Doctor Strange stealing books

The Strangest Invitations I Ever Got via Online Freelancing Sites, Part 1: The Flash, The Delegator, and Doctor Strange

I’ve worked for years on those online freelance sites. When I started, I was quite impressed with how professional some clients are and how quickly you can land a project when you can just explain what you do for the client and be professional as always.

Sometimes, it is the client who gets way too funny. I soon came to realize there are some really crazy misses with almost no chance of getting any project started. Some of these strange Upwork invitations are just insane, some are simply hilarious!

I demonstrate each type briefly here. More fun stuff will appear in future articles. The good thing is that these online freelancing services keep chat logs so you can always go back in time and re-live your funniest moments if you ever need something to lift your mood. A great cheer-up to brighten a rainy day! By now, 2019, I have enough of these chats to start categorizing them by type, as there are indeed some common nominators that are clearly visible.

  1. The Flash: The project is simply unfeasible in practical terms, usually timeline, and the client is too busy to take care of anything, for example explaining at least some of the requirements before the project start.
  2. The Delegator: The client doesn’t realize the project should not be outsourced to anyone in the first place, he just got it all wrong in utmost desperation.
  3. Doctor Strange: The client is simply too strange to get to know even as a casual business contact. Eject, now!
  4. The Shopper: One of the most common types, who seem to assume freelancers work for free or close to it. Therefore, the name … right?
  5. The Lawyer: Very common client type who asks you to sign a non-disclosure agreement before even talking to you.
  6. The Googler: The client has no idea of how to use any search engine effectively and does not bother finding out how these freelance sites work, but, paradoxically, paying just about anyone is not a problem.
  7. The Scammer: The client is not trying to get good work done cheap, he is trying to skip paying altogether. These can be highly professional players in the freelance ecosystem on the wrong side of the law (and the service’s user agreements).

So, here is a long list of the strangest/funniest/most confusing chats about freelancing new projects that I have ever got. I have plenty of instances of each type, but I’ll limit the descriptions to actual encounters of just one per type.

My post-mortem comments on these very interesting discussions are noted with square brackets [like this one]. I’ve also done some formatting and fixing spelling mistakes for readability.

Type 1: The Flash

These clients I call The Flash. Too fast for the eye to catch. Their speed confuses their own perception of reality, perhaps in the same way as speed blindness. The impression I often get is like this: “Is it not done yet? Or did we even start? … What year is this?”

This example is one of those cases where the client seems to have become mixed up in organizing his/her work completely and had some mishaps with previous employees or freelancers. Bad management in general.

I got the invitation for doing a rework on a Kinect app that looked like a pretty good match with what I do (although probably simple and a bit boring) and even I would have had a semi-free weekend for finishing it. The description of work was halfway there and included some vague duties as “lead developer,” which is where this thing exploded straight at the start.

  • Hello and thank you for your invitation. I’d be interested in hearing more about what you aim to achieve. Did I understand correctly that you already have a Kinect app developed and would need a new lead developer to run the technical side of your project? Yeah, I could do that. Besides my portfolio, I have some background about my freelance works available here: I can also provide a detailed portfolio (pdf), should you require one. Would you be available for a Skype call this week to discuss your requirements and specs? Looking forward to hearing from you, Dr. Mike.
  • Please show me your Kinect project.

Ok. I appreciated the brevity and efficiency at this point. And a few minutes later I get to hear about the topic.

  • To start, I have a compiled project I would like you to take a look at: [a Dropbox link]. This is a platform that downloads scenes from the cloud and allows the user to record their experience. We would like to find a Unity / Kinect / C# developer that can take over the project. [I removed technical details here for brevity.] After reviewing we can dive into Github so we can outline our first set of milestones and see if the pricing and timeline make sense. Typically, we are a fast-paced company that has milestones that are 1-3 days long. What experience do you have with building scenes with Kinect?

So, it looks the client didn’t bother to look at my portfolio in the system or my website. Never mind that. I now had a link to the piece of software that needs to be improved. I downloaded and installed it. It runs on my PC. So far so good. It is just that I cannot log in and try it out in real.

  • Would you happen to have some login credentials I could use for testing it?

He gave me the credentials, and I got to try the app. It is some funny little thing with ugly animated characters attacking the player who is tracked by the Kinect sensor. Visual design is poor, game design poorer, 3D characters edgy, and, as I only got the executable, I can only guess the source code is even worse. I’ve seen students do better. Anyway, there was some fun aspect in trying it out since you can replay your session as a video which made me laugh, so I tried to stay positive and continue the discussion to see what the project is really about.

