I have been a TopTal Software Engineer for two years, Ask Me Anything!

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With a strong tailwind of practical experience, tremendous passion, and a newborn baby I founded my company ModernUp in 2015 with one goal in mind: to help startups and early growth-stage companies get to market fast.

However, keeping my schedule full (and money coming in the door) became an early challenge. I worked hard on finding unique ways to work with new clients, and came across TopTal while browsing LinkedIn.

Shortcut to two years later and I've booked thousands of hours with TopTal across multiple projects. Ask away!

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Thank you for taking the time to do this! A couple questions if I may:

What's been your experience with working across time zones? Do you generally work with clients close to your own time zone or are you expected to work whatever hours the client requires?

For instance, with TopTal if you lived in Hawaii, would you be expected to attend a 9AM EST Standup if that's where your client was located?

Thanks!

 

I have worked with clients in my timezone (EST) and on the opposite side of the world (Qatar which is +8 hours). For everyone involved, it's usually better to be in a close timezone but it's ultimately up to the engineer and company. In my case, the client in Qatar had flexible hours to work around my schedule so I didn't feel much of an impact.

What's great about TopTal is they often post timezone and overlap requirements with the job description. For instance, a job posting might say PDT and requires at at least 4 hours in "overlap" (meaning the company and candidate must overlap 4 hours work each day).

I have never turned down (or been turned down) for a job because of timezone with TopTal -- hopefully that helps answer your question!

 
 

Thanks for taking time to answer questions!

I've had some really bad experiences with some other freelancer platforms like Upwork, where there are fake middlemen, super low bids forcing you out of the job (then same job being listed a month later due to failures etc.),
Accounts being frozen because of bidding to often! Haha, I can't build a website for $2.

So, how do you rate your user experience on TopTal vs. the other platforms?

 

Me too! Those networks are free-for-alls and it's all about first touch points. I remember back in the day there was a project on UpWork (from a developer) who wanted to build a bot to auto-bid on new projects (facepalm)

Back to TopTal, it's a much better experience from the talent (engineer) side. I set my availability and TopTal recruiters (who are full time employees) work to match my skillset to open positions. It's a mix of pro-active (I submit a request to learn more about a job posting) and re-active (recruiter actively reaches out to me about a job posting).

 

Haha, that's funny!! Yes, so you know exactly!
I almost gave up the idea of freelancing after that fiasco.

So, that approach sounds a lot better.
Do you build a relationship with 'your' recruiter or is it a team that helps you?

 

Toptal still uses those horrendous algorithm tests akin to codewars, how do you think that is a fair technical test?

 

With TopTal, I went through two rounds of technical assessments: an algorithm test and then a small project build.

I personally despise algorithm tests. They are are impractical, too academic, and not a great measure of real-world skills. But, they do provide an interesting backdoor into your thought processes, requirements gathering, and communication skills.

Ultimately... I bombed mine.

However, I understood the problem and talked through how I approached it. At the end, I felt the interviewer was more interested in my attempt than my code.

 

Okay, interesting that they would still talk to you after failing the test. I dropped it as soon as I saw they had an algo test. At least you're getting great jobs from the platform, congrats!

 

What are some of the advantages of working with an organization like Toptal? Disadvantages?

What sort of screening process did it take to become an Engineer at Toptal, and what recommendations would you have for someone interested in doing the same as yourself?

 

What are some of the advantages of working with an organization like Toptal? Disadvantages?

The advantages are plenty, but I will mention two that are most important to me. First, there is an abundance of really great jobs. I have worked on projects with clients from around the world in industries that I would have not be able to break into. It's radically different than other freelance sites like UpWork in that TopTal recruiters work diligently to match your skillsets with a specific role. There's literally is a team of very qualified recruiters who work with you to find the right role. And second, I have never had an issue with payments. TopTal handles all client billings and simply deposits the money directly to your bank account.

One disadvantage is that it can take a bit of time to land your first client. Beyond the initial vetting process, each job usually has 2-3 candidates applying for each position and you need to really stand out in your client interview. Being that you are a part of the "top 3%", that means you are in the company of really smart people.

What sort of screening process did it take to become an Engineer at Toptal, and what recommendations would you have for someone interested in doing the same as yourself?

The screening process was very thorough. Initially, I had two conversations about my experience/background and what I wanted to get out of my relationship with TopTal. Next was a series of technical interviews that were challenging, but fair.

