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Ask HN: Do software developers need agents?
18 points by tylerc230 on July 30, 2012 | hide | past | web | favorite | 23 comments
I'm a freelance software developer and I can see value in hiring someone to handle 1)finding me gigs 2) contract and fee negotiations with companies looking for contract workers. Recruiters come close but have their clients', ie the hiring company's best interests in mind. Does such a service exist? If not why not?

I don't know about the US, but in Europe (and Morocco where I live), many freelance use "sales engineers" (technico-commercial in French, not sure if it's the correct translation), this person gets a commission for every gig he lands for the freelancer.

Ed (http://mycloudwatcher.com/) has basically been doing this for a number of years. He provides a valuable service to clients. Clients trust him. Clients have other needs & ask him if he knows anyone who can do X (mobile, Node.js, art, writing, etc...). He refers and vouches for freelancers (and he has fill-in-the-blank forms for everything & everybody).

Ed is probably the closest example of this idea I've seen; recruiters don't make as much money from freelance referrals so if they do this at all, it would be sparing.

Cool idea though. I'd be interested to see if it works out in an explicit fashion as OP describes.

An agent traditionally represents someone that has a unique talent -- say an actor, director or a high profile fashion model. These are situations where the name of the person (i.e. their brand) brings actual financial value to a project. So for example if Tom Hanks stars in a film you produce the value of the film just increased.

In stark contrast developers are engineers, i.e. they make something that's a result of a specification. Now yes some developers are better than others, but that work is "under the hood".

Now an exception to the above might be a "rock star CTO" or founder who is really more of an architect or a product person. But at that point their actual code is besides the point if you know what I mean. In fact the actual code from this sort of rock star might even be below average, but that's not why they're getting funding.

Side note: In the case of an entertainment artist who has an agent it's the artist with the best track record that will do do well. An unknown artist with an agent is still at the bottom.

This isn't exactly true. Virtually every actor and actress has an agent as it scales better than negotiating every gig independently. The big difference I see is that the gigs are mostly very short and numerous. Very few are more than a few days work.

But let's think about it: The actors you're talking about who have the agent on the lowest rung are still professional actors, i.e. they do acting to earn a living and nothing else.

However that set of actors is a small sub-set of those actors who get a role every now and then but don't earn a full time living. So there is an entire class of actors who get an industrial spot, do summer stock, play an extra or do voice overs who don't have an agent.

I know this because I've hired those actors for various projects. However if those actors had a name that you could recognize they'd have an agent.

They are probably doing themselves a disservice in that industry then.

Not really — an agent who doesn't get you gigs still gets a cut. Having an agent doesn't always open doors or get you more money.

So this thread is a few days old, but to add my experiences, I've spoken with two "talent" agencies, one that specializes in design and another that tries to specialize in technical people. Design is easy because it's subjective, but even to the common eye there's a difference between good and bad and how those relate to their client's brand. The problem with the latter is that they were focused on past job titles because they didn't actually understand the industries they were working with enough to be able to say "Okay well this guy can write in X, which translates well to Y, and has a strong interest in Z." In doing a little more research, there were a few companies that did seem to know their stuff, but they weren't in my area. If you find one, do a little bit more research about them as individuals and as a company to see if they can actually help you or if you'll just land in a database full of people who maximized buzzwords on their resumes.

Similar people do exist in the industry. The only problem is that they tend to be salaried people working in a team of similar folks. However, for small firms and indie developers, getting in touch with such people is a real problem. We are looking out for such skills. If you have such skills or know someone who does, ask them to get in touch.

I also love this idea, but I'm not sure it would translate to anything outside the sports/entertainment arena.

In both sports and entertainment the "agent" model works because the person being pursued is considered highly irreplaceable (like Kobe Bryant or Angelina Jolie). For the team, players having agents is a huge negative. But what choice do they have? People are only willing to put up with a bad process when they feel that they are getting something invaluable. That's why people line up out the door and around the corner at special food spots like Georgetown Cupcakes, or for a cheesesteak in Philadelphia.

In other words, even though I agree that some developers are so highly skilled that they are essentially invaluable, if you walked into a company with an agent they'd simply put your resume aside and find someone else. Programming (especially in the eyes of the non-technical) is a highly replaceable skill.

