I Interviewed With Toptal

Justin Mitchell

I heard about Toptal via an ad in @Jason’s Launch Ticker, jumped on their site and hit apply. The application process was pretty run of the mill, and ended in an odd choice of continuing like normal, or fast tracking my application by writing a blog about Toptal. This is a great content marketing strategy, but completely unprofessional considering you are asking me for spec work. Free blogs for the chance at a job. This is super anti-industry and I refuse to do it.

The application had a single spot for a personal web address, but didn’t really give me a chance to upload portfolio items or link to multiple projects which I thought was strange. Turns out, there’s a reason for that. They would like me to upload a PDF presentation. According to the email,

*…this “portfolio should contain 5 pieces of your best work, complemented with a short description for each piece. Feel free to keep the descriptions short, explaining the scope of the project, your direct contributions to it, and the rationale on choosing specific design solutions.” *

Better yet, this file HAS to be under 10mb. This is immediately a strange requirement. Most freelance designers these days use a significant web presence for showcasing their portfolio. Whether this is a Dribbble account or a personal website, our portfolios live online. How do I show interaction design or animations in a static PDF? Ok, sure, I can make a PDF, no problem. PDF was made and uploaded, and I emailed them for good measure to let them know it was uploaded. The response I got back was shocking.

*“The PDF portfolio shows us a lot more than just your work and process. We evaluate your skills as much on your presentation techniques, and how professional your document looks, as the work itself. You still have 5 days left if you want to upload a new one. The key here is to impress us at the first stage of the creative screening.”*

This is completely counter to their first email which stated they wanted a document exclusively to show my work and process. Ok, now they need a custom presentation. If I’m a UX designer, why do you assume I have skills to create a beautiful custom presentation in InDesign? How is this a testament to my user experience design skills? Why does this have anything to do with my job description? Furthermore, why am I required to do all this work when you can visit my website or Behance account and see exactly the same, and better, content?

As this new requirement is completely counter to the original requirement, I asked if I could see some examples of what they were looking for. Apparently all other designers’ pdfs are under strict NDA, so, no I can’t, I’m told. Here’s some other fun snippets from this email chain.

“You should spend a considerable time on your portfolio presentation”

“A custom made, multi-page, professional looking PDF presentation of your work is an essential part of our screening process”


“This is not a brochure style approach”

“A correctly compressed PDF presentation should always be part of your deliverables, and under 10MB”

Anyone who has made a custom multi page professional presentation knows that 10mb isn’t a realistic size requirement. Especially one made to showcase high quality design files.

So, I went off and spent an inordinate amount of time making a custom presentation for the folks at Toptal. However, before I was able to upload a new one, I got an email notifying me that my old, apparently not good, presentation was accepted and I have moved on to the next stage. Well this is frustrating, but ok fine. I forgot to mention earlier what the next step for Toptal seems to be after any milestone. It’s a Skype meeting. However, they won’t reach out and find a good time for a meeting. They send a cold automated email with a scheduling link inside that I am supposed to use. Now the best part about this is the complete lack of availability for any of the interviewers. I would page weeks at a time with no available times and the only ones that were available were unbelievably inconvenient time slots. Times starting at 4am in the morning EST, even though I had selected my time zone directly before proceeding to the calendar view. So, I booked a time for May 30th, at 10am as it was the earliest time available that didn’t mean waking up in the middle of the night.

Fast forward to today, the 30th. I set my alarm and wake up on time. I roll over to read my daily emails and see I have one from Toptal. It’s from 9:48 AM, chastising me like a child for not checking in 30 minutes prior to our meeting via Skype. Now notwithstanding the fact that it’s Memorial Day weekend here, but I’ve been running a very successful consulting and design agency for over 5 years, and not once have I checked in a whopping 30 minutes before a call. This may or may not be good, but it’s just not standard practice for me and I’ve been very successful without doing this. So immediately going into this meeting I feel like a middle school child who got pulled into the principal’s office. It’s not a great way to start a meeting. Really it was just the attitude in the email that put me off. Here’s a snippet.

“We have a call scheduled in less than 10 minutes, and you are supposed to check in with me 20–30 minutes ahead of the call. It is essential that you always clearly read and follow the instructions in our emails, regarding any calls.”

Having never worked with Toptal before, it’s a bit precocious of you to mandate my own personal meeting etiquette and then chastise me for not using it. It just comes across as unprofessional when you’re speaking to another professional. After all, your website states that you cater to the top 3% of all freelancers. That implies you will be working with professionals. I don’t need tips on how to run my company nor do I need instructions and correction on how to have a meeting. I’ve been doing this for a while Toptal. I don’t need your help.

So I go into this meeting already a bit peeved, only to have Carolina chastise me AGAIN over Skype for not checking in.

“You are supposed to check in with us 20–30min before any call.”

“My Skype details are included in the invitation to this interview email”

Here’s the kicker in this conversation though.

“I will unfortunately not be conducting this interview today, as it was supposed to be a training call with one of my new team member, but he is off sick”

I don’t need to know any of the following information. That’s insight into your company and employees that I don’t need. So after all that correction about meeting etiquette, Carolina drops that on me.

So she introduces me to Victoria who will be handling the call. There is light chatting in the group Skype before Victoria finally calls me. Here’s where the real motivation to write this article stems from.

