Hackernoon logoMy Experience With TopTal: Unpaid Labor and Second Chances by@Cheopys

My Experience With TopTal: Unpaid Labor and Second Chances

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@CheopysChris Fox

remote developer / technical writer living in Vietnam

How I Started

TopTal is an agency that matches freelancing IT workers with clients. Most of the work is remote, which gives them an advantage for those of us who either live abroad or have had our fill of open offices, cubicles, commutes, methodologies and interruptions. I signed up with TopTal because of this and had several good placements.

I had taught myself iOS and sold several of my applications on the Apple store. None sold very well; a few were picked up as recommendations in their categories and those made me coffee money but none of the ones I expected to sell well did so. I’m not a marketeer and didn’t have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on promotion. But those submissions served as a portfolio and I had several clients through TopTal writing iPhone applications. These went well.

TopTal checked in with me occasionally and I got paid, though my deposits came an unreasonable three weeks after the period of my timesheet. They gave me implausible excuses for this.

Then I had my first bad client and saw the company from a new light.

First Impressions

TopTal places all kinds of Top Talent but most of it is in information technology. So going to their site one would expect to see pictures of people sitting with laptops and appearing focused on their work. Instead you see pictures of people smiling at the camera, no work in sight. Everyone is smiling, and one might think they were marketing fashion models. It does not look professional; it looks commercial.

How It Works

TopTal posts jobs and seeks applicants. Sometime we freelancers can select the jobs, sometimes TopTal’s “matchers” contact us to recommend we apply for open jobs. There is a skill-matching that highlights the job description requirements and the freelancer’s listed skills, but it is not well done.

Qualified applicants (more on this later) are submitted to clients and if it is to proceed (in TopTal parlance, “move forward”) then there is an interview and a two week trial engagement. We file timesheets and if the client decides not to continue the engagement the freelancer is paid half what he has earned at hourly rate. This seems reasonable.

What is not reasonable, not at all reasonable, is that TopTal’s markup is not the 20–30% I was accustomed to as dash-trash at Microsoft. TopTal marks up a full 100%; if I am getting paid $50 per hour the client is billed $100 per hour. We are not supposed to know this, but one of my clients told me how much he was paying by way of expressing his dissatisfaction with the pace of my work.

This is not only excessive but it starts the relationship on a bad footing; at these rates the client is not content with merely excellent work but has superhuman expectations, he expects miracles. Literally.

First Bad Signs

In 2015 I took a job through TopTal with a client in Croatia writing applications for credit card scanners. These were made by a Chinese company called PAX and they are universal here in Vietnam. The tools and software for developing PAX application are like going back 30 years. They are terrible; setting up a debugging session requires eight manual steps and four times out of five it simply doesn’t work, and even when it does it unaccountably stops working very soon. What would have taken an hour in a reliable IDE could take three days with PAX software, and their English documentation left out a lot of important information.

Making progress was a tiresome slog and since this client was paying TopTal twice what TopTal was paying me they quickly became impatient and adversarial. Then I would get something working and we would be cordial again, and it was during one of the nasty times that I learned about the 100% markup.

TopTal was only slightly helpful at this time and clearly sided with the client in all disagreements.

Things Go Bad

Then came the month when after waiting the inexplicable three weeks I was not paid. The money never showed up in my account. I contacted my TopTal liaison (we used Skype back then) and he informed me that the client had not paid yet. They had not seen fit to tell me this.

The client said that he had paid.

One of them was lying. TopTal wasn’t very interested in pursuing this, and in the end I was never paid for 160 hours that had seen a lot of progress and the change from SSL to TLS. Nobody at TopTal contested that I had worked the hours, and they had made a lot of profit from me but they never paid me, and just didn’t care.

I don’t remember if I was paid again but the relationship with the client deteriorated and they started making threats and giving ultimatums; I told them where they could stick their threats and quit the contract. I was also disgusted with TopTal and forgot about them for over three years.

The Return and the End

I had server work for a California startup for almost three years. I was writing in ASP.NET and C#. But a newly hired tech lead was an incompetent and a liar and both we developers left the company. I decided to see if TopTal had gotten any better.

I contacted both my former liaisons on Skype; neither was working there anymore. And they were very close-mouthed about why. Reviews on Glassdoor spoke of some big management shakeup and a huge turnover in staff.

