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Need Top Technology Talent? Look Online

Question: What’s wrong with the traditional practice of interviewing and hiring only local technology professionals?

Answer: Plenty, according to veteran technology executive Stephane Kasriel. “Businesses are still hiring the same way they did a hundred years ago, but just about everything else has changed dramatically since then,” says Kasriel, CEO of Upwork, a global freelance-talent platform where companies and independent professionals connect and collaborate remotely.

That Industrial-Age approach of relying only on the local tech talent pool is now a guaranteed way to fall behind—perhaps years behind—in the race to acquire the critical, constantly evolving tech skills necessary for success in the Information Age.

It’s no secret that businesses everywhere are competing fiercely for top tech professionals—and that the best candidates aren’t necessarily based where the jobs are. “This notion that you’re going to be able to find the best talent locally in this highly competitive environment is, frankly, wishful thinking,” Kasriel says. And in today’s “need-it-now” business environment, that old-school hiring approach, which typically requires weeks or even months between initial job posting and a new hire’s start date, simply takes too long.

Today, technology is eradicating the old geographic restrictions on hiring. Arduous local searches (and commutes) no longer make sense now that the Internet is available as a virtual road to work. Upwork’s own founding story may be the single best illustration of the ongoing revolution in how businesses can now find and collaborate with the best available tech professionals, wherever they happen to be found.

Previously known as Elance-oDesk, the Mountain View, California-based company relaunched in May 2015 under its new name, with a new freelance talent platform, which is also called Upwork. By that time, clients were already posting more than 3 million freelance projects and conducting more than 100 million searches annually on the Elance and oDesk platforms. “In the last 12 months alone, freelancers have earned $1 billion by working for clients around the world via Upwork,” Kasriel notes. He expects annual freelancer earnings from Upwork to reach $10 billion by 2021.

What’s behind the growth of online freelance hiring? Increased productivity is certainly among the top drivers. Upwork is designed to make hiring happen in real time rather than over a period of weeks or months. The Upwork platform’s new features include live-chat interviews and a mobile app that lets both clients and freelancers use the site on the fly. Upwork has also launched a new real-time collaboration tool (similar to Slack, but available free) that allows freelancers to start working with their clients and teammates on projects right away, as soon as they’re hired.

SUCCESS STORIES

While the innovative new platform will undoubtedly enhance online hiring and work, clients on Upwork, who have long relied on distributed teams, are already sold on the concept.

“Rather than hiring the best people we could find who live within 30 miles of some arbitrary office location, we hire the best people we can find, regardless of where they may be,” says Jay Shapiro, CEO of AppMakr, a do-it-yourself platform for creating mobile apps without coding. Shapiro, whose four-year-old company is based in Glen Rock, New Jersey, has hired designers in Bulgaria, developers in Spain, coders in India, animators in Australia, and customer service representatives based everywhere from Canada to Mexico to Egypt to Thailand. “We follow the sun,” he says. “We have round-the-clock support. It’s fantastic.”

Shapiro currently works with 65 freelancers worldwide, adjusting the head count as needed. “We can hire people for two hours or two years,” he says. This approach has also allowed him to largely stop hiring people for nonspecific full-time job functions. “Now we hire people for tasks, not roles,” he adds.

And he’s delighted to avoid having to deal with payments: “It’s all done through Upwork,” he says. “Once a week, our freelancers from all over the world invoice us on the platform, and Upwork transmits our payments to them.”

Obviously, the distributed-team approach also offers lifestyle advantages for freelancers, allowing them to work from wherever they are. Often that’s especially attractive to millennials—the youngest group of professionals, now in their 20s and early 30s—it’s a benefit to the clients hiring freelancers as well: Shapiro himself often works from a family cottage on a lake in Ontario.

Online work capability played a pivotal role in the successful growth of PrestoSports, a 10-year-old technology platform for athletic websites. “I was able to hire a lot of people with niche skills from different areas and assemble a team,” says CEO Serge Knystautas, whose Rockville, Maryland–based company now serves more than 800 customers, mostly college and university sports teams. “We were able to grow very comfortably in this way.”

Like Shapiro, Knystautas works with freelancers just about everywhere, from Web engineers in Pakistan to server-side developers in Colombia, Brazil, and Argentina, even a team member in Thailand. He’s able to adjust teams as needed—for instance, he can hire additional graphic designers from April to August, when many of his company’s schools redesign logos, mascots, or web pages.

Knystautas also expressed relief that Upwork facilitates payments on a worldwide basis. “I have no idea how I’d get a payment to someone in Macedonia”—where PrestoSports has one freelancer—”or what I’d have to pay in fees to do it,” he says.

MYTHS AND MISCONCEPTIONS

Kasriel, Upwork’s CEO, wants the world to know one thing about hiring and working with remote freelancers: It’s not outsourcing.

“With outsourcing, you don’t care about the person you are working with. This is the exact opposite,” says Kasriel, whose own company uses remote engineers. “We interview remote freelancers in much the same way that we interview local professionals,” he says. “You need to know whether the freelancer will be able to deliver the results you need.” The Upwork platform allows businesses to qualify candidates carefully to make sure they’ve got the technical abilities to get the job done.

In addition, the approach is far from experimental. “When I talk with startup founders and technology executives, I hear that they’ve all, at some point, been involved with an open source project, and open source projects are always distributed,” Kasriel notes. He observes that a growing number of commercial enterprises rely on fully distributed engineering teams.

The bottom line: Online work offers companies of all sizes the unprecedented opportunity to reinvent not only how they hire, but how they work—and how they compete on a global scale. “They can form teams of highly distributed and highly talented professionals,” Kasriel says. “Ultimately, location matters far less than skills, talent, and passion about the opportunity.”

Shapiro agrees. “At the moment, it may feel a little bleeding-edge,” he says of the approach. “But 10 years from now, I believe it’s going to be the norm.”

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