The Next Evolution of Freelance Talent: Contractor as a Service

One of the biggest value adds in crowdsourcing is the fact that you pay for solutions, not hours. You don’t have to sort through hundreds of freelancers based on ratings and work one on one with a developer or designer that may or may not deliver the desired outcome. And you don’t have to wrangle multiple freelancers and manage multiple work streams on your own.

Topcoder has made it simple for teams of all sizes to get design, development, and data science work done with a global crowd for years. Concurrent work streams, a dedicated copilot (aka a project manager), and a pay-for-results model; that’s what successful crowdsourcing looks like. But crowdsourcing as we know it is evolving, and as “gig economy” becomes increasingly synonymous with plain old “talent,” businesses need more options for getting high-quality, innovative work done.

I spoke with Kyle Bowerman, a Community Architect at Topcoder, about the next generation of crowdsourcing, how businesses can better support their developer teams, and our new offering: Contractor as a Service (CaaS).

So Kyle, I hear we’re launching a new offering called Contractor as a Service…

Funny you should ask! CaaS is a natural progression of what we’ve always unofficially done in crowdsourcing. In fact, I think it’s the next evolution of crowdsourcing. We’re not just looking at individuals, but at entire self-forming teams rooted in the gig economy.

In the past, we’ve started a customer’s project with public crowdsourcing challenges. But sometimes, it reaches a point where the customer and we build such a great reputation with the developers or designers that it becomes easier, more cost-effective, and quicker to use them directly. Essentially, that’s CaaS. It’s still crowdsourcing — just an evolution of it. We’ve always encouraged that kind of open communication between customers and members of the Topcoder Community.

Is Contractor as a Service a fit for smaller companies or just large enterprises?

It can work for either. To smaller companies, I’d say: you might not have a project right now, or you might not think you have a demand for three full-time equivalents (FTEs), but if you have a development team with ongoing responsibilities, a shared pool of smart people to help support what they’re already doing could help make them exponentially more productive.

Care to elaborate on that? Tell us how crowdsourcing can benefit developers and what’s expected of developers today.

This is my gut feeling: as a developer, 70% of your time is either making a decision or supporting the decision that you’re making. In my experience as a developer, I think that — at the independent contributor level — we’re given the responsibility to make choices that make the most sense to us. We can confirm those choices with our team members. We can ask our peers to help us evaluate the choices that we make. But they have their own responsibilities. They can give us limited time.

We typically think of crowdsourcing as running projects. But for developers, there’s a need to get a second pair of eyes — to get feedback and to sometimes shoot down our proposed decisions; to help us with our weaknesses and to give us a better understanding of the best way to do something.

Can you give an example of success we’ve had with Contractor as a Service? (Perhaps before well before we named the offering.)

The design side of our business has had Design Bench, the prequel to CaaS. In the past we’ve worked with a global pharmaceutical company that leveraged crowdsourcing to turn individual contributors and even interns into team managers. More specifically, we worked with two of their interns to create a city-building HR training game where you start with an empty 3D aerial view, you’re asked a series of questions, and as you get questions right, you begin to fill in buildings. As you get more right, the buildings become colored in, and so on.

In addition to the city builder game, we did another large-scale employee portal project. And both of the pharmaceutical company’s projects had internal design-focused people on the project — individual contributors from their internal team who were either part-time designers or, at the very least, knew enough to get things done but not enough to claim design as their profession. With both projects, they immediately endeared themselves to a Topcoder copilot who goes by the handle lunarkid. He’s a designer who started at a young age and realized that if he added JavaScript to round out his set of skills he’d have more opportunities in design. He was able to become one of our most versatile copilots and has done incredibly well on our platform. The customer and project team appreciated his design skill and work ethic, and they’d send him tasks, to which he’s take right of refusal.

If it was something simple he could do — say converting an icon, where it’s very specific and there’s no value in getting multiple submissions from competitors — he’d do it himself. Or the opposite: he’d realize a project would benefit from multiple submissions. Ultimately, he was thought of as part of the team, an unlimited resource who could accomplish tasks himself and crowdsource as much work as he needed.

What does the future of crowdsourcing look like?

I think the next generation of crowdsourcing is one in which gig economy workers are great at a certain type of project, they happen to work virtually around the world, and they work in tandem as a good team. The future is something big like an SAP deployment, and people quit their full-time jobs and create a virtual team that goes from place to place — all the while using Topcoder as a broker.