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Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Working for Toptal and how to get started

Toptal is the biggest remote freelance platform in the world. Learn more about my experience working as a freelancer for it and how you can get started.

(Updated: Wednesday, August 30, 2023)

Working for Toptal can be a breath of fresh air for experienced freelancers and a significant opportunity for people trying to break into the freelance industry. I have been part of the Toptal community since January 2021, doing remote work, so I've had my share of experience as a Toptal developer and what it offers. I want to share my experience working for Toptal and how to get started and apply to the network.

What is Toptal?

Toptal, founded by Taso Du Val, is a globally remote freelancing platform that connects clients with professionals. Toptal offers career paths as a software developer, project management, product manager, data scientist, UX designer, and finance expert, among other specializations. From the outside, it seems simple, it is a freelance marketplace, but it is a much more complicated system.

Toptal is proud to be working with the top 3% of tech talent, and it offers many advantages to both the client and developer sides. It has a rigorous hiring process with multiple steps, making it hard for talent not already working as a freelancer to make the switch.

Benefits and opportunities at Toptal

There are two sides to this story, the freelance talent and the client. Both have benefits and opportunities to take advantage of when choosing Toptal.

On the client side, the main advantages/opportunities are the following:

  • Toptal makes sure to vet all freelancer talent through the hiring process.
  • The job matcher, people hired directly by Toptal, does most of the heavy lifting, looking for talent with the correct skill set. They even arrange interviews with the talent.
  • Toptal talent signs several non-disclosure and other agreements that mainly protect the client.
  • At the beginning of each project, there is a trial period to see if the talent is a good fit.

On the freelance talent side, the main advantages/opportunities are the following:

  • There is no competition in terms of rate with other experts.
  • Toptal clients go through a screening process before entering the network.
  • Toptal guarantees payment and they offer payment solutions via Hyperwallet.
  • There are many opportunities to write for the Toptal Engineering Blog, participate in public events, and even engage in freelance work for NGOs.
  • Any job matcher can send you a request if you have availability. It makes it easier to find a new project.
  • Projects can be open-ended.
  • There is good communication from the Toptal team to solve any issue in mere minutes.
  • All opportunities are for remote work, meaning you can work for companies in any country.

As you can see, there are many benefits for both parties, making it a great ecosystem to engage as a freelancer or client. It is in Toptal's best interest to grow its freelance platform and keep all the experts they have satisfied.

Does it have any shortcomings?

As with anything, there are some shortcomings in working with Toptal, mainly as a freelancer:

  • There is no guarantee that potential clients you engage with won't cancel the project days after starting it. There is no notice period either.
  • In cases where the client doesn't give you enough work, you will probably need to mark the day as a day off.

People within the freelancing ecosystem at Toptal have mixed feelings about this, but it mostly depends on the client you get.

My experience at Toptal

At this time, I have worked for around two years in a remote job as a freelancer from Toptal. All that time, I worked at the same Toptal engagement because it was an open-ended project. The job was for a freelance software engineer at a mix between a digital marketing agency and a software factory. Although they initially looked for a front-end engineer, I quickly proved my worth and went on to work on full-stack projects. After the company went through multiple internal changes and I was no longer satisfied with my job, I decided to end my role as an independent contractor there. It was the most significant freelance job experience I had until this day. I must acknowledge that I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity without Toptal. They opened a new world of options for me.

Before getting the previously mentioned job, I spent less than one week looking for a new job through the Toptal job board and matcher requests until I found this job posting. All in all, I must've seen dozens of jobs posted, which were all fantastic. They are matched by skill level, so you cannot apply to one where you are missing an important skill.

My involvement with Toptal is not limited to my freelance developer experience there. I have taken part in many activities with them:

  • Writing for the Toptal Engineering Blog. You can find this here.
  • Participating in social events with other Argentinean Toptal experts, I met and networked with freelance designers, finance experts, and other remote workers.
  • Used programs that fostered AWS certifications and got my AWS Solutions Architect Associate certification.
  • I attended webinars by the Toptal team on how to become a successful freelancer and improve communication.

Overall my experience with Toptal was very positive, and I keep on engaging in activities they create. Although the hiring process filters out junior developers, I can offer tips for those meaning to start working on it.

What is the interview process in detail?

The Toptal hiring process (as a freelancer) involves four main steps. I am familiar with the full-stack software development freelance hiring process, so I'll focus on that. They are looking to hire talent with at least 2-3 years of experience, but this might change.

Interview 1: Screening process

Step one in becoming a Toptal freelancer is the screening interview. During this interview, they mainly look to answer the following questions:

  • How much experience do you have as a freelancer?
  • How much experience do you have in general?
  • How well can you speak English?
  • Why do you want to join Toptal?
  • Will you interview for the back-end, front-end, or full-stack specialization?

It is a simple and quick interview, so it is nothing to worry about at this step.

Interview 2: Offline coding interview

The next step is an assignment with two or three coding exercises to complete offline. You have around one week to finish them, but the problems are time-limited once you start them. You will probably face Leetcode questions that are no more than "Medium" in difficulty.

Interview 3: Online coding interview

The third interview is an online, pair-programming interview with a Toptal software engineer where you have to solve two coding problems in real time. Again, the questions you find here are "Medium" or "Easy" Leetcode problems.

Interview 4: Test project

The last interview is, without a doubt, the most difficult one. Toptal gives you a sample freelance project to work on for a week. After the end of the week, you speak with who evaluates you to explain your solution and choices. They may want to answer some of the following questions:

  • Why did you choose a specific framework?
  • Why did you opt for a given database?
  • What was the part that took longer to implement?

The project is a full-stack client and API. They expect production-level quality in all the codebases but don't expect a perfect graphic design for the UI. You have the choice of which framework to use.

Most projects revolve around a CRUD application with user management and some specific feature, such as implementing Oauth.

What is my recommendation?

The key to nailing the process and starting freelancing for Toptal is the following. Practice your problem-solving skills and algorithms, know your stack well before even facing the test project, have answers to all the questions I mentioned before, assume you are always speaking with a client on a job, and apply with a referral. Starting the process through an existing Toptal member can give you an advantage.

You can use my referral to have the upper hand. According to Toptal, "Referred talent are 5x more likely to pass the Toptal screening process than the average applicant.", so take that opportunity. I have referred colleagues, and they have all passed the Toptal screening process.

Toptal alternatives

It is no secret that becoming a Toptal freelancer can take time and effort. If applying to Toptal doesn't work out, there are other alternatives:

Although I don't know much about any Toptal alternative, I know about their existence and know they get used.

Closing thoughts

Toptal is a great platform where you will find talented freelancers specialized in their fields. Most surely, any freelancer you find is friendly, keen to work, and eager to lend a helping hand. All the interactions I had in our private Slack were rewarding.

Take advantage of referrals to have the upper hand when applying (both as a client and talent) to maximize your chances of success. I hope you find my experience working for Toptal and how to get started helpful, and I look forward to seeing you in the network. Feel free to send me a LinkedIn DM for more tips and insights on this topic.