  • Yeah, I tried it, hahhah! It does need some work. I’d restart the game design part first.
  • I see you’re using [one of the good video recording software libraries]. That’s been my choice for a bunch of Kinect video recording applications as well. Can I ask what parts you have identified being technically difficult?
  • So what is your suggestion?
  • I’m just trying to understand what the job is… Do some game design and patch things up?
  • My Skype ID is [the client’s Skype name]

On Skype, we exchanged a few chat lines and agreed on a time for the call. I was, of course, perfectly on time and ready for the call. The client seemed to be on the go on a taxi and dropped me a few lines to tell me he would get back to me soon. He never did. Lucky me. Why his first project wasn’t a big success is probably because it was done in too much hurry.

Some clients are just too busy doing their thing that they seem to launch a large number of threads of communications and requests just to see which one starts to catch fire. They don’t seem to care if the project goes anywhere at all. I’ve had a few of these. The worst ones are those who never find the time to explain what exactly the job is or answer questions that the freelancer has. If you’re too busy to do your own work, how can you manage the work of others? These clients are typically expecting unrealistic schedules from freelancers, whereas their own scheduled meetings get canceled – because of being too busy!

Being Bolt-fast is great, but if speed itself is the end goal you’d better start doing the 100-meter dash for a living and skip hiring freelancers.

On a side note, I have to say, of course, that there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting a freelancer to save the day. I’ve saved the day a number of times by now. One that I remember clearly was a job for a young university professor to develop an exactly similar customized Kinect recording module. I got in contact with the client on Sunday evening, rescheduled my other projects, started on Monday morning, and finished before Wednesday morning. One of my happiest clients, I bet! But it is always required that both the client and the freelancer know what exactly needs to be done, in which way, by when, with whom, etc. Otherwise, no go, thank you.

Type 2: Delegator

This is an experience with a Ph.D. student that I can quite objectively call a clueless Ph.D. student. This may sound mean, but I admit I was one of the clueless Ph.D. students at one time. But it is fine – being clueless is the default position of any Ph.D. student! This is why I suppose this client found my online profile and probably had taken a look at my academic research, too. The job post only said something about finding “a partner” to conduct some sort of evaluation experiment, one half a line where the buzz words in the title made the title longer than the job description.

Well, I replied anyway … you never know, actually. Sometimes busy people just throw a hook, line, and sinker into the sea of freelancers and wait for someone to reply. But this strange “partner” request came to me as a personal invitation. Well, usually it only takes about 5-10 minutes to find out, so why not? The discussion started on a beautiful Saturday morning. The budget announced: $1,500, which clearly indicated that the client is an individual paying this from his/her own pocket.

  • I am doing some study on [some scientific buzz word] haptic systems for the fingers using [some scientific buzz word].
  • Thank you for your invitation. How could I help you, specifically? I have developed various AR/VR systems and tracking systems for research, and I can support in planning, executing and publishing the research as well. Have a look at my background:
  • Dear Mike, thanks for your email [this is the chat box of the system, not email… to be exact here]. I am interested in someone who can guide help me develop a Ph.D. dissertation as per this title [the thesis title with all the scientific buzz words].
  • Hey, sounds interesting! Do you already have some manuscripts/publications I could take a look at? Btw, I’m currently helping two Ph.D. students for finalizing their theses as a kind of consulting professor/external adviser.
  • Not in this area, I was doing something else then I realized I might not go far with it. That has informed the change of topic.

Already at the start, I got a funny feeling about this. There was nothing to start with to engage in a project, looks like… perhaps a first-year Ph.D. student who just found a new interesting topic, more interesting than the old one. On the other hand, I did my Ph.D. on medical training simulators and my Master’s thesis on co-operation in online virtual worlds, which were very opposite directions within the vast area of VR research, including research methods! So, I shouldn’t pass judgment. Been there, done that, although the main reason in my case was that I moved to another country, another culture, another science lab. So, I continued my inquiry.

  • So you’re trying to evaluate [some scientific buzz word] … is your perspective coming from psychology?
  • No, I am inclined to HCI.
  • The last time I was working on any (user) experience-related topic all the definitions, standards, etc. were really in their infancy. Complete mess. Haven’t checked if that research direction has got any more clarity over the last 5 years or so. I think you have a really cool topic! But perhaps hard to find a solid framework to be used as a basis… it’s going to be research that is really needed. Good pick.

