TL;DR; It has been about a year since I joined Toptal as a developer. And overall the experience is rather disappointing so far. For a developer of my level and background I think it's more or less a waste of time. Let me explain why.
The interview process
I seem to encounter many references to the interview process in Toptal. Some say it's too hard, but most professionals seem to agree it's not too difficult. The company itself claims it achieves a high level of success by filtering out the bad developers and letting through only the best 3%. I don't know whether that's the case - the process is no more arduous then in many other places that I applied for in the past. Technically - very doable for any decent developer. Maybe they indeed let through only 3% of the applicants - but who knows what sort of people they have applying for them, and whether the figures are even up to date?
Another common complaint seems to include bad feedback during the interview process. I personally wouldn't say that. Whenever I had a practical question, it was answered. But it is extremely important to understand - passing their screening process will not by itself lend you with any gainful employment.
In terms of English skills of Toptal's representatives I had spoken with - not a single person was a native English speaker. Neither am I, to be fair, but still, my personal level was way higher than anyone I talked to.
Once you get in, the disappointments start piling up. Toptal's agents/employees don't seem to move a finger in order to find work for you. All you have is just another list of potential projects - and you have to apply yourself to whatever job you fancy. Unfortunately, 95% of them fall into these boring skills categories:
- HTML / CSS / other boring web stuff
- Mobile frontend
- Node.js (for those who don't know, this is an alien virus, carefully designed by their evil brilliant minds to destroy both computers and human brains alike)
There is precious little hard core development work, almost no C++/.NET/Java jobs, and very few projects that sound interesting even on paper.
The actual number of available projects seems to be pretty low. I think there are on average between 5 and 15 new ones added on weekdays, with almost no new work logged over the weekends.
But the worst bit comes later. Even when there are potentially suitable jobs, the rate expectations by the clients are, evidently, quite low. All the applications I have made so far have been rejected due to the fact that I'm too expensive.
Also, you don't get the chance to interact with the actual client until Toptal lets you. Initial communication is done by an agent of theirs. It is supposed to be by design, to make the process smoother for the client, blah, blah. Since as a developer you will get almost 0 (that's zero) feedback from the agent, you will never know whether the client was even informed about your existence or not.
There is generally very little feedback from Toptal with regards to the process - and as a matter of principle, they don't like to communicate with developers, despite all their flashy claims to the contrary.
By the way, the initial interview process will not, of course, free you from being interviewed and vetted by prospective clients.
Toptal seem to be very eager on getting free stuff from you. They keep on sending emails asking me to write free blog entries for their web site. Obviously, it is good for them - free high quality content is always handy if you want to improve your PageRank on Google. However, I seriously doubt their claim that having published blog entries increases your chances of finding more work. Slashing your rates and writing in disgusting PHP will be a much better way to do that.
There are lots of links and reviews on the Internet regarding Toptal that look suspiciously artificial and all too positive. I think that by itself should make you suspicious. And every time there is a negative comment on one of the more popular sites, they come in force and try to intimidate the complaining person.
This is what it is all about, right? As you have realized by now, my personal experience with TopTal hasn't been profitable at all. But what's worse, I have no idea what the clients would like to pay, or how much Toptal charges them on top of my fees. These figures are not disclosed anywhere and we, the developers, are explicitly forbidden to dive into such matters.
There are also all sorts of very harsh, around 30,000 USD, fines for various transgressions, such as trying to work for a client directly and so on. All those things make me think that the platform founders are very greedy, too greedy for their own good and for the good of long term stability of the environment they are trying to build.
At the time of writing I have earned exactly $0.00 from my activity at Toptal. I am naturally glad I have other sources of work and income.
Toptal might be a viable option for a junior developer doing mainly web-related work and happy with low rates People coming from countries with low cost of living might find this platform more attractive than I do. On the other hand there are alternative sites where probably the same or more money can be made without the cumbersome process of "interviewing" for the platform.
Toptal is a complete waste of time and utter disappointment for someone with longer experience in more hard code technologies and higher earning expectations. Do it only if you have time on your hands you are prepared to waste some of it.