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Please Direct all Inquiries to My Agent

I got an email from a recruiter not too long ago.  I suppose that’s not a surprise, given how I’ve made my living, but what might surprise you is that I usually respond to recruiters, and politely at that.  They’re human beings, trying to earn a living in a way that I don’t envy.  These days, my relatively stock reply is to thank them for reaching out, tell them that I’m pretty happy and thus pretty picky, and to offer to chat anyway, if they just want to network.  As a developer with some community presence, a serial freelancer, a consultant, and general entrepreneur, it never hurts to talk for a few minutes and make a connection.  This recruiter persisted, and said that, even if it wasn’t a current fit, something might make sense later.  Sure, why not?

Come Hear about this Depressing Opportunity!

When she called, we exchanged pleasantries and she asked what I’d been doing lately in a professional capacity.  I explained that the last 2 years had seen me as the CIO of a company, running an IT department, and then going off on my own to do freelance development, consulting, coaching, and a cadre of other activities.  At this point, she began to explain what life was like for line level devs at her company and asking what tech stack I preferred.  I sighed inwardly and answered that I’d been engaged in coaching/mentoring activities in Java and .NET recently, but that I didn’t care too much about language or framework specifics.  She then asked about my career goals, and I scratched my head and explained, honestly, that I was looking to generate enough passive income to work on passion projects.  She became a little skeptical and asked if I had recent development experience, clearly now concerned that whatever it was that I’d been doing might not qualify me to crank out reams of line-o-business code or whatever fate she had in mind for me.

The conversation had become deeply tiring to me at this point, and I steered it to a close relatively quickly by telling her I had no interest in line-level development positions unless they were freelance, B2B, part time sorts of engagements that weren’t very long in duration (and not bothering to mention that I’d probably sub-contract something like that since I don’t have an abundance of time).  She assured me that all of the positions she was hiring for were W2, full time positions but I should give her a call if I changed my mind and felt like being an architect or something, and that was that.

I hung up the phone, sort of depressed.  Honestly, I wished I’d never taken the call more profoundly than if I’d interviewed for some plum gig and been rejected.  This just felt so… pointless.  I couldn’t really put my finger on why, and indeed, it took my subconscious some time to kick into useful mode and deposit it coherently into my active brain.DevOpportunityCost

I’d just told her that I’d left a C-level position to go off on my own doing management consulting, development coaching, and freelance, passive income generation, and her response was to invite me in for a chance to set the clock back about 5 years on my career.  It was like I told her that I’d really hit my stride and was enjoying myself and she said, “well, that’s too bad, but you have an awesome opportunity to change all that and come work here!”  Flashbacks of Expert Beginners past with their weird internal frameworks and excessive coding standards danced in my head.

But this was a problem easily solved by hanging up, so what was the depressing part?  It was that this person and legions of others like her are the people that we, as technologists, allow to shape our careers.  There’s such a talent vacuum compared to the development jobs in need of staffing that we’re being sought simply for having pulses and everything else is just details.  And, hey, if we’re willing to interview for and accept a job that offers a massive pay cut, makes absolutely no sense for our career aspirations, and would leave a prospective manager scratching her head, well, hey, that’s HR’s retention problem in a few weeks of this ‘deftly executed’ hire.

I’ve had my fill of participating in organizational seniority structures that act as proxies for mostly un-measurable value creation.  I have no desire to “work my way up” anywhere, or to participate in “career development” activities, or to hear about how awesome it is to be able to wear jeans on Friday or whatever feeble perk is supposed to placate me.  Frankly, while I’m having a lot of fun with current clients and engagements, my main career ambition is to semi-retire and build things that I like.  It’d be awfully nice if I could explain this to someone and that someone would listen and clue me in to potential, mutually beneficial arrangements.  Kind of like, you know, an agent.

Agency via Agency

I tweeted this thought earlier tonight, and it led to some interesting conversation:

Two sites were pointed out to me: 10X Management and TopTal. These are intriguing, especially when compared to recruiters dialing for dollars for their companies, but check out the prominent offers on the landing pages. “The World’s Most Talented Independent Technologists, At Your Service.” “Hire the top 3% of freelance developers.” There’s still no doubt where the bread is buttered and who is the customer versus who is the product. The “developer as chattel” vibe remains, with the difference being that they guarantee that this is primo, 3-percenter, 10X chattel.  (I snark, but I actually think these sites are cool — they’re just incremental improvement rather than the revolutionary improvement I’m looking for)

FungibleDevelopers

I do a lot. All of my audacious “semi-retirement” talk has been made possible by almost a decade’s worth of 60 hour weeks that are still going strong. I got a Master’s at night while working full time. I’ve written 2-3 blog posts per week for the last 4+ years. I make courses for Pluralsight. I’ve been putting in 40 hour weeks for years at day jobs while having a steady stream of clients on top of that. The result of this tremendous amount of effort has been a pretty awesome payoff in the form of ever-growing business, royalty income, various things I could probably productize but haven’t, and various things that I have sort of productized as I bumble my way through disciplines I don’t know much about, like marketing and publishing.