Now, this started forming into a project in my own head. I had done plenty of Human-Computer Interaction research in 2003-2013 using all kinds of research methods. So, it’s right up my alley! And many Ph.D. students face enormous pressure from all directions. So, just being supportive is always a good idea. These things get personally very challenging and take years to complete, so you have to be fatherly understanding at times.

  • This line of research is big nowadays. A lot of research and funding is being channeled towards that. Coupling that with haptics will be very interesting, I thought because of the popularity haptics have gained.
  • I haven’t checked if that research direction has got any more clarity over the last 5 years or so. Cool. Could you just point me to some of the most important papers in[the scientific buzz word]?
  • Alright, will do that shortly. Just a quick one though, are you in a position to take the job? Do you have expertise in MATLAB and [the scientific buzz word]?
  • Not so much, but those are just tools to be used. Research projects are pretty hard to get sorted out on freelance sites. Especially to define when the project is ended and should be paid. But perhaps the bigger problem is that I don’t take any small projects below $5K anymore. Your $1,500 budget is more like a weekend job level of thing.

At this point, I had stated the obvious problem with the budget and was somewhat ready to wrap up actually. This sort of thing would require such close communications that the amount wouldn’t cover even the phone calls. But why not go through and see how this ends, it wouldn’t take many more minutes anyway. It would be nasty to leave things hanging by not replying at all.

Now, the client shared a link to some conference proceedings on one part of the topic, which happened to be a forum I had published something on a decade earlier. The other part remained obscure to me, so I had to ask that specifically also.

  • Hahah, EuroHaptics! It’s a cool conference. OK… Could you just point me to some of the most important papers in [the scientific buzz word]?

I got another link on the other topic, which didn’t really help with this discussion. Should I go and read all those things now or later? I was slightly puzzled. I had no idea what I’d need to deliver, still. And the job is of fixed-price type, a one-time deal.

  • Okay, any suggestions? We could agree on the timelines and map that to payment milestones. Research projects are pretty hard to get sorted out on [this particular freelance site].
  • Yes, we’d need to figure out very concrete milestones. Hahaha, okay, I could do $4K.
  • Hmmm…
  • Sure, I am open to your suggestions.
  • I’d really need to know more about the exact aim and what you’ve got so far (experiments or such). I’ll pop out for lunch, do a few other things and will be back online 2 hours later. Can we continue then?
  • No problem. Bon appétit!
  • Ok, talk to you later. Just in case you need to reach out, use [email address of the client].

I really was going for lunch, but the client thought I’d split off, so I got the email address. The timing of the lunch was flawless as I hoped that the client would use the time properly for thinking how to structure this project. Still, I had not the faintest clue about what I’d need to do. Thus I could only state the minimum charge to this person so that the thinking would be focused on what deliverables would be worth the original $1,500 stated in the job description. But no. We just continued on the same track, unfortunately.

  • Hi Mike, let me know your final thoughts on the job. Regards.
  • Final thoughts: I haven’t got any idea what I’d be doing in real. If it is indeed just some Matlab work to be done, I suggest you find a research assistant of some sort, and pay by the hour. It doesn’t look like a fixed price job.

It is a blunt message, of course, but I really could not get this person to understand what is necessary to be typed in this chat box. This left little room for misinterpretation.

  • Hi Mike, I am looking for someone to do the actual writing of the proposal and do the implementation. I call it a fixed price job because it will be a one-off kind of job. No new requirements will be introduced after we agree. Anyway, let me know if you can manage.
  • To be fixed price this low, the scope would need to be explained in detail. The freelancer needs to be able to estimate how many days it takes, otherwise, fixed price won’t work. Anyway, I don’t think I can manage this. All the best and good luck.

That was it, for now, but most amazingly, this was not it. Fifteen months later, I got the same request again! It seemed like the student has not progressed one bit, is still looking for a way forward, and found my profile anew without realizing we went through this once already. So, I changed my approach slightly.

This time, the discussion started as it would seem to always start, but I turned into something productive, at least. I was away when the invitation came.

  • Thank you for your invitation. I’m traveling at the moment, available for discussion next Monday on.

Two weeks passed without any message. Then one day we happened to be online at the same time, so we could proceed to live chat.

  • Hi Mike, hope you’re well. Please look at the attached roadmap … the project involves the development of a Ph.D. thesis and implementation. The proposal is done but requires some edits. Would you be interested in this project? Or perhaps know someone who would be interested and who can do some credible job? I would be happy if you referred me to them.
  • Sure, I can take a look. Where can I find your roadmap, exactly?

