Tech & Work

RentACoder: eBay for contractors?

What do you get when you cross help-wanted ads with an online auction site? RentACoder is a new contract development Web site providing services that take some of the hassles out of contract work.

Those who pursue contract development opportunities usually face three main problems: finding reputable clients; the occasional miscommunicated—or flat-out unfair—project requirement; and most seriously, the potential that a client won’t want to pay for your work, for whatever reason. Any one of these potential problems can be daunting enough to scare you away from the opportunity to make a little extra money on the side, and possibly even gain experience with a new language or technology.

But RentACoder—one of the latest of several contract facilitation Web sites that have recently cropped up—offers services that could very well solve those problems for which contract jobs are infamous.

So, how does this work?
The site provides an auction and feedback system—much like what you’d find on auction sites. Payment for a contract is made in advance and held in escrow by RentACoder until the project is completed. On paper, this idea serves to protect both clients and contractors; the former don’t risk losing deposits to dead-beat developers, and the latter will have fewer problems with nonpaying customers.

To receive work through RentACoder, you must complete a short registration process, during which you’ll have a chance to create an online resume of sorts, detailing your skills and experience. You’ll then be able to place bids on any of the open jobs posted on the Web site. As of this writing, there are 482 open jobs on RentACoder, ranging from large-scale projects with formalized multimonth timetables to minor projects and even technical questions posed by newbies and students.

Each contract job is categorized according to several criteria. You can browse through listings by platform, specific language requirements, size of the project, and the nature of the work (e.g., documentation or QA/testing). Each job listing includes an estimated payment amount (anywhere from $1 to over $5,000) and a short description of the project’s requirements. The quality of these descriptions is highly variable: The best ones will usually include a project plan document, a diagram, or mockup; the worst will be vague and possibly even incoherent.

You’ll be able to gauge the quality of a potential client through a ratings system similar to that used on auction Web sites like eBay. After a project’s conclusion, each party is given an opportunity to leave feedback about the person on the other side of the exchange, by rating the experience on a scale of one to ten. Since buyers (as clients are called on RentACoder) can also leave feedback on coders (contractors), the feedback system works to both groups’ advantage.

Find something you like?
When you find a job that sounds interesting, you’ll place a bid with the buyer. You’ll be able to specify a dollar amount, send the buyer a demo or some sample work, and spell out any special terms while placing your bid via the Web site’s bidding interface. Once submitted, your bid will be editable by you and only viewable by you and the buyer. This private bid system prevents coders from undercutting each other while bidding, and protects the buyer from possible price collusion as well—although the system makes it difficult to judge the going rate for a particular kind of project.

Once a buyer accepts a bid, he or she is required to deposit the agreed-upon payment with RentACoder, which keeps the funds in an escrow account so there will be no payment issues when the job is completed. You, on the other hand, are required to file weekly progress reports through the RentACoder Web site. Once you complete work on a project and your buyer signs off on it, RentACoder will issue you a payment after deducting their 15% facilitation fee. Should a payment dispute arise, either party has the option of pursuing mediation via an agency, such as SquareTrade.

Is it as easy as it looks?
While RentACoder appears to have answers to most of the problems I’ve seen with online contract facilitation services in the past, it seems to me that it's still far from perfect. For starters, the rating system makes it difficult for newcomers to get work. With something like 26,000 registered coders, the lack of a rating can be a disadvantage, because many buyers and coders will steer clear of untested counterparts. Aside from that, with consistently less than 500 jobs open for bid, the extremely low job-to-coder ratio makes bid competition pretty fierce. It also serves to lower the average price for a job, as simple free-market economics should tell you.

Finding an interesting project can be a trying experience as well. It appears that some buyers are in the habit of routinely listing multiple ads for the same project in different categories. I’m not clear on whether this is a result of ignorance or malicious intent on the part of some buyers, or simply a matter of sloppy categorizing by RentACoder. Whatever the reason, seeing listings for the same project in six different categories is a bit annoying.

Also, although the escrow system used by RentACoder serves to keep buyers honest, it can’t protect coders from unscrupulous buyers who might attempt to change project requirements midstream or groundlessly refuse to approve a coder’s final work. In theory, the rating system would serve to prevent such behavior, but as anyone who’s ever bought something on eBay can tell you, some shady characters slip through the cracks, and a negative feedback, no matter how deserved, can sometimes spark off nasty flame wars.

The SquareTrade mediation could come in handy in resolving disputes, but the basic, free mediation service consists only of automated e-mail contacts initiated by Web forms. To get a real mediator on your case, you’ll need to fork over some cash, which might not be worth it for a smaller contract.

That said, a perusal of ratings information for about 20 randomly selected buyers, shows that most of them appear to be on the up-and-up, making payments on time with minimal hassle. Besides, disputes over project scope and payment are part and parcel with the contract developer’s business, and RentACoder has come up with some novel ideas of dealing with these problems. As a result, the site appears to have built a healthy community of coders and buyers, and there always appear to be jobs available. On the strength of that fact alone, whether you’re a career contractor just looking for some side work or even a manager trying to staff a small project, you should definitely check out RentACoder.

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