Here’s what I’d like, specifically because I’m so entirely maxed out. I’d like not to have to deal with people trying to sell me on companies that would be a terrible fit for me. I’d like not to have to deal with people trying to sell me on roles at companies that might, sort of be a “meh” fit for me. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the consideration and opportunities — it’s that I have so incredibly little time that I don’t want to spend it on things that are dead on arrival. I’d like to be able set up a meeting with someone, sit down, explain my goals, preferences, back-story and ambitions, and have that person listen carefully and make notes. I’d then like to leave, go back to juggling the 12 things that I’m juggling, and know that every time I heard from that person from then on, my reaction would be, “ooh, that sounds AWESOME!” Kind of like an agent.

I’d be willing to pay a pretty penny for this in the form of an ongoing cut of my earnings. I’ve actually had conversations with people lately where I say, “I have books on Amazon, this blog, all sorts of code here and there, code-casts, a youtube channel, Pluralsight videos, and probably other stuff I’m forgetting and I have no time to figure out how to make these things more profitable. If you can help me figure that out, I will split the marginal revenue with you.”  This would mean a long term relationship with steady income to the agent, if the agent represents me well and I’m attractive to people in need of technology-related services.

On the other hand, assuming the recruiter I talked to found and hired someone, for, say, 100K, her firm would have gotten a one-time 15-20K kick, which they only get to keep if the new hire lasts six months (most of the recruitment firms that sell you to companies offer a six month warranty on you in case you’re defective).  And then, she’d have gotten no more out of the candidate, since most of the recruiting firms at least hesitate before poaching you from where they placed you (not all). The recruiting firms prefer to maintain relationships with companies rather than candidates, but the rub for them is that too much volatility, while profitable after the six month window, starts to piss the companies off — “why do you bring me candidates that keep quitting?”  If agents are representing good developers, there’s no downside to them for turnover as they whisk their clients from job to job as quickly as the clients will let them, negotiating ever-higher salaries or contracts.

I can’t imagine that I’m the first person that’s thought of this, so perhaps there have been attempts by wiser folks that have failed.  Or perhaps people who have thought on it for more than an evening have contemplated the economics and business model and can’t see it adding up.  I don’t know that this is viable, but I do know that I’d sign up in a  hurry and then setup a canned response in gmail directing all recruiters to reach out to my agent.  But beyond that, I also know that the rules of the software labor game are changing steadily, and that even if this isn’t viable now, it’ll probably be worth trying again and again periodically.

I’ve spent a lot of time trying to hire developers over the last couple of years, and I can tell you that the standard company routine of the “consider yourself lucky to have a chance to prove that you’re worthy of this organization” is a lot of sound and fury.  More often than not, I’d talk to someone that I liked on the phone, only to find out that they’d taken a job in the 12 hours between me talking to them and me trying to schedule a time for them to come on site.  There is incredible upward inflationary pressure on developer wages, and, if you listen on the wind, you can probably hear a giant sucking sound arising from the ever-growing vacuum of available talent.  It comes through even in recruiter emails, which begin increasingly with things like, “I’m sure you’re tired of hearing from people like me” and “I know you probably have no interest in looking for other positions right now.”

So, even if the time for developer agents isn’t now, I think the time to try again will be soon.  Articles asserting that developers are taking over the world are a dime a dozen.  People taking over the world tend to need staff and individualized representation.

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Andy Bailey
Guest
Andy Bailey

Is it possible that too many recruiters are uninterested in you as an immediate potential fit for their client and more interested in keeping you in their rolodex in case something turns up that might fit a new one better? 95% of recruiters I have spoken to in the last 2 years, and I am not even looking for a new position, haven’t read my CV or respond to “no, I am not a C# developer” with “then this is the perfect opportunity to start isn’t it”. They are so fixated on their bottom line that they will say, or… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I can think of 2 recruiters working for recruiting firms with whom I’ve ever established any sort of relationship in my life. It’s just not very common. Representing companies, they’re playing the same kind of numbers game that any sales outfit aimed at quantity over quality is doing. I’m not inclined to disagree with your assessment of the industry of agents in general (I mean, entertainment/sports agents tend to be known as ruthless opportunists). But, having used recruiting firms from the hiring side, I can tell you that the dynamic is MUCH different, in my experience. They listen and they… Read more »

Aaron Duty
Guest
Aaron Duty

Considering the average quality of candidates recruiters routinely work with and the relatively scarcity of the average to above-average (and ignoring the 1%) developer, there isn’t enough of a talent pool to make this an industry.

We’d all be better off hiring lawyers to do negotiations on salary and benefits. The reason we don’t is that companies have the upper hand in most employment scenarios.

This doesn’t apply to you because you’re in the 1%.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

For me, personally, it’s hard to view myself in those terms. I’ve worked quite hard, but it doesn’t seem to me that I’ve done anything that any decent programmer and problem solver could do. A lot of the advocating for developer-kind that I do on this blog is done with the intention of making what you call the 1% bigger (and, I do realize that makes no mathematical sense — I’m just trying to put a visual on the point). You may be right that it wouldn’t fly as a business model, but I’d sure be interested in seeing someone… Read more »

Mark Holtman
Guest
Mark Holtman

I had heard rumor that there is such a thing as agents for developers, just not in the Midwest. These agents find opportunities, negotiate contracts and take care of all of the stuff you’re asking about.

