Why Top Software Developers Choose To Go Freelance

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

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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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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