Friday, April 2, 2010

Getting The Work Done

Today's columnist is Emma Jane Hogbin from Hick Tech. She writes:

Several weeks ago I decided it was time to delegate some of my work. I needed a set of notes from one of the classes I taught converted into an eBook. I knew that I wanted to be able to edit the material myself and that I wanted everything to be done in an open source tool. "Easy," I thought. "I'll just hire a F/LOSS person to do this for me." It turns out: not so easy after all. I asked my network of people if they knew any graphic designers who did book layout and worked in open source tools. What came back was the sound of crickets. Inconceivable! How could there be no one who matched my criteria?

A colleague of mine told me that he often uses online "freelance" networks to job out some of his tasks. He recommended both Elance and oDesk. My job description was short:

I need someone to do layout work on several short ebooks (~20 pages). Due to their technical nature (HOWTO programming guides) I need to be able to edit the documents easily if mistakes are reported. Even though it's not a layout tool, I would prefer the work to be submitted as documents with styles correctly applied (not manually adjusted per heading/paragraph etc). 1. Are these constraints you are able to work within? 2. Approximately how many hours do you think it will take to create and apply a style guide to a short ebook?

The list of applicants was even shorter. On Elance I received three applicants, one of whom asked me, "Do you have MS Word? It has excellent layout capabilities, and I prefer to work with that program." oDesk returned a much longer list of applicants from Asia Pacific. None of these candidates seemed to know what was. I had thought that open source software was big in India, Thailand and Malaysia. I ended up hiring a Belgian through Elance with a Masters in Graphic Design who'd never used before. She was a delight to work with and caught on quickly. (Look for "anndesign" on Elance.)

While oDesk and Elance both have a lot of open source software tools listed for server-side tasks, they are devoid of people offering desktop publishing skills. Fewer than a dozen providers on Elance have DocBook listed, and only one provider has listed It's possible that there are swaths of people with desktop publishing skills who are looking for work elsewhere, or perhaps they are so busy with work they aren't using sites like Elance or oDesk. Either way, this makes it difficult for me to get my work done.

Even though I have an excellent graphic designer who sends me all source files for business cards and other graphic work, eBooks does not have an easily converted source file. Most graphic designers these days seem to use In Design. While the open source application Inkscape can open Illustrator files, there is no crossover application for book layout. There are perfectly viable open source tools, yet the demand is simply not there for graphic designers to take the plunge. Here's what we need to do:

  • If you are someone who works with open source desktop tools, please register your services in one of the online freelance marketplaces. If you already are registered, please let me know where to look for you.

  • Ask your graphic designer to return source files in an open format.

  • Seek out professionals who work with open source tools. Name specific F/LOSS applications as part of your job posting. My Elance provider saw the software name and downloaded it before replying to the job posting.

We need to show that there is a new demand for skilled labour with experience in open source applications. We've done a good job of getting server-side F/LOSS tools into the language of the server room, now we need to do the same in the front office. It's up to us to ask for the skills and educate our workforce--it will give higher visibility and increase adoption of our applications of choice. There is no easier way to affect change than to simply make it part of our daily routine.


RACNicole said...


Hi Emma, this is Nicole from Rent a Coder.

I'm sorry you weren't able to quickly solve your problem through Elance or oDesk. At Rentacoder, we offer a search engine that allows you to zero in on workers with specific skills. Using our search engine, I was able to quickly locate potential F/LOSS programmer that goes by the name of Andrew O. Shadoura. ( Results at yeilded over a hundred workers proficient in OpenOffice.

Having access to this function is just one of the perks of outsourcing through our service and as you might guess, there are plenty more. For example, consider...

Selection of workers:

The more bids you receive, the more bargaining power and selection you have, and the less you have to pay. However, some sites make money for themselves in ways that reduce the # of bids you receive.

Elance workers can't make more than 10 bids a month unless they pay a subscription fee ($10/month for 20, $20/month for 40 or $40/month for 60). This could reduce the number of qualified bids you receive.

At Rentacoder, we do not place a bid limit on any of our workers for any reason.


Unfortunately, 10-20% of projects fail (and on some sites this # is higher). If your worker is a bum, it's important the site offers escrowing and arbitration so you are guaranteed to get your money back. However, some sites charge so much for arbitration or make it so time consuming that it becomes impractical.

Elance charges $66.66 or $133.33 for each arbitration, which may make it too expensive to be a legitimate option on your project. And its mandatory pre-arbitration processes allow an abusive worker to stall the start of arbitration (consequently preventing you from accessing your money for *weeks*... 21 business days in fact). Elance's arbitration process can be tricky too, with each part of the process elongated with 3 - 15 business days in-between. What can be particularly frustrating is that Elance doesn't publish the detailed rules of its arbitration process.

oDesk's limited arbitration on pay-for-time projects is not based on quality of work, but simply whether or not the worker committed fraud-based solely on screenshots, not an analysis of deliverables. As a result, you could end up paying for work that isn't satisfactory.

At Rentacoder, we offer arbitration on all projects free of charge and we test your deliverables to make sure they meet requirements. We also prevent abusive buyers from stalling an arbitration's start. In fact, 45% of our arbitrations are completed under a day and 75% of them are completed under a week. Even more, we show the public how our arbitrators make their decisions.

In addition, most of these types of sites let you pay a worker you have employed before by the hour, which is the most convenient and cheapest way. However, Elance doesn't verify the worker's timecard is accurate. On Rent a Coder, workers must punch in and out of a timeclock, and you can see a continuous record of their webcam and desktop, so you know the time is accurate.

In addition, Elance does not offer escrowing on pay-for-time projects. And oDesk does not require escrow for pay-for-deliverables projects. But We protect your money with free escrowing on all job types.

There are other differences as well. I invite everyone to compare the 7 major services through this link to learn even more:

If you have any questions, please let me know. You can also call in to talk to a facilitator 7 days a week, or email us (see


emmajane said...


Thanks for your follow-up. Unfortunately I wasn't looking for a programmer--that would have been easy. I was looking for a graphic designer / compositor. This skill set in the open source world is difficult to come by. Having to log into Rent a Coder to even see if there are people matching my description doesn't fill me with hope.

I had no problems with the work that was completed for me by my Elance provider.

Thanks for your follow-up. I hope your site will be useful to those looking for coders.