Edit: Found one of the articles talking about it.

http://www.bloomberg.com/bw/articles/2013-04-10/silicon-valley-goes-hollywood-top-coders-can-now-get-agents

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I liked the article and then made the mistake of starting to read the comments, which made me thankful for the level of discourse in comments on this blog. That 10X firm is interesting and I’ll keep my eye on it, but there are two things about it that make me comparably leery: (1) the “developers as chattel” vibe on the front page, and (2) the “Rockstar,”/”10X”/”A Player” brogrammer-speak. I’ve always viewed that faux-competition drivel as a thinly veiled way to say, “we’re going to underpay you, but you’re needy enough to swallow it if we flatter you.” I realize… Read more »

Jerry
Guest
Jerry

Here’s one in the midwest, depending on your definition of “midwest”:
https://imaginecareers.wordpress.com/

I don’t work for them, but I have talked with them. They’re genuine about being on the developer’s side. Unfortunately, I think it is proving a little difficult for them to find a profit model in this. They started out with the idea of taking a cut from the recruiter who was working on the employer’s behalf, but they are moving towards more of a true agent model, where you pay them a monthly fee (flat or percentage, I’m not sure which) and they work on your behalf.

Andrei Dragotoniu
Guest

There is a different point of view. Recruiters only work with the masses of developers who fit in every box. Some devs, suich as you, Erik, do not. You will never be a fit for 99% of the roles who only desire a bum in a seat and couldn’t care less who you actually are. I am not in the 1% as you put it, but I don’t fit in that box either. They will still try to push you into it because that’s how they make their daily targets. So yeah, you wasted your time and sanity with that… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I actually have a post/page just like that in my drafts that I’ve been thinking about publishing. “Recruiters, go to this link and read, and then reach out if you’re still interested in talking.” Makes a lot of sense.

Mark Holtman
Guest
Mark Holtman

This is a fantastic idea! A prose version of your resume.

Andrei Dragotoniu
Guest

not a prose per se, in my case I tell them exactly what I expect and under what conditions I am prepared to work with them. I’ll send you a link if you want to check it out 🙂

Jordan Whiteley
Guest
Jordan Whiteley

That sucking sound of the dev vacuum was heard loudly the other day when fielded a call at work. The call confused me initially because the caller started asking me questions about my company and the types of development that we do and technologies that we used, the kinds of things their company needed help with ect… The assumption that I was given was that this was was a prospective client that had selected the wrong extension. I planned to give him a few minutes of friendly dev talk (our company values social skills in devs) before passing him up… Read more »

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Boy, that’s one for the books. The closest thing like that I can remember was a recruiter that pivoted mid-call some years back. He called me and started pitching a candidate and I wasn’t a dev manager at this organization, so I said something like, “oh, you probably want the department manager.” He hesitated and then said something like, “well, maybe, but I actually have some positions that might interest you…”

Matt Keen
Guest
Matt Keen

I think one of the differences you have identified here is between a good and bad recruiter. I know a couple of freelance recruiters who take the time to learn what it is i am actually looking for, and from that point onwards i can be confident that if they call me it will be something i can get excited about.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

I’d say keep those recruiters’ numbers in your pocket because those are needles in the proverbial haystack.

Greg Jorgensen
Guest
Greg Jorgensen

I’m a freelance developer with similar background. I signed with 10X Management about three years ago. Very happy with them. Ask me anything.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

What kinds of gigs do they land people? Is it specific to app dev, or is the field wider than that? Also curious if they exclusively deal in pairing individuals with organizations, or can you apply as a team and have them place you as a team?

Greg Jorgensen
Guest
Greg Jorgensen

All kinds of gigs and skills. Their clients (freelancers) include programmers, designers, project managers, data science, security, etc. The “Why 10X?” page on their site lists some of the expertise offered.

I don’t know about representing entire teamsk, you’d have to ask someone at 10X about that. All of the 10X clients I’ve met or seen mentioned online are individuals.

10X doesn’t place their clients like a recruiter does. They represent their clients (freelancers like me) and match us with potential customers. We can take a gig or not, there’s no pressure.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

What’s the finance model like? Do the clients pay them, and they pay you after a cut? Do they take a finder’s fee and then you deal directly with the client for finances?

(Thanks for the info — this is interesting stuff!)

Greg Jorgensen
Guest
Greg Jorgensen

10X does all contract negotiation, invoicing/billing, payment. I never discuss money or payment with the customer. 10X takes 15%. For my freelancing they’ve set me up with good quality customers at higher rates than I negotiate myself. They also offer generous incentives for bringing customers and clients to 10X that come out of their 15%.

Erik Dietrich
Guest

Nice! If I ever have occasion to sign up and get through their screening process, I’ll reach out about being a referral of yours!