Personal experience: Data Engineering at Upwork

    For many years I worked as a Data Engineer and Data Scientist, solved complex business cases, built large systems, put it all into production. At the beginning of 2017, I quit drinking, smoking and working in the office and left to freelance, experimenting with alternative forms of employment. Quite a lot of time I spent on Upwork. Judging by the numerous comments, a respected audience does not fully imagine what it is. Broadcast.

    Upwork is the world's largest freelancing exchange. Date Satanists and data engineers are needed by very few people in this world (compared to translators, webmasters and copywriters of texts), so there are relatively few tasks for us, so they are off to the largest stock exchange in the world. There are no other freelance exchanges with a constant stream of tasks for date scientists in the world - neither Guru, nor Toptal, nor the domestic can boast with demand. What is important is that for freelance specialists, the experience of freelancing can be very different.


    Upwork is a global exchange. This means that in one swamp compete free-lance masters from Russia and Argentina, mediocre rogue from the US and the EU, as well as the national pride of Kenya and the Philippines. There is a strong shift among customers towards countries with high prices, i.e., mainly North America and Western and Northern Europe. However, sometimes there are customers from other countries, but they want to work with Aboriginal people at prices slightly higher than local ones. By eye, the flow of local customers is about 10%, among them there are customers from Russia.

    A characteristic feature of the customer at Upwork - he wants cheap. This is either rogue, or crumbling, or a drug addict. If he had the money, the desire to pay and a sober mind - he would go to the local vendors / integrators, the benefit is enough everywhere. Cheap by the standards of expensive countries is by our standards also not much. Do not flatter yourself, those who want to work with famous Russian hackers are looking for them through other channels.

    Separately, it is worth highlighting inadequate customers, drug addicts. However, no, it is not necessary to illuminate them once again, just note that their share is significant. Any stories about kidalovo and bans happen just with them. Never work with assholes - this rule knows no exceptions and concerns not only Upwork.


    From the previous paragraph it is clear that most (by eye, 80%) of the tasks for Upwork are the most dismal impassable swamp. If someone thinks about the rapid growth of skills in freelancing, I hasten to upset you - the rapid growth of skills is not achieved here, but in our Front Tier, for example.

    Freelancers can be divided into two categories, between which migration is unlikely. One category is those who entered freelancing early. These are poorly trained people without a creative culture who have never seen the work of masters. They quickly touch in their spontaneous approach, grow slowly and work for pennies. In addition, after such a degradation, it is already difficult for them to get into a normal in-house. The best way out for them is to open a commercial vein in themselves and move from a mountain executor to a novice salesman or organizer.

    The second category - those who entered the freelance late. These are people who have gained experience and culture in large, serious projects, their experience is in some way unique and valuable in itself. They can build a good solution from scratch or breathe new life into a project rolling downhill. Only this category can earn good money, but only if it is properly positioned. Hence the moral: do not start a career with freelancing - you lose time!


    At the freelance exchange customer places orders, describing what he needs to do. For a typical task for the date of an engineer or a Satanist in two or three days, a couple of dozen offers from freelancers come. For comparison, the task of Wordpress first hundred runs over a few hours. More than 90% of the proposals are from rowers from the sunny valley of Limpopo and sultry Kashmir, for whom one hundred bucks is a serious capital of the whole village. To incriminate with them at a price is impossible, which means that it will be necessary to incite something else. For example, in the experience and level of customer service. This means that even if you are a junior who is ready to work for food, you have no reason to ask for a smaller rice bowl - it will still be ten times larger than the competition.

    Sometimes there are more or less decent tasks from adequate customers for non-zero money, and this is the only thing to be done. Due to the small concentration of good tasks, as well as the total prevalence of the first category freelancers, the number of good specialists is also small. Due to the wide variety of tasks, there is practically no competition for a good task among good specialists, and this is despite dozens of cheap proposals. If you choose the right niche and you are not very picky, you can take on the flow of orders of decent size.

    Works on Upwork are hourly and fixed price. Many prefer hourly pay due to its predictability. Fixed-value contracts are a more complex tool, with a lot of advantages and disadvantages, but if you know how to use them, they are preferable. For me it was important that contracts with a fixed price allow you to upgrade the skills of a designer and a negotiator, and also give you more operational freedom. In addition, for hourly data science contracts with novice customers, it is sometimes difficult to explain why it took a week of experiments for 20 lines of code and why you track the time to learn the model, because if the model is learning by itself - why would you pay at all?

    Sometimes upwork comes across full-time orders for a long time, and many find them convenient. In fact, this is the same office work, only without an office and according to the laws of a barbarous exchange, and not according to the cozy TK RF. The freelancer on such a task is treated almost like an office employee, with one exception, that he is some kind of muddy Wahhabi from the snowy Russia, and it is easy to kick him out, happen that. Gathering two or three such orders and spending 100 hours a week on them is the dream of a greedy workaholic with caffeine addiction. However, I was not interested in such orders, I was looking for diversity.

