Even for organizations with a stellar full-time IT staff, situations often arise where temporary outside help is needed. A big Web project might demand a few extra programmers to meet a tough deadline, for example, or a rollout of tools to support a sales force bent on capturing a broader market may require expertise not available in-house.
That's when contractors come in. With job losses and uncertain economic times the new norm, independent contractors are on the rise in the U.S. In 2009, the number of U.S. freelancers in all fields stood at 12 million, according to market research firm IDC. That number is expected to reach 14 million by 2015.
At the same time, companies, including those in IT, are facing new challenges employing independent workers due to federal and state initiatives enacted over the past few years that aggressively pursue "worker misclassification." In the government's eyes, organizations that employ contract workers on a long-term and full-time basis without paying benefits or taxes should, in fact, be classifying those workers as employees -- with all the privileges that status entails.
The result? "Companies are really shying away from the independents," says Cynthia Moore, co-founder of VMS Professionals, an association that discusses best practices for hiring and managing contract workers. Businesses, especially large, conservative enterprises, are now erring on the side of caution and avoiding independent contract hires even for short-term work -- "which is a shame because there are a lot more independents out there who are qualified," she says.
These factors are opening up a highly skilled and work-hungry IT talent pool for small and midsize businesses that need outside contractors on a short-term basis or seek to test talent before they hire full-time.
One obvious way to get short-term help is to contract with a large IT staffing agency, as some companies, particularly larger organizations, do. But it's entirely possible to hire talented contractors on your own. A host of websites help these pros advertise their services, secure paying work and develop ongoing relationships with clients. For employers and business owners, these sites can be excellent sources of high-quality IT talent if you know how and where to look -- and if you're willing to pay fairly for the talent you seek.
While some employers use freelance sites to get rock-bottom hourly rates from contractors, that practice can burn you, says Mike Cline, CEO of Tech Guys Who Get Marketing, an IT firm that regularly employs freelance tech contractors through online resources. "You always get what you pay for. That is so often overlooked when employers are looking to hire," he says.
If you have a clear definition of the skills and knowledge you need and a willingness to pay for top talent, sites that pool freelance talent can help you complete key projects on deadline and on budget. The following are the best resources on the market for finding and recruiting high-quality IT contractors, according to Cline and other managers who use them regularly.
When you're looking for a large pool of talent with a varied skill set, few sites feature more breadth than oDesk. While the site's workforce-for-hire comprises everything from market researchers to accountants, many of its contractors specialize in technical skills including software and Web development, network and systems administration and tech support.
Employers post a job on oDesk's boards, detailing the scope of work and the level of pay. Freelancers who have signed up with oDesk then apply for the job, much as they would on any other job site. The employer sifts through the applications, chooses one and hires the worker through the oDesk interface, allowing the contractor to get started immediately, if need be. The employer pays oDesk, which pays the worker, taking a 10% cut of the contractor's wages.
oDesk's scope and work verification system make it an attractive destination for employers and contractors alike.
Both employers and contractors receive ratings that help all parties determine how much experience they have and how well they work, making it much easier to weed out subpar workers and ornery clients. Contractors must complete skill tests to prove their competency in key subject matter -- anything from PHP5 to Photoshop, HTML or MySQL -- if an employer requires it.
While employers can pay contractors per project or hourly, hourly work is where oDesk really shines. The site uses a Work Diary to track and record exactly what a contractor is working on. The contractor must log in before he or she works on the project, and the record is automatically sent to the employer when the contractor logs out -- ensuring that contractors aren't billing you for time spent Web surfing or chatting with friends.
Joining oDesk, posting jobs and conducting interviews is free for employers; it's also free for contractors to sign up with the service, post profiles and apply for jobs. For projects that meet certain conditions including using the Work Diary software, oDesk offers a work guarantee for employers as well as a payment guarantee for workers.
Formerly Rent-a-Coder, vWorker features a host of freelancers specializing in everything from data entry to Web design, with a concentration of programmers and other technology workers. As at other freelancing sites, employers post a job and contractors submit bids for the work. The site is free to use for both workers and employers. Like oDesk, vWorker takes a percentage of the worker's wages, ranging from 6.5% to 15%, depending on the type of project.
At vWorker you can search for contractors according to a number of parameters including location and ranking.
Offering both money-back guarantees for employers and payment guarantees for workers, the site wins major points for trust and transparency. Contractors are encouraged to install AccuTimeCard software, which tracks worker hours and gives employers the option to examine screenshots from the worker's desktop during billed hours. There's even the ability to take in the view from the worker's webcam while he's logged into the application. An arbitration system allows workers and employers to settle any disputes over project payment, with vWorker as moderator.
Perhaps even more important, the site addresses a major problem with freelancing websites: misrepresentation of skills, knowledge and commitment to a project. No site can guarantee that workers will accurately represent themselves all of the time, and most employers using these sites will have some hits and misses. But when a hard project deadline is looming and you need to make sure you get it right the first time, vWorker's Expert Guarantee can help. Serious applicants for projects with tight deadlines can put down a percentage of the bid amount as a security deposit. If the project is not completed to the employer's exact specifications 100% on time, the worker loses her deposit and the job.
