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Toptal? Only for limited definitions of “top” and “talent”

As mentioned before, I decided to give Toptal a look as a place to peddle my services online. The short review is in the title, the slightly longer review follows.

The Toptal site is essentially a walled garden that tries to exude exclusivity. Until you get past their screening process, though, you really have no idea if they will live up to the hype. I didn't have high hopes when I saw than none of the five developers featured at the top of their home page has gotten work through Toptal since at least 2014.

The first step of the screening process is fairly straightforward: a brief interview over Skype. What Toptal does right at this stage is using a peer to evaluate you rather than some non-technical head hunter that many (most?) recruiting agencies use. I can't tell you how many times (here is one time I've mentioned before) I've been stuck trying to make something clear to someone who really doesn't have any interest in the subject matter.

Everything goes well, as I always expect it to when talking tech, and we move on to step two. This is where the problems start. I now am told that the “skill testing” Toptal does is done through Codility. Let me direct you to the example test to see where this is heading.

Now I have no idea what kind of work you do, but in all the development work I have done over the last couple decades, none of it looks anything like the problem they give you. That there is what we call a toy problem. It's the kind of thing I saw in classes at college, but bears essentially no relation to the work that programmers do on a day-to-day basis. Since this is most definitely not how you actually evaluate “top talent”, at this point I decided to search for other people's experiences of the Toptal screening process.

There were a number of them, but I found this Toptal review to be the most insightful. The overall message is that the rest of Toptal's screening really is just a lot of useless busywork, throw-away coding exercises that have zero meaning in a real-world context. If this is the truth, I'm going to be very disappointed.

So I began an email conversation with a Toptal rep with the intent of finding a more productive avenue to demonstrate my skills. One suggestion I made was to have me submit an update to a Toptal-approved open source project. Another was for me to discuss/update some existing open source code that I already have available. I was just looking for some way that showed, you know, they actually understood the value that a true top talent's time represents.

But it was not to be. All Toptal would accept is the rinky-dink quizzes that Codility offers. And, unless their screening process changes in the future, that's where this story ends. Is there top talent to be found on Toptal? If so, it will be in spite of their screening process, and not because of it.

I also raised a secondary issue in my emails regarding the $30K “referral” clause that Yuriy mentions. I have seen similar clauses before and I simply cannot agree to them. They set up a bizarre situation where I can't help a client to solve a problem by recommending a friend, because it might cost me $30K if the client doesn't do everything right. Needless to say, I couldn’t agree to that, so I asked if the Toptal standard contract still has that language in it. Sadly, it does.

So it appears The $52K Answer will not be found at Toptal, and if you're not careful they might even end up taking more money from you than they ever pay you to work. Impossibly Stupid is not impressed with how 2016 has started.