An Important Signal for Freelance Engineers

Ah, the joys of being a student. I could write sonnets about being constantly hounded by an endless stream of projects and problem-sets, trying your best to actually learn the material while also figuring out what you want to do that summer, the next year, and beyond, and trying to balance it all with clubs, a social life, and that thing called sleep.

Sarcasm aside, I actually do love being in school. I love the open-ended nature of our class-projects, in which we’re given specifications and have to design software to fit them, and can build whatever we want in for our final projects. Over the first 2 years of my undergraduate degree, I worked to balance all of the different aspects of student life, and learned to love the intellectual process of creating scalable, maintainable systems.

When I finally got that dream summer-internship at a startup I always wanted, I was absolutely elated. I pictured myself writing software to solve bigger technical challenges, honing my skills on server software designed for millions of users at once, and coming up with my own solutions to deep and complex problems. Au contraire! When I finally arrived in Silicon Valley for my first day at work, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to change the world, the curtains slowly came down on my perception of what software engineers actually do. I was exposed to managers, types of people I had never encountered in my academic life, who expected software engineers to just build whatever they wanted, in whatever business-determined time-frames they were given- practical details of the implementation be damned! Through the form something called a scrum, programmers were questioned intensely on a daily basis by their bosses-people who viewed solving problems as questions of whether enough resources were being thrown at them. They were made to believe they were working too slowly on their projects or that they should be working on fixing bugs and clearing up ‘technical debt’ rather than adding new features, while I knew they were working as hard as they could and on the parts of the product customers needed to be functional. I quickly realized the location of the programmer on the corporate totem-pole-just a few inches above the dirt.

Back at school, I did more research about different career paths for programmers. There was academia, of course, but there was also something called contracting, in which the programmer was his or her own boss, and worked on his or her terms! It seemed perfect, a way of working that would allow me to solve the types of problems I wanted to solve, and deliver great value to people who would actually appreciate my efforts. I looked at websites like and, websites where people look to hire freelancers, and was disappointed to find that the level of work being offered was too low-level for my tastes, I dreamt of more than writing SQL queries and organizing div’s on webpages. And there was that other problem of my ambition. I didn’t want to spend my time working on low-impact work for companies that weren’t very well known. I wanted to work as a contractor because I wanted control over my time and the ability to work on my own projects, but I still wanted to work for good companies. That’s where toptal came in.

Toptal solves the problem of contracting through it’s exclusivity-only the top 3% of applicants are allowed into the Toptal network. This is an explicit signal of the value of toptal’s workers. This exclusivity does three things:

  1. It saves the time of contract programmers. Gone are the days of spending large amounts of time ensuring your work-pipeline is delivering enough revenue to your bank account. These companies know you are among the best, and they’re competing for you, not the other way around.
  2. It attracts top employers such as airbnb, zendesk, and Pfizer, ensuring that you have interesting problems to solve and that your resume is filled with eye-catching names.
  3. It actually makes you excited to work! Knowing you are among the best and are treated that way does volumes for your desire to actually get work done.

These are the reasons why I’ve applied to Toptal’s web engineering group. If you’re an engineer who values ownership, freedom, and free time, fill out an application and see if you have what it takes!