited too. Sometimes it takes a while before you find the others. Sometimes it is weeks, but more often than not it is months or years. If your budget is small then don’t feel like you have to rush – that is a very important detail. Take your time, find the right person or people to advise your early decisions, then learn to walk before you try to run. Once you have your ducks in a row, then figure out whether or not a particular outsourcing option is right for you.