My First oDesk Experience (Pretty Good, Could be Better)

I have been very curious about oDesk ever since I first read about the service. The idea of easy to find, low cost, contract software development resources sounded really good. For those of you who don’t have the patience to read beyond the break, I’ll give you the executive summary. The service works well and pretty much delivers on its promise of facilitating a marketplace where those looking for development help and those offering it can find and make a deal. That being said, there is plenty of room for improvement.

The Project
My little hobby website, which is available here is in need of a refresh. I figured I would be able to find someone on oDesk who would be able to update the design and user interface. Here is where I encountered my first challenge. I needed to write a project description. Thankfully, oDesk does provide some help and hints about how to write a good project summary, but I would have liked to see more samples and samples based more on context (samples for design projects, samples for full website projects, samples for demos and prototypes, etc).

Registration Process
Signing up as a buyer of services is pretty easy. I really like the fact that oDesk did not require me to give them my credit card information just to create an account. Creating an account was fairly painless.

Vendor Selection
Vendor selection was pretty tough. After posting my job on the system, I got responses from 25 providers over the course of 48 hours. The oDesk interface gives you a good sense of how others have rated the past oDesk performance of those vendors, their skills sets, and some of their past work. I ended up using a very simple algorithm for choosing a vendor. I decided to start by choosing the vendors who had worked the most hours in oDesk and then filtering them based on their scores and feedback. I also took a look at a few of the portfolios that people had posted to get a sense for the kind of work they had accomplished. Given that prices are fairly low, I used price only as a sanity check.

I was ultimately happy with the vendor I chose. However, the process left me a bit unsatisfied for a few reasons. First, I had no way of knowing whether the portfolios claimed by the providers were in fact their work. It would be nice if there were some way for oDesk to audit this process. Second, while the feedback scores and feedback percentiles were useful, what I really would have liked to see was a simpler stat — what fraction of their past customers would use them again or have used them again? Finally, there were a few profiles that looked like meta-profiles (one oDesk user who might actually have more than one developer behind it). I was fine with that, but it would have been nice to differentiate between “firms” and “individuals” when looking for providers. I realize the last point is a bit of a nitpick.

Vendor Management
Overall, managing my vendor was not too bad. I do have one caveat, however — if you are not accustomed to using outside developers, there is a learning curve in terms of how you communicate changes, revisions, etc to someone with whom you have not worked and who is not sitting down the hall. Once you get over those bumps, communicating is pretty easy. My developer and I used Skype and email to pass information and documents back and forth and that was fine.

What I would fix

1. Support for Firm Fixed Price Contracts – My developer and I decided that the nature of the design work I needed done really lended itself more toward a fixed price contract as opposed to hourly billing. However, after consultation with oDesk support, I learned that it wasn’t possible to do it this way. So my developer and I just figured the hourly equivalent of the fixed price and did it that way. The ability to simply do a fixed price contract would be nice.

2. Improve Buyer Interface – I wasn’t overly impressed by the buyer interface. I found it hard to navigate and lacking some of the key features that I really wanted to see. For example, the tabs called “My Jobs” and “My Assignments” were not particularly instructive — what’s the difference between a job and an assignment? What’s under those tabs? I constantly found myself clicking around to find the things I wanted to use.

I would have really liked to have a dashboard that I could see when I logged in. The dashboard would show me how many hours my provider had logged, how much I had accrued, and how much time had elapsed since the project started. The screen captures are nice, but I don’t have time to micromanage work in that way.

3. Fees – These have already been fixed. When I signed up for oDesk, fees were set at 30%. They have since dropped to 10%.

I have another post in the works talking more about the business of oDesk.