Easy to use with a sleek interface, Guru is an aesthetically pleasing option. But it provides substance as well as style, offering developers for an array of languages and environments, from .NET to Drupal.
Posting a project is quick and easy at Guru.
Guru operates the same way as the other sites in the roundup. The site offers great collaboration tools for employers, workers and other team members to stay on task once projects begin, including the ability to share files up to 100 megabytes in size.
Featuring many of the same verification strategies as other sites on the market, Guru profiles give employers a decent idea of how skilled potential applicants are. Worker descriptions, key skills and reviews from past jobs aid the vetting process. Also a welcome feature, Guru provides project suggestions to freelancers based on their reported skill set -- helping the best candidates for the job find your project easily.
Guru also offers a Premium Proposal feature that allows freelancers to appear first in the list of applicants for your project. This placement doesn't mean the contractor has more skills or is better suited to your project than other bidders, but submitting a Premium Proposal does require the freelancer to use multiple available bids, which demonstrates his eagerness to commit to your particular project. (story continues on next page)
3 golden rules for hiring IT contractors online
Tech Guys Who Get Marketing CEO Mike Cline regularly hires tech contractors online. He shares these three tips for choosing the right candidate for the job:
1. Pay close attention to your hire's background. Sometimes, professional outsourcing companies based in foreign countries attempt to masquerade as a single individual on a freelance site, bidding at an absurdly low price. Check the pedigree and personal description of a potential hire carefully to make sure you're getting an independent person with a solid work background.
2. Your results are only as good as your ad. You're hiring IT professionals, not mind readers. Unclear or unspecific job advertisements on any of these sites may attract the wrong type of talent or individuals without enough expertise. That can dramatically draw out the hiring process and reduce the effectiveness of using these sites.
Go over your job advertisement with a fine-toothed comb before your post it. Be sure to include specific areas of expertise that you want from contractors, years of experience that you want contractors to have and exactly what you expect them to do for you if they get hired.
3. You get what you pay for. This rule can't be emphasized enough -- but it is easy to forget when visiting online freelance marketplaces. While very basic tasks may be suitable for outsourcing to low-cost workers, you'll generally find that IT pros who submit bids to work for two dollars an hour are going to give you just that: work worth two dollars an hour.
When it comes to application testing, uTest puts a nice spin on this essential part of the software lifecycle: The firm crowdsources it. Employing vetted testers, uTest offers a variety of testing, from functional testing to usability, security and load testing, for any Web, desktop or mobile application you can dream up.
uTest offers testing services for everything from load testing to localization testing.
Once you hire uTest, the company hands the task to its pool of testers, who then provide feedback, ratings, bug reports and two-way communication with you throughout the testing cycles.
While uTest provides highly skilled IT testers, that's all it provides. You won't find any of the batch offerings of others on this list, but you do get a critical service on the cheap. And because testing has a choppy demand curve, requiring zero testers one month and 20 the next, it's an ideal function to outsource.
The service is especially attractive for small businesses that can't afford to hire in-house testers: uTest says it offers functional, unlimited testing for a year, on-demand and at about half the cost of employing a full-time QA analyst (at a median entry-level salary of $47,000 a year, according to Salary.com). However, prices do vary depending on the complexity of the application, as well as the type and frequency of the testing required. Other pricing packages exist for non-functional testing, some of which are offered on a per-project basis.
IT staffing firms
Freelancer sites can help you find workers with the skills you need, but they don't always come through if you're looking for someone with experience in your particular industry. "Let's say you want a Java programmer who is experienced in the banking industry," says Mark Roberts, CEO of TechServe Alliance, a consortium of IT firms, vendors and consultants. "To go try to find that person if you are not an expert in that subject area can be quite challenging."
That's why Roberts recommends going to a traditional IT staffing firm, even for short-term contract work. While staffing firms don't bring the same speed and ease-of-use to the table as websites that pool freelancers, they can be more reliable and add more value to the process, he says. "[IT staffing firms] have a database of folks who have been successful before. They can actually tailor the particular search to a client's needs."
That doesn't mean every IT staffing firm is golden, says Roberts. Look for firms that have been in business for a while and always be sure they have the expertise to find the particular skill set you need, along with the track record to back it up. As in many cases, numbers tell the real story: Ask how many times the firm has placed someone with the specific skill set and industry experience you're looking for.
Research firm Inavero runs the nation's only award competition that honors staffing firms with exceptional customer reviews. This year's awards are a good place to start if you're looking for staffing expertise. Notable IT staffing firms on the list include Apex Systems Inc., TEKsystems Inc. and Analysts International Corp..
Projects that require contract work give you an opportunity to leverage the large amounts of for-hire contract IT talent out there. If you follow the tips above, not only will you get a worker who does your company proud, but you might even find someone you want to bring on board permanently.
Read more about outsourcing in Computerworld's Outsourcing Topic Center.