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programming and human factors

Can You Really Rent a Coder?

I've been a fan of Dan Appleman for about as long as I've been a professional programmer. He is one of my heroes. Unfortunately, Dan only blogs rarely, so I was heartened to see a spate of recent blog updates from him. One of the entries asks a question I've often wondered myself: can you really rent a coder?

Over the past year or two I've kept an eye on the various online consulting sites - Elance, guru.com, RentACoder, oDesk. I've actually used RentACoder once (as a buyer on a very small project) and was satisfied with the results -- though I suspect I spent more time writing the spec and managing the programmers than I would if I had done the work myself.

I'm surprised Dan opens with such a sunny outlook on these services, because I've heard almost universally negative things about them. As professional programmers, I think we're all naturally inclined to see these sort of low-bid contract sites as cannibalizing and cheapening our craft. It's roughly analogous to the No-Spec movement for designers.

The odd thing is that, despite the sunny outlook, the article Dan wrote on this topic comes across as quite cautionary:

  • You'll be competing with people around the world. In fact, you'll be amazed at how little people in some parts of the world will bid. That's because a few dollars an hour can work well in a country where the average wage is a couple of hundred dollars a month.

  • Many of the projects posted are unrealistic. For example, people asking for a clone of ebay for under $500. What ends up happening in these cases is that usually somebody ends up getting ripped off (either the client or the consultant who underbid or fails to deliver).

  • A lot of projects go bad. They get cancelled. Or the consultant who bid on the work never delivered, or delivered poor results. Or the client has unreasonable expectations, or doesn't actually know what he wants.

Maybe it's just my natural bias talking, but these sites seem awfully impractical to me.

Simply sorting out the DailyWTF project pitches from things you could actually deliver -- at ultra-competitive offshore programming rates, no less -- would require the patience of a saint and the endurance of an olympic athlete. Specification documents are hard enough to write when everyone involved is a coworker sitting in the same room. I can't even imagine the difficulty of agreeing on what it is you're building when the participants are thousands of miles away and have never met. But then I thought Amazon's Mechanical Turk was a failure, and it seems to be enjoying a moderate level of success.

Dan has a small chart comparing the services of these online freelance/consulting sites. It's too easy to write these sites off as an affront to software engineering. I guess they're sort of like dating sites -- they might be one way to find a client relationship, but I'd be highly suspicious of any professional developer who can't find a stable, long term relationship with a client eventually.

If nothing else, we should be looking at them for research purposes, as a baseline. Surely you can demonstrate better value to your employer than the random, anonymous programmers on Elance, guru.com, RentACoder, or oDesk. And I'd certainly hope that the projects you're working on are more sensible and rewarding (in both senses of the word) than the stuff that appears on those sites.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror