05/28/2014 02:54 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

Using Human Automation For Small Tasks

It's a problem every coder faces: When working on a large project, you inevitably come across tasks that are simply too granular and too time-consuming to carry out personally and can often be too complex to quickly code an automated solution. It might be categorizing videos, finding appropriate product images or manual data entry.

For these kinds of problems, the best solution can often be to turn to remote workers, who make money by doing these sorts of tasks online by the hour.

Time and time again, I've hired workers on oDesk, an online marketplace where you can hire people from all over the world at many different price brackets, and I've learned a few important lessons along the way. Read on for a look at my tricks for hiring and managing the most productive help online.

  1. As with any large online marketplace, oDesk is subject to abuse. Since it has an API, many remote workers try to apply to lots of jobs automatically. As such, their applications are not tailored to your job description and have been submitted with little care or attention. To weed out these automatically generated applications, I ask the worker to follow some simple instructions in their application. My current go-to instruction is asking them to include the shipping rates for an Amazon gift card to an address in the USA. If they do so, then the application might be worth a second look.
  2. As with references in the real world, the feedback an applicant has received from previous employers is key. On oDesk, a worker is rated on a 1 to 5 scale, with comments. From experience, I would advise never to hire someone without feedback or with no previous oDesk experience. Those people tend to disappear and never deliver the work. They're just trying the platform on for size. Personally, I never hire anyone with lower than a 4.5 rating. That's not to say there aren't great oDesk workers that are just getting started. I'll just let someone else vet them first.
  3. When you first post a job on oDesk, you will have floods of applications coming your way. If you're looking to target workers from a particular country, or with the same working hours as you, time your posting according to when they'll be at work. There's no point in looking for workers in the Philippines for instance, if 90 percent of the population is sleeping when your post goes up.
  4. Add all your freelance contractors to gchat. They rarely chat but sometimes they get road blocked and need to ask a question quickly. Asking a prospective contractor to gchat or skype prior to hiring them can also be a good way to ensure they're serious about the job.
  5. Write support documentation for the task, rather than explaining it directly to the contractor. That way, if you get a new contractor or add additional contractors, you don't have go over old territory by relaying the task again. This enables you to scale up or rehire quickly and without hassle. Explain tasks like you're explaining them to your mom. Make no assumptions that a remote worker knows the same technical terms as you or how your systems work -- they probably don't.