>In other words, even though I agree that some developers are so highly skilled that they are essentially invaluable, if you walked into a company with an agent they'd simply put your resume aside and find someone else.

I don't think we are talking about W2, full time lifetime employment here. (If we are, I agree with you)

If we are talking about short-run gigs, it is completely normal for consulting houses (body shops, whatever you want to call them.) to have salespeople. Hell, I've played this roll myself. I mean, I was not very good at it, and at this time, I don't really want to reprise that role, but I could. Setting yourself up as an employer isn't hard. Getting on prefered vendor lists can be, but you can work for smaller companies without doing that part.

The problem is that usually? in that role the sales person is seen as being more powerful than the worker. And in the employers eyes, this is required. That's not the problem; the problem is that everyone that does this acts like they in fact have more power than the programmer.

(Oh yeah, the role here? the body shop. I've worked for body shops that had one guy, a salesguy, essentially, and then a bunch of contract workers like me. I remember this one guy; best body shop I worked for- he always paid on time. But he didn't keep anyone on staff. When one of his customers wanted a body, he'd put an email out to his contacts, or failing that, an ad on craigslist.)

so how do you restructure this relationship so that the programmer has more power? I dono. Difficult, as by definition, the salesguy is a better negotiatior.

From what I understand, even unknown actors have agents to find them parts in commercial or as extras etc. so I'm not convinced only irreplaceable people need agents. I agreed that it is less convenient for the hiring manager because they are dealing with someone who is skilled at negotiation but they would be forced put up with it because the demand for skilled developers is so high.

I would guess that's more a byproduct of the irreplaceable though, right? In an industry where the "good" actors have an agent, not having one would make you look illegitimate. In other words, if Brad Pitt didn't have an agent it's unlikely people would put up with Extra #12 having one.

So, by that logic, having an agent as a software developer would make me look more legitimate then everyone else :)

The idea of agents is usually in industries such as real estate, sports etc. where agents help their clients by shielding them from unknowns and other things that the clients are not very well versed in. In software dev though, I am not sure if we need an agent in addition to what we already have which is recruiters. True that the recruiters work for the employer's benefit more than yours but how exactly can an agent help here ?

What you do need is good connections/contacts which unfortunately only comes with experience and meeting people on your own. If at all, I would say try finding a mentor or someone like that.

Interesting idea - I think the reason they don't exist is maybe that the dev probably wouldn't be happy about paying a finders fee to the agent? I mean recruiters obviously have fees, but these are normally paid by the employer and hidden from the dev (from my own limited experience the fee can be in the 10000s).

Some possible payment models - a) a percentage of the successful position. b) an hourly rate for doing the task of job hunting. c) a percentage combined with a one-off application fee.

I've been considering finding someone to do this sort of thing for me (someday). I'd probably pay a certain percentage of the contract. Some people I know have expressed an interest in this sort of position, primarily because it would allow them to telecommute.

Depending on your needs, you could probably find someone to help you out. Finding someone with a bit of legal knowledge and experience might be a good idea. Try putting an ad up-- I bet you'd get a lot of responses.

I think its a cool idea, and I think it almost makes sense. In showbiz, you sign lots of short contracts and lots of gigs, so you need someone to deal with the hassle and be in the know, cause you have to find new stuff often. Software is kind of like that, but not as frequent. I think it comes down to frequency maybe- If you need to find new jobs often, an agent would be very helpful.

More of a secretary for you to do the tasks you find take time from your actual job which is programming. You can always make him/her review possible jobs for you and do the initial contact and to manage your time usage. Though you still would need to work the project details with the client yourself.

I would use this service and I've spoken recently to freelancers who'd like a service like this. Bringing a level of stability to freelancing would probably make more devs jump into it.

I would say this is a good idea. Contracted workers in IT support etc have agencies find them work, why don't they do it for freelance devs?

Isn't this pretty much what a consulting firm does?

Not exactly, consulting firms find the work but they also pay you a salary and they have the final say in what projects you work on. Developers work for consulting firms, agents work for their clients.

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