I expected a decent plan with some clear requirements for the work, but no. Again! It was basically a well-defined list of book chapters of the thesis with expected finish dates, only! Some had a word or two to indicate the need to perhaps creating some sort of research tool and running an experiment using it, but no details were given about these. A couple of new scientific papers would need to be written as well. So, here we go again. One obvious problem was that one of the finish dates was already passed and the next one would be tomorrow! I struggled to keep my cool.

  • OK, I see. So you want me to conduct a “Review of the proposal by university professor” tomorrow for a certain price. Is that correct?
  • The timelines on the road map have been overtaken by events. The review of the proposal by working on the corrections given by the professors during the defense is the very initial step … but then after that, I will require your help in doing the implementation and writing of the chapters (i.e 4, 5 and 6).
  • I see. Are you looking for someone purely to help you with the writing part?
  • I am looking for someone to help me with both in writing and in executing the experiments using the [name of a force feedback device I used almost 15 years ago] … the data we get from the experiments will be used for modeling. So I’m looking for someone who understands haptics and is good in [the scientific buzz word] and its implementation in either Matlab or [name of some other statistical tool].
  • Wow, sounds like a big project. I had a [name of a force feedback device I used almost 15 years ago] when it was brand new … I think more than 10 years ago.
  • Hahaha, that sounds like a long time … I am forced to use it because I did not find any datasets online for [the scientific buzz words] in haptic devices.
  • [name of the statistical tool] is something I haven’t used much. I think I had it installed once, or something. I’ve used it sometimes a bit, I’m not an expert. Any idea of how many hours this would take for me?
  • Due to the nature of the project, I would want us to work by milestones instead of hourly rate … such that we agree based on the roadmap, you enumerate the what you would charge me … what do you think?
  • So, the problem here is that there is no description of the technical work to be done, so it’s impossible to put a price tag on it.
  • Okay, if I understood you well, the technical part in this case would be; a) working on the corrections on the proposal – entails academic writing perhaps it would total to about 7-10 pages based on the corrections form my supervisors, b) vetting chapter 4 – entails executing the experiments to come up with primary data, performing data mining tasks like data pre-processing, training a model … developing membership functions for the [scientific buzz word] part etc., Chapter 5 – analysis, Chapter 6 – conclusion. I also do not understand it fully … hahaha.
  • No problem, that’s how doing your Ph.D. is! 😀 That’s the point. What you’re supposed to learn is to how to do research. Can I suggest a good way forward?
  • Sure …?
  • OK, gimme 2min.
  • Alright, waiting.

I’m still puzzled why I even responded in the first place, given the status. I suppose I like to solve problems and help others … that must be it. It didn’t make any sense to outline the approach that literally took two minutes for me whereas this student hadn’t figured out in over a year. Well, if it’s just two minutes and it helps someone, why now … I guess.

  • The key is to think of the experiment first: How to make it really impressive, credible and how to avoid all risks while executing it.
    • Step 1: If it involves any kind of software development, make a good specification. Set up a job here on Upwork specifically for just the coding part.
    • Step 2: Run your experiment the software being your research apparatus.
    • Step 3: If the analysis part is really heavy (e.g. using Matlab) outsource specific parts of the analysis to research assistants you can find here easily. Specify the work for each person separately.
    • Step 4: Hire an academic writer to help you finish your papers and thesis. You need to provide a draft or at least outline level job scope to them.
    • I think that would be my 4-step plan to get your project done.

Please note, planning the experiment is nearly impossible to outsource. It’s just you with your supporters (profs and maybe other students in your research group) who should do it.

  • Great, this sounds more like it! Thanks for your advice. I will review the specifications as advised. I will definitely come back to you for Step 4. I was thinking to also do this myself since once I buy the gadget, it will be easy to get some students who can be my users for experiments.
  • Do me a favor and check my Upwork profile. Which of those steps I listed is matching with what I do (here under this system)?
  • Well, initially when I checked your profile, I got the impression that you are expert in haptics and so I thought you are the go-to on everything haptics … and more so because you have a Ph.D., then this would have been a walk in the park … but after your deep insight, I should reconsider my approach.
  • Correct answer: Step 1 only. 🙂
  • Okay, many thanks indeed.
  • OK, good luck!

Phewwww! This kind of Ph.D. student does need extra help!

