Coder James Knight, a former Google employee, shown on a rooftop in Brooklyn, 2015
Selina Wang

NEW YORK â€" James Knight recently made an unorthodox career move for a 27-year-old coder: quitting a well-paid job writing software for Google to go freelance. No more catered lunches, gold-plated benefits or million-dollar views from the search giant's Manhattan office.

Knight is willing to sacrifice those perks because, he says, as an independent he's pulling down about twice as much as he did at Google â€" and with more freedom. In March, Knight and his wife plan to hopscotch across Europe while writing code for a dating app and a self-portrait app, among others.

"I'd rather control my own destiny and take on the risk and forgo the benefits of nap pods and food," Knight says.

Amid an accelerating war for tech talent, big companies and startups alike are paying top dollar for freelancers with the right combination of skills. While companies still recruit many of the best minds for full-time jobs, they're turning to independent software developers to get a stalled project moving or to gain a competitive edge. Sometimes, the right person can be the difference between a failed and successful product.

Last spring, Aaron Rubin hired a freelance coder through recruiter Toptal for about four weeks to help get ShipHero, his cloud-based logistics startup, off the ground. "To find someone that talented in New York in three days was never going to happen," Rubin says. "Every talented engineer I know has a job."

Independent software developers like Knight represent an elite echelon of the so-called gig economy â€" a 53-million-strong army of freelancers who now account for one in three American workers, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The need for coders mushroomed when the iPhone's arrival in 2007 set off an explosion of mobile apps, with software seeping into fridges, watches and apparel, requiring ever more people to write the underlying code. Demand for software developers is expected to grow 17% between 2014 and 2024, or more than twice the average, according to the bureau, which estimates that the U.S. will have 1 million more information technology jobs by 2020 than computer science students.

Big companies have resorted to "acqui-hiring," or buying out entire firms just for their engineers. Most have dedicated engineering recruiters, but finding the right people can be pricy and time-consuming. So companies have turned to a host of freelance agencies that specialize in finding top-notch coders.

Five years ago, Toptal, a self-described freelance network, had 25 programmers on its rolls and about the same number of clients. Today it represents thousands of coders (it won't specify how many) and has more than 2,000 clients, including Airbnb, Pfizer and J.P Morgan. Rival agency 10x Management says the average budget for software-writing contracts has doubled in the past three years as the company attracts bigger and broader projects.

Skimming the cream

Toptal, a virtual company with no home base, accepted fewer than 3% of the 15,000 applications it received in the past two months, said Taso Du Val, co-founder and chief executive officer. The vetting process has four parts: an interview to screen for personality, a technical exam, a live coding test and a test project to evaluate the candidate in a real-world scenario.

Source: Toptal's official Facebook page

Helder Silva, a software engineer from Portugal who has worked at Deloitte and other companies, passed the first two rounds but failed the live coding exam because he took too long to solve one problem. "You miss something and you get kicked," Silva says. "I get where they are coming from. They charge a large amount to their customers and they expect you to be as proficient as you can get."

With the tagline "genius on demand," 10x Management typically represents about 100 software developers. The New York-based agency receives thousands of applications every year. Co-founder (and former entertainment manager) Rishon Blumberg likens his clients to movie stars: "The demand for Tom Cruise is very large," he says, "but the supply is very small."

Martin Langhoff, 39, typifies the elite freelance coder. Having taught himself programming at age 9, Langhoff went on to become chief technology officer at the non-profit One Laptop Per Child program, where he managed a software and hardware team, industrial design, manufacturing and prototypes. Burned out and wanting to spend more time with his son, he joined 10x.

Langhoff sometimes can be found writing code aboard Persuasion, a 41-foot timeshare sailboat. He bartered access to the Jeanneau 409 by writing the timeshare booking software. Most recently Langhoff helped build a security product for a "major U.S. corporation," he said, a project that typically would take three years to complete. The 10x team took three months.

"We get called to do mission-critical things that will make or lose the company a lot of money," says Langhoff, of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, who says he earns 50% more money than he did working full-time. "It's like you get a seat at the New York Philharmonic. Now every performer is performing at their top level, and when it's your turn, you feel the heat."

Anne Adams, 30, left a programming job at Bank of America Merrill Lynch in 2013 and began freelancing through Toptal. She's now writing car insurance software for a large U.S. insurer.

"At a company like Merrill Lynch you have to be seen by the right people doing the right thing, rather than just getting on with the job you've been given," she says. "You have some people contributing more than others and people are operating at different levels, while at Toptal everyone is kind of up there. So that way, you get a lot more productive."

Knight, who left Google to work with 10x, agrees. "At Google you could probably get away with not working for six to nine months â€" just showing up and making it look like you're working," he says. "There's definitely a level of stress that comes with being independent that's absent at Google, but I like that. I have motivation issues if I don't think my paycheck is on the line."

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Thousands of Tunisians gathered in the capital of Tunis

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank, Bertrand Hauger and Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Laphi!*

Welcome to Monday, where post-Merkel Germany looks set shift to a center-left coalition, San Marino and Switzerland catch up with the rest of Europe on two key social issues, and a turtle slows things down at a Japan airport. Meanwhile, we take an international look at different ways to handle beloved, yet controversial, comic books and graphic novels characters.