    Keys to success

    First, 87% percent of freelancers will never receive a single order or complete a single task. Among the typical set of zero profile proposals, there will be 50-70%. Taking the first order is the most difficult quest . To make it more fun, Upwork carefully ensures that freelancers do not cheat and try to imitate the first order. But then, as soon as you manage to take the first order, you will immediately become a more serious candidate than half the competitors, and your conversions will increase by an order of magnitude. It took me a couple of weeks to receive the first answer, taking the first order took a month, and after two months it somehow went and went. However, on the forums, freelancers write that a couple of months for taking the first order is good, and six months is within the normal range.

    Secondly,the most important thing in freelancing is to stand out from the wild shapeless crowd. This is called positioning. There are two main tools for positioning on Upwork - this is cover letter and profile. How to make them good, there is a whole science, called marketing. The bad news is that you will have to pump self-marketing to the level of "above average" if you want to get a little bit significant money. Freelancer income is more correlated with marketing than with hard skill, alas. I realized this quickly and began to aggressively study both specific resources for freelancers and literature for consultants, and even bought some courses, below I will share links. As a result, I positioned myself as Big Data Architect, which can design the entire vertical of a business case on open source solutions. In the future, I have further narrowed this positioning in the business. So, a freelancer is either uniquely positioned or starving.

    Thirdly, take the time to search for customers . Seriously, this will be an important part of your work. I found only those tasks that fully fit my positioning - they will be easy to take, you can decorate the profile with them, you can also experiment on them with new approaches. For me, it was normal to send a one-two proposal for a week. I read the task meticulously, googled incomprehensible things, immediately threw a complete project plan and wrote for a long time a killer propozal. It was not a sin for me to spend an hour on a small text; moreover, the smaller the text, the harder it is to write. As a result, I sometimes spent up to 10% of my time searching for clients, but the conversion was very good.

    About money

    And now the fun part.

    Typical freelancer of the first category earns $ 15-30 per working hour. With full employment, 150-300 thousand rubles a month comes out “super gross”, but full employment is available only to the most sought-after ones. From the “super-gross” one should deduct the exchange commission (5-20%, median 10%), bank charges (2%, if everything is clever) and taxes and fees (about 8% for individual entrepreneurs). Further, now you pay for the workplace, equipment and insurance (for example, depreciated at 5% of the payroll), as well as sick leave and vacation pay (about 10% of the payroll). There is an option to work around the exchange “rough” and save on commission, but this is a completely different story. Total, from the "super-gross" remains about 65%. So, an experienced freelancer of the first category with regular customers can count on a profit of 200k with a revenue of 300k. Since the revenue is decent, and the citizen has not mastered the accounting, he will be satisfied and will take the pitch over office rowers in special chatikah.

    Freelancers of the second category can earn $ 30-60 per working hour . This will give him revenue up to 600k, profit up to 400k. This is much more noticeable money, probably larger than the salary of a citizen in a decent office, and comparable to the salary of a citizen in a severe corporate hell. Less than 5% manage to earn even more, higher units can charge more than $ 100, but nobody seems to be working on such rates at full time. Legends say that some in the moments of rapid growth can go over a 100-hour week and finish more than 1 million rubles a month “clean”, but this in the medium term is fraught with serious health problems and a drop in revenue below average. As a result, 5 million rubles a year “clean” is an impenetrable ceiling for a freelancer on Upwork.

    In my adventures, I did not try to maximize revenue and earn as much money as possible - I experimented. I meticulously selected customers and honed sales pitch'i and, in the end, for several months I went from a rate of $ 30 and zero demand to $ 60 and overbook, and then to $ 75. At high rates, demand declined, the pitches became more difficult, for $ 85 to start the project was no longer possible. But, I think, if I lowered my “client standards” a bit, I would eventually be able to gain a foothold at this level and recruit a full portfolio of clients. Moreover, with the growth of the rate, the competition felt ever weaker - in the eyes of the client I was much more expensive and better than the competitors, it remained only to convince him that he really needed good, and not cheap.


    In addition to freelance exchanges, I experimented with other sources of employment. I found that working as a contractor on domestic projects is no less profitable than messing up with foreign customers on Upwork, but it’s much nicer and more beneficial for society. A little later, I found that working as a private consultant was even more profitable, more pleasant and more useful, so I focused entirely on this, and later scaled myself into a whole company and positioned myself even more narrowly. In general, I do not recommend freelance exchanges as a way of employment, however, if you are just starting the path of digital nomad, then Upwork will be a good temporary help.


    • Freelance Exchange - a tough and harsh world
    • Do not work with assholes
    • Do not start your career with freelancing
    • The most terrible thing is to take the first order.
    • The most important thing is marketing
    • Do not try to compete on price.
    • Compete for a unique advantage
    • Writing proposals to customers is a separate serious work.
    • Earn 400k "clean" per month - really
    • Making the equivalent of an office salary of $ 100 per hour is not realistic

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