After two long chat sessions over a year apart we never got into any discussion on what I’d need to do, except “help” in everything. What exact proposal writing would I need to do? I could help as I’ve pushed numerous funding applications through before when I worked as an assistant professor ten years earlier. There wasn’t a single mention of any technologies that we might need, other than using Matlab for analysis and that haptic device. No outline of the experiment, environment, size, and time … I suppose the client had not figured out at all what needed to be done in real. No action plan whatsoever.

A year had passed without any progress, seemingly. That’s where the help would be needed; perhaps trying to outsource the hardest part of the Ph.D. process itself! You can only learn science through the act of trying to do science and if you’re lucky you don’t need to do it completely alone. You have your professor and other students in your research group. You cannot delegate your key contributions to anyone. It is perfectly fine to outsource the implementation of making research tools like what I’ve done plenty and would have been happy to do the same for this client, too if I just knew what it was! I only know what hardware would be needed, that’s all.

It is also perfectly fine to get general suggestions for your research from any competent scientist; which I could give. That’s how science works. But, as a fixed price freelance project, what could I have delivered in a way that this client would be happy about it? A fixed-price project to “do something” is not a project.

This strange Upwork invitation resembled the "Do something!" scene in Spaceballs

A textbook example of bad delegation: “Do something! Do something!! Do something!!!”

I hope this person managed to get the degree finished but I strongly doubt it. Unfortunately. I bet I get another request to execute Step 4 in 2020. 🙁

Type 3: Doctor Strange

Some clients are just strange. No matter how professionally you conduct your part of the discussion, the client ruins it with completely unprofessional behavior. These can be strange requests, such as what I got not too long from the time I was writing this in 2019: after a long chat, the client reveals that he actually wants to buy a developer account from me since it is not available in his country. I didn’t sell.

But the funniest case by far is this one. I got an invitation for yet another job that was about making a Microsoft Kinect app for sports. A few years back there were plenty of those and the keywords match exactly with what I had done before, so I took this project as “yet another one of those.” The same old, same old. However, the customer just got strange. The job title says pretty much exactly the same keywords as in the title with a description having “I need someone to” in the beginning. So, I had no clue when we started the discussion one day in September. After the normal introductory messages, I stated my relevant background right there and since the client was not online at the moment, I left him something to continue with later.

  • I made a full-scale product for personal trainers in Singapore a few years back as a startup CTO, featured here: My system could assess an athlete’s posture and joint mobility accurately. Sports is a good application area for developing hi-tech solutions. Plenty of room for innovations still today. Maybe my invention and patenting services could be of some use to you as well. I’d love to hear about your idea and intended scale & timeline of development. The quotation I put here will be revised as soon as I learn more about your aim.

A bit later there was a reply.

  • Can you create [a YouTube link]?

So, I got a YouTube link to something I was sure to be pretty similar to my earlier sports app since that was the title of the project. But, actually, the link shows a Kinect app that has absolutely nothing to do with sports; some kind of entertainment app instead.

  • Sure, I’ve done quite similar work in Japan: I provide the software, not the hardware and props. Are you free for a Skype call to discuss details of your requirements?

No reply. So didn’t think of it anymore. These messages come and go. Then, 1 month later I happened to be online at the same time as the client.

  • Hi Mike.

And that was it. This last message came in October. Surprisingly, that was not the end of it. The follow-up took place in – July next year! I happened to be online then, again. Luckily, it went really quickly.

  • Hi Mike.
  • Hello [whatever name I see in the chat box], how is it going?

And that was it. Again! What is this …? Of course, when I encounter something new and peculiar, I have the urge to form a theory of how and why the phenomenon could have occurred. (Once a scientist, always a scientist … sorry.) My first bet is that this client is The Drunken Master. His idea must be great, but he probably can never manage to explain it. He thinks of something, but nothing audible (or readable) comes out in real. But I bet he can do amazing stunts despite (or because of) the fact that he’s completely drunk.

The Drunken Master demonstrating how your highly-trained muscle memory can do about anything regardless of your mental condition. But don’t drink and fight (or type)!

My second theory, although far less likely: a time traveler. Third one: Doctor Strange from the astral plane? Or some kid in real. But who knows, really? 🙂 Well, anyway I didn’t waste too many minutes on this.

Doctor Strange stealing books

… or perhaps it was Doctor Strange from the astral plane. 🙂

To be continued: More strange Upwork invitations

OK, that was just the introduction of the three first client types who might send you strange Upwork invitations. I have far too many interesting experiences to share and I’ve now only covered the obvious ones. Coming up next are the most common client types: The Shopper, The Lawyer, and by far the funniest one, The Googler. Read on: Part 2.