[*Aymara, Bolivia]

🌎  7 THINGS TO KNOW RIGHT NOW

Social Democrats narrowly win German elections: Germany's center-left party claimed a narrow victory in the federal election, beating the CDU party of outgoing chancellor Angela Merkel by just over 1.5%, according to preliminary results. SPD leader Olaf Scholz has claimed a mandate to form a government with the Greens and Liberals, in what would be Germany's first three-way ruling coalition. Germany's capital city Berlin will also get its first female mayor.

Switzerland says yes to same-sex marriage: Nearly two-thirds of Swiss voters approved the proposal to legalize same-sex marriage in a referendum, making it one of the last countries in Western Europe to do so.

San Marino voters back legal abortion: More than 77% voted in support of legalizing abortion up to 12 weeks of pregnancy in San Marino in a historic referendum for the predominantly Catholic tiny city-state, which was one of the last places in Europe that still criminalized abortion.

COVID update: Australian authorities announced they will gradually reopen lockdowned Sydney, with a system that will give vaccinated citizens more freedom than the unvaccinated. Meanwhile, Thailand will waive its mandatory quarantine requirement in Bangkok and several other regions for vaccinated travellers in November. In Brazil, a fourth member of President Jair Bolsonaro's delegation to the United Nations has tested positive to COVID-19.

Power shortages in China spread: Tight coal supplies and toughening emissions standards have led to power shortages in northeastern China, forcing numerous factories including many supplying Apple and Tesla to halt production.

Strong earthquake hits Crete, at least one killed: An earthquake of magnitude 6 struck the Greek island of Crete, with reports that at least one person was killed and several injured after buildings collapsed.

Turtle causes delays at Tokyo airport: A wandering turtle forced the Tokyo Narita airport to close its runway for twelve minutes, delaying five planes, including an All Nippon Airways plane featuring ... a sea turtle-themed fuselage.

🗞️  FRONT PAGE

"Neck and neck," titles German daily Augsburger Allgemeine about the tight results of the federal election, which according to preliminary results, is set to be won by the center-left party SPD led by Olaf Sholz by just over 1.5%. It was the country's tightest race in years, and will likely lead to long, complicated negotiations to form a coalition government.


💬  LEXICON

Magal

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of Muslim pilgrims from Senegal, but also from elsewhere in Africa, Europe, and the United States, converged to the great Mosque of Touba, as part of the Grand Magal. The annual pilgrimage, a Wolof word meaning celebration, marks the date French colonial authorities exiled spiritual leader and founder of the Senegalese Mouride Brotherhood Sheikh Amadou Bamba.

📰  STORY OF THE DAY

Cancel Tintin? Spotting racist imagery in comics around the world

From the anti-Semitic children's books of Nazi Germany to the many racist caricatures of Asian, African or Indigenous people in the 20th century, comics have long contained prejudiced, sexist and xenophobic stereotypes. These publications have been rightfully criticized but some are pushing back, saying that this kind of unwarranted "canceling" threatens freedom of expression. Here are examples from three countries around the world about how people are handling the debate and sketching the future of comics.

🔥📚 The Adventures of Tintin and The Adventures of Asterix both emerged in French-speaking Europe during the 20th century and quickly developed global audiences. But the comic books have also been called out for controversial depictions of certain groups, including North American Indigenous peoples. And as Radio-Canada recently reported, one group of French-speaking schools in Ontario found the texts so offensive that they decided to go ahead and burn the books. The report, not surprisingly, stirred up a pretty fiery debate on the issues of free speech and what some refer to as "cancel culture."

🤠 In a more progressive model for rethinking cartoons with long — and complicated — legacies, Lucky Luke in France is taking a different direction. Telling the story of a cowboy in the Wild West, the series is notably lacking in terms of diversity. But in 2020, well-known French cartoonists Julien Berjeaut (known as Jul) and Hervé Darmenton (known as Achdé) took on the challenge of a more inclusive Lucky Luke. With its 81st album, Un Cow-Boy Dans Le Coton (A Cowboy in High Cotton), they changed the perspective to focus on recently freed Black slaves.

🇯🇵 Outside of France and Belgium, Japan arguably has the largest market for graphic novels, or manga, which first developed in the late 19th century. And like their European counterparts, certain manga titles have been accused of using racist tropes. One example is the character Mr. Popo, a genie from the popular Dragon Ball series who has been cited for having offensive features. In the meantime, more and more mangaka (creators of manga) are expanding beyond these traditional representations, including in their depictions of women, who are over-sexualized in many mangas.


➡️ Read more on Worldcrunch.com

📣 VERBATIM

"Still now, I am terrified."

— In mid-August, Afghan news anchor Beheshta Arghand interviewed Mawlawi Abdulhaq Hemad, a high-ranking Taliban representative, for TOLOnews. A historic moment for the female presenter, just days after the Islamic fundamentalist group took over Afghanistan. Now exiled in Albania, Arghand tells the BBC in a moving testimony why she had to flee to Albania and how she, like many in her country, has lost everything.

✍️ Newsletter by Anne-Sophie Goninet, Jane Herbelin, Clémence Guimier & Bertrand Hauger


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