Victoria begins the call by asking me if I’m nervous. This is a bit of a strange icebreaker, but I assure her I’m not, I’ve done this many times before. Again, you’re supposed to only be hiring the top 3% of freelancers. If I’m in the top 10% even, I’m not going to be nervous on this call. I’m a professional who’s been doing this for awhile.

She asks for a bit of information regarding my professional career and my design background. She seems to not care. No questions or further information; didn’t even ask the company name when I told her I co-founded a startup that went public. She moves on.

Victoria would like me to screenshare. I was aware this might be a requirement due to one of the many automated emails that came from Toptal prior to the call. Here’s a snippet.

”Keep in mind that this will be a professional interview. Imagine that you are talking to a client. Make sure your Internet connection is solid and fast enough to support screen sharing. It is expected that you are prepared, and ready to showcase and discuss your work.”

Alright, I have 300mbs down here at the house, and I’m certainly not at the office at 10am on a holiday so I’ll be fine. I begin the screenshare.

She asks to see some of my work and a project that I recently worked on where I can speak about the process that was involved. I pull up PassionList on Behance which you can view here http://jump.jmitch.com/tXK2lpz

I speak about all the client communication, pull up the client’s existing site, talk about how I crafted a new brand identity for them based off their target user base, how all the colors and fonts, and shapes all lead back to who is going to be using their site. This is apparently not enough. Victoria would like to see the process. She asks me to pull up wireframes and sketches for this project. I look briefly on my computer and can’t find any. She chastises me for not being prepared and mentions that I should have created a custom presentation for this call. This was mentioned nowhere in any of their emails, and is a bit ridiculous considering I don’t know what kind of questions they will being asking in advance. Again, you haven’t paid me yet. I’m not doing spec work.

I pull up another design, for the site Society.gg. The portfolio item which shows the logo design process and how I went from concept to concept before arriving at the final design and WHY that design was the final design based upon user research, client feedback, and their target market. This is again, not enough and I’m chastised for not being prepared with the old design files on hand.

I again explain that my process does not usually involve keeping lots of old rejected files lying around, especially after a project has ended but I could definitely show her a project that is still being worked on and a lot of this material exists for. I pull up a new dating app I’m working on for a client. She asks about research, personas, and user flows. I pull up an extensive Google Doc I have shared with the client with 19 carefully crafted questions. Each question has an answer from the client under it as well as comments by myself. These include personas they have built up, questions about features, about the experience, user demographics, competition, what states they will be launching the app in, how they plan to create a controlled experience like Uber and AirBnB did, etc. Weeks of research led up to this document. However, surprise surprise, this is not enough. She chastises me for not being able to SHOW the research even though I explain I can’t exactly physically show her research I’ve done in the past and is now in my brain. She asks for sketches. Oh thank goodness I still have these I think. I go into Dropbox and pull up the folder aptly named “Sketches — Wireframe”. I open each individual PDF file and show her actual scanned in pencil sketches of the app along with comments along the side for each screen. Like clockwork, this is not good. I am apparently not prepared, and I am not showing her the process. I literally have no idea what she is looking for. She asks to see how the sketches translated into a visual design. She is now audibly irritated with me.

I pull up the Sketch files for the project and show the initial concepts that are being worked on for the app. They have branding guidelines, and a couple variations of each screen. Again, these are not good enough and she suggests I show her a completed project as this one is still in progress. Well, as I’ve mentioned previously, I don’t keep a bunch of old files around for completed projects where the client is happy and I’m paid. I just have no need for them. She again scolds me for being unprepared. She is now being quite rude in her tone and comments.

At this point, she begins to tell me that as I’m unprepared and do not have a process I can show her, that I should re-apply in 3 months after I’ve had time to work on this. Again, this just comes across like the principle informing me I’ve been held back in grade school due to my behavior. I didn’t come to you Toptal to get educated.


Toptal is an online marketplace touting their commitment to only hiring the top 3% of freelancers. Here’s why I will NEVER work with them and why I suggest you don’t either.

Toptal asks for spec work in their application. I’m not writing you a free blog post promoting your site for the CHANCE at a job. Sorry.

Toptal requires a 10mb compressed pdf to showcase my work. This immediately eliminates interaction design and animations from my work. They require me to create assets that didn’t previously exist which will be sent to their clients instead of using my existing portfolio. This is again, spec work. Creating free content for your site, without the actual promise of payment or a job.

Toptal employees give conflicting information and requirements and require ridiculous amounts of effort to even begin working with them.

Toptal has a commitment to hiring professionals yet chastises and mandates the professional’s own meeting etiquette as well as their processes and how they work. This is rude, presumptuous, anti-industry, and asinine. Not everyone works the same way. To mandate your own processes you need to just be hiring employees, not freelancers. I didn’t sign up for a seminar. I don’t need your advice or consultation.

The top 3% of freelancers would not follow their process, they would follow what works best for them and their clients. Their selection process does not emphasise on quality at all, but reeks of condescension and a corporate like culture which they are trying to fight against apparently.

Toptal is made up of rude, inconsiderate, unprofessionals who think they are better than everyone else. Just read another freelancer’s similar experience here:https://www.reddit.com/r/freelance/comments/4k28sq/my_impression_of_toptal/

The comments themselves should persuade any industry professional from ever applying to Toptal. Similarly, I’d never suggest anyone hire from Toptal either.

Justin Mitchell
March 5, 2020

Product Designer & Entrepreneur. See my work at https://sofriendly.com. Get free stuff for your startup at https://GetSyrup.com


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