If you are interested in TopTal, then I would suggest applying. Be ready to answer questions around why you feel TopTal is the right fit for you and what you want to get out of the relationship.

 
  • Given that you have your company (I guess it's a software factory-like company), do you use TopTal to bring projects/work-hours for your company or just for projects where you (and only you) will be working on?

  • How much is the price/hour rate average that projects in TopTal use to give?

 

All TopTal contracts are with me personally. They do not include any of my subcontractors.

Your hourly rate is set within the TopTal ecosystem and jobs are billed at the rate. Your initial rate is a combination of many factors, including experience, but you have full control of what you want to charge.

 

What do you think if dev.to offered you the capacity to list yourself as a contractor/consultant, and folks could find you through the site and get the low down via your profile?

I've had this idea in the back of my mind for a while, wondering what your opinion on something like this would be, given that your experience.

 

It's tough without a significant investment in vetting engineers. I have been a part of many networks where it's a free-for-all and often times my profile was lost in a sea of less-qualified engineers.

Looking at it from a job poster perspective, it can be hard to really drill down to the most qualified engineers. About 1/2 of my new clients (through ModernUp, not TopTal) come to me due to a really bad experience with a previous engineer or dev shop they found at one of the common freelancer sites.

However, dev.to can use follower count, articles, etc as a proxy to experience/knowledge. That would also encourage someone like me to post more frequently if it meant being able do distinguish myself to drive new business.

 

Are you going to go for any AWS Certifications after your Solution Architect Associate?

 

I passed the Associate exam a few years ago and was planing on taking the Professional shortly thereafter. I still want to advance to Professional but haven’t had the time.

Honestly, you can’t go wrong with any of the AWS Certifications. It’s a great learning experience and forced me to touch many services I didn’t have a ton of practical knowledge about.

 

All the associates have changed dramatically from the last 6 months and so have the Pro's just recently changes as well so there would be more learning up to do if you go for Pro.

I was like you where I built web-apps but I departed from that last year to just focus on building educational content and I decided on AWS to by my focus.

I was curious to ask since you're a senior tech and wondered what you valued because I don't see as many people with web-dev full-stackers with AWS Certifications at least not up here in Canada.

Solution Architect Pro study is tricky not because it's hard but you have to take the exam in a window of time where you remember enough factoids. You sit on that knowledge for 2 weeks and then it's gone. You're good enough to be Pro but a current failing in the Pro Certification.

The reason I never TopTal myself was because of algorithms. I can not hold that information in my head because the practical use of building web-apps rarely need them and I only ever see them in an interview like processes.

When I got far enough with my AWS videos I was considering to a video walkthrough out of Cracking the coding interview so I can just have proof I can do it but simply can't hold it in memory long enough for it ever be of practical use.

I value my certification and I think it gives me a significant advantage when selling myself. However, the certification alone isn't enough. It's more the icing on the cake where I can sell my experience then back it up with the cert that shows a general understanding of the platform.

It's becoming increasingly harder for full stack developers to distinguish themselves. Just follow some tutorials online and BAM -- you can say you know how to deploy applications to the cloud.

With regard to algorithms, my sense is that TopTal uses them to get a glimpse into how you think. Candidly, I failed miserably at an algorithm test TopTal gave me but I was able to clearly explain myself and walk through the (horrendous) code snippets I did write.

Ultimately, if you have practical experience using AWS, it's easier to pass the exam. Most of the esoteric questions on the exam I was able to answer because I had experienced the edge cases myself. I scored 92% on the Associates and would say I could've scored 75% with no prep. (not a brag, but just some context about experience being a big factor in passing)!

 
  • Are you TOP 3%? What does it feel like to be top 3%?
  • What happened to your business after you joined TopTal?
  • Do you see yourself with TopTal another 2 years?
 

Are you TOP 3%? What does it feel like to be top 3%?

I hope so. Lolz. I have 15+ years in practical experience with full stack engineering so I have a track record of success that I lean on frequently. Being a part of TopTal is a badge of honor, so to speak. It's nice being a part of an organization that is focused on really great talent.

What happened to your business after you joined TopTal?

I split my time between TopTal and ModernUp. Most of my work comes directly through my business and I use TopTal to fill the gaps in my schedule.

Do you see yourself with TopTal another 2 years?

Absolutely.

 

What level of experience should i have before registering for toptal

 

That's a hard question because experience can be measured differently. I would suggest applying and seeing if it's a good fit for you. The recruiters are really candid and fair, so you should receive that feedback from them pretty quickly.

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