Co-Founder, Mentor and Toptal Freelance Developer: The Climb From Intern to Senior Engineer

Two weeks into his first post-college internship in 2000, Toptal freelancer Sanjin Cabaravdic was promoted from intern to lead software developer in a single day.

That's a little like being a passenger on an airplane and then being told to build one as soon as it lands.

It's just not supposed to happen. So how did it happen to Sanjin?

Sanjin had just started working at Renderland, a software development firm based in Sarajevo, Bosnia, when unfortunate events struck one after the other. First, the owner of Renderland, had to go into last-minute surgery. Then, the lead developer quit in the middle of a major project. Unwilling to incur the fines that would follow if they abandoned the job, the company gave Sanjin two options: take on the project himself, or the company would hire someone else to do it.

"I was young and stubborn, so I said yes. For about a month, I was going home two days a week and slept in the office the rest of the time. It was easier that way because I had to learn everything so fast. I almost broke my back on the project, but I'm glad I did it that way. I think that's what you have to do right out of college. You have to claw your way up."

After three and a half months, Sanjin was able to complete the entire project with the modest help of two late hires, an unbelievable success.

Fast forward to the present, and that stubbornness and drive has paid dividends for Sanjin. He is an engineer at Toptal, a global network of elite freelance developers, and is simultaneously the project manager and a senior developer at Genijalno.ba, a software development company he co-founded with Senad Biser (also a Toptal freelancer) seven years ago. He works part-time at each, juggling more than most sane people could handle. Sanjin loves this balance for the project variety it brings.

"I joined Toptal two and a half years ago with Senad at a time when our company wasn't doing so well, and we learned a lot from Toptal. We saw that their model was successful, and we have been emulating some of what they do. We want to be more like Toptal."

Genijalno.ba currently has 12 employees, four of whom are working on the company's flagship project, a huge Java-based software program for the U.S. education system. The company has a physical office in Sarajevo, but it's only used by some of their employees. Adopting a piece of Toptal's remote structure, the company has a policy that allows senior employees to work remotely, only coming into the office if they want to or for a big meeting. Junior developers, however, have to be in the office every day, and intermediate level developers three days a week. This structure was a very intentional choice.

"We have four junior developers at the moment, so I'm in the office pretty much every day when I'm not traveling myself, because they need somebody to be there. They're going to get their work done with or without supervision, don't get me wrong, but I'm not sure how fast they would grow. Our goal is to have all of our developers become seniors as soon as possible. Of course, that takes time, but if you invest in people and show them how things can be done faster and better, it really pays off in the end. That's why I'm in the office every day, teaching the younger developers and showing them the ropes."

So, in other words, Sanjin is kind of like the Mr. Miyagi of software development.

Not only does Sanjin believe in putting in time and effort for his junior developers, he even encourages his developers to find success outside of his company. Many of Genijalno.ba's employees are also Toptal developers, and others are preparing to enter the interview process, which is well-known for its difficulty and has been covered by Fox Business.

"We want to make sure our employees have every opportunity to succeed, even if that's not with our company."

The company wasn't always this way though. For most of its early years, the company was just Sanjin and Senad, and they had no one to mentor. In fact, the first time they tried expanding, the company almost collapsed. Four years ago, the company hired five employees, and they took on one of their biggest projects to date. The client promised substantial payment, and Sanjin believed him.

The client never paid.

This is a common frustration and continual problem for freelancers. In the end, the company was left with massive debt, no projects, and no employees except for Senad and Sanjin. Once again, Sanjin was faced with two choices: let the company die, or get up and start again.

As before, Sanjin opted out of the easy path and chose to rebuild with Senad. A year or so later, Sanjin discovered Toptal through a friend, and the network became something of a saving grace. Toptal provided Sanjin with financial stability and lessons on how to run an effective business.

"Over time, we cleared our debt, and the company is really good now. It was a lesson learned. I can't say I'm happy that it happened, but I'm glad in a way. Defeat is better sooner than later, and we are a better business today than we ever were before."

Sanjin first got into software development back in 1998. Like so many teenagers, he loved video games, and he wanted to learn programming in order to make games himself. Skilled in mathematics, programming came naturally to him.

Sanjin attended the Technical University of Berlin and started his college career as a robotics major. "I get bored easily," he tells me, and he soon switched to Literature, then to Astrophysics, then to Multimedia studies.

It's this same desire to do so many different things at once that discouraged Sanjin from making video games, which take three or four years to build, and drew him to Toptal, a completely distributed network that connects the world's experienced developers with compelling clients. In the two and a half years that Sanjin has worked at Toptal, he has been a part of fifteen to twenty projects.

"I prefer to mix it up and work on short projects that last between a few weeks and four months. I'm the kind of guy that if I had to work on one project for an entire year, it would probably kill me. Like I said, I get bored easily. One project I'll do front-end and work with JavaScript. For my next project, I don't want to do front-end or use JavaScript, so I'll work on the back-end. Then I'll do databases after that. It's important that I'm able to change up projects. Toptal always provides enough projects that I have options to choose from. That's one of the best parts of the company."

Sanjin says this casually, but it's incredibly difficult to be so good at so many things. Many developers spend their entire livelihood specializing in just one of these things in order to make a living.

Given how often he changes projects, he has remarkably little lag time between work opportunities, usually just a few days. Generally, you can constantly be working if you want to be, Sanjin asserts, and if not, you can tell Toptal that you want time off and enjoy a break.

Sanjin, however, rarely takes breaks, and on top of his work, he brings his hands-on mentorship with his own company to Toptal too. A little more than two years ago, Sanjin became a Toptal Community Leader in Bosnia. At the time, there were only two Toptalers in the whole country, but the ranks have since swelled significantly, a mark of success for both Sanjin's abilities and Toptal's structure.

Sanjin is currently in Prague, where he's organized a Toptal community dinner. He tries to throw at least one community event a month and does something new each time. He has done everything from the dinners mentioned above to seminars and bootcamps.

No, not that kind of bootcamp. There is no physical rigour or sweat involved. Instead, these are events in which Toptal developers guide potential applicants through tough coding exercises comparable to the Toptal screening process.

"Everything about these community events is Toptal-related. A Toptal developer or employee will be the one organizing it, and in the case of a seminar, will be the one teaching it too."

Earlier this summer, Sanjin participated in a larger Toptal event exclusively for developers and employees of the company. Fourteen Toptalers rented a house near the Balaton Sound Festival in Hungary, working and lounging in the house pool by day, and dancing and celebrating at the festival by night.

"During the festival, a developer in my company contacted me with a problem he had with one of our iOS projects. I don't really like iOS, and I didn't have an iPhone at the time. I thought, how am I going to debug this? Well, there are fourteen elite developers living with me. I went outside to where everyone was hanging out, and said, hey, surely one of you must be a mobile CSS guru. Three people raised their hands. How about on the iPhone? One person put their hand down. Okay, you two, which of you will help me? They solved the problem in five minutes and explained the mistakes to my developer one by one. That is one of the perks of being connected to such an intelligent group of developers. There's this collaboration process that makes everything go faster."

Sanjin enjoys working at Toptal and has embraced its global community and the traveling lifestyle, but he hasn't forgotten his own climb to the top and what it took to get there.

"Being able to go where I want and still get my work done is a good thing. But to get to this level of professionalism, you need to learn. During my first job, I had a mentor in the office, and that was really important to my development as a programmer. That's what I'm trying to do with the employees in my company now.

"But once you know what you're doing, get out of the office. Go see the world, travel, be a digital nomad."