I quickly landed a gig as a technical writer and this time things went very well. From application to hire in 48 hours. Months of work beginning with a good knowledge transfer, good times.

The contract only ended because the client had lost so much business to COVID and had to cut expenses, but there were no problems and I got paid.

To Hell With This

I took another job doing cryptography for a British company, not through TopTal, and when that was finished I went back to them looking for more work.

I wanted to get back into mobiles; while working on my ASP.NET and technical writing jobs I had learned Swift on iOS though I had never been paid to use Swift. For a senior developer (three decades in my case) a new software language is not a challenge. I would think TopTal would understand that since they claim to work with the best talent.

But time and time again the “matchers” would not submit me for jobs I was perfectly qualified for because of insignificant gaps in experience; I had written a dozen solid applications in Objective C but since I had no work experience in Swift the matcher would shrivel up and send me a bullshit email that the job had been “canceled.” I have learned new languages for work many times and I knew enough Swift to get to work. I had the REST, I had the SQL, I knew iOS and XCode.

The Last Straw

Then another technical writing job came along on TopTal, and once again I was hired almost immediately. But this one was not like the first; the company’s web site offered no clue what services they offered. That should have alerted me. I had an interview, with video for some reason, and got the job. The first day was a video conference, since I was one of three starting that day. A solid hour of buzz, agile/scrum nonsense, nothing tangible at all, and still I had no idea what kind of work they were doing except that it involved both AWS and Azure. I was given a long list of tools to install and pointed to a task list in Asana, and told that they wanted three documents done by the end of the week.

(pause)

They didn’t tell me anything about their project. There was no knowledge transfer whatsoever. One of my tasks was a regulatory submission, which they needed “ASAP”; you don’t hurry those things, lie to a government agency and you can get into real trouble.

One of my tasks was to document their use of the cloud services, I was not even given URLs, much less logins.

Nothing.

And when I asked for a knowledge transfer the manager acted irritated and put out; I posted dozens on questions on Slack, which appeared to be the main channel of communication of the eight (!) they used. Not a single response.

It was a race; would I quit before they fired me or would I get fired first? On the third day one of their developers introduced me to their cloud service usage; I still didn’t have accounts but now I could at least start. But a few scant hours later the manager was demanding a first draft, with LucidChart diagrams.

The company won the race. They said I had skipped the daily standup (I had declined it; the pace of others’ progress was of no value to my work) and pulled the plug. Months later I was paid at half my rate for the hours I had filed.

This gig was complete bullshit. I talked to TopTal about how the company had given me nothing to work with except, on my third day, an hour conversation with nowhere near enough actual detail. TopTal took the “two sides to every story” evasion, refused to acknowledge the fact that the company had dropped the ball.

Goodbye

I went back to applying for development jobs. Same as before, like throwing bottles with messages into into the ocean.

TopTal issues a lot of warnings and threats about discussing salaries, or circumventing TopTal to take jobs with clients introduced by them; this is perfectly understandable given that their markup is so high that companies probably know they can save a lot by cutting TopTal out of the relationship. And they clearly don’t want freelancers to know about the disgraceful 100% markup.

Then I heard from some management types about “feedback,” of which there was none to speak of, just more of the same ridiculously cautious “two sides” BS. They refused to take a stand with me that the company had not done its part to enable my writing, and when I wrote TopTal about the unprofessional tone of their communications (“reach out” instead of “contact”; "move forward" instead of "proceed"; smile-people instead of intent workers) that was the end. I no longer work for TopTal.

TopTal and Glassdoor

If you’ve ever researched a company using Glassdoor reviews you what it means when all the reviews are either five stars or one star. The five stars are company plants and all have suspiciously similar wording; just look at reviews of Microsoft and how often “Satya’s vision” appears in the glowing reviews with nothing bad whatsoever to say about the company, when everyone who has worked at Microsoft knows that their greatness has been gone for thirty years.

A lot of the negative reviews about TopTal talk about a hyper-aggressive CEO; I know nothing about its management but the rest all resonates. A lot of developers talk about going unpaid, about toxic relationships with clearly unvetted clients. Both freelancers and TopTal employees have high turnover.

Conclusion

TopTal is tempting because remote work is the rule and has been for years before the pandemic. This is the only good thing about working for them, a sentiment echoed in the Glassdoor reviews.

Run away. Don’t go to Upwork unless you want to work for Third World wages but TopTal may not pay you at all.

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