I just learned about a company that provides online access to developers and other technical talent — both domestic and offshore. Before you say, "Oh, that’s what Elance does…" hear me out.
This Sunnyvale, CA firm — oDesk — offers clients not just access to talent, but also access to a tool that I haven’t seen at other freelance help sites. This utility, called oDesk as well, gives you desktop visibility into what your programmers are doing. That’s right. When they’re on your clock, they allow a screenshot image to be taken from their desktop every 10 minutes, and you, as the hiring party, can look at what they’re working on.
If you have a bunch of freelancers getting paid by the hour, and you wonder if they’re really working all those hours they say they are, you might consider this a simple way to gain ease of mind. My guess is, clients use the utility during the first few weeks of working with somebody new, then forget about it and get on with other aspects of the work at hand.
I watched an online tour, available here, then checked out the demo version to get a closer view.
According to the tour, you, as the client, log into "My oDesk," create a job opening with skills required and a detailed description of the project. Applicants then have the chance to apply. You get a ranking of potential candidates by the number of hours they’ve worked through oDesk, but you can also sort by rate, availability or country. (Apparently, the rates run from a low of $10 an hour to a high of about $65 an hour.) You can check each person’s resume and English skills (as ranked by an oDesk recruiter), Then it’s up to you to interview those candidates you’re interested in.
There are no long-term contracts here. Once you’ve made your hiring choices, you’re only on the hook for the hours that person works for you. If, after a few hours, you discover you made a bad choice, you can move onto a different candidate.
While the work’s progressing, you can tune into that person’s desktop to see what kind of progress he or she is making. In the utility, you click on a particular thumbnail of a screen image to have it enlarged.
Once a week, the hours are tallied by oDesk, and your credit card is billed. For project tracking, you get a timelog of time worked, which you can drill down on to see what tasks have been completed. The system integrates with Subversion for code repository purposes, as well as Bugzilla for bug tracking; both are available as optional services.
oDesk takes 30% of the hourly rate as its commission. The hourly rate you see as the hiring party is the rate you pay.
oDesk appears to screen its freelancers — unlike several of the other services. According to the tour, it accepts about a quarter of the people who apply, and it has about a thousand people in its system currently.
A friend recently blogged about a talk he and his boss had with a software company and its VC firm, which was working with an offshore development team that had badly misled them for a couple of years. It would seem to me that the use of oDesk’s screen-sharing capabilities could more easily prevent something like that from happening.
Of course, you need to be an oDesk client to exploit the tools.