Agents for Software Developers


A few recent Reddit and Hacker News posts alluded to the idea of agents in the world of software. If professional athletes and artists can have agents representing them in hiring and negotiation situations, why not software talent as well?

Recruiters are almost always mentioned in these discussions, and after almost 20 years in agency recruiting, I feel I understand the short and long-term financial motivations of recruiters pretty well. The primary difference between agents for athletes/artists and tech recruiters is that agents have incentive to help you get the best paying job, whereas recruiters only have incentive to help you get jobs with their clients.

Whether internal recruiters (think Facebook recruiters that only recruit for Facebook) or agency recruiters (that represent multiple companies), the motivation is only to get you the job IF the job happens to be with a company that is paying them.

If Lebron James’ agent only represented the Lakers, Knicks, and Celtics, it would severely limit his professional options. The agent wouldn’t care what the Cavaliers and Warriors might offer or whether those opportunities would be better for Lebron’s career. Lebron would likely want to work with multiple agents so he could be considered by the other 20+ teams in the league. Lebron might have 10 agents in this example, and they would all be working against each other and perhaps lying and cheating to get Lebron to sign with their client teams. This helps highlight a fundamental issue with the incentives of agency recruiters.

I first wrote about this topic almost four years ago in How to Disrupt Technical Recruiting – Hire an Agent, which explored the many issues and inefficiencies in contingency recruiting and how an agent model might work. I even wrote a follow-up piece shortly thereafter that got more specific on services that an agent might offer.

I admit that the current state of the recruiting industry, and in particular the overwhelming negative sentiment faced by third-party recruiters, has provided substantial temptation to transition my one man semi-retained recruiting practice into this agency model. My launch of Resume Raiders and offering of consulting and coaching to job seekers are a small step in that direction, and those services resemble a part of what I’d provide as an agent. If you want to seriously discuss representation, I’m easy to find.

Who Would Need an Agent?

The vast majority of software pros probably don’t feel that they need an agent, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a market for the service. Here are a few thoughts on who might benefit most from an agent.

  • The busy – Job searching takes time, which is why many just wait for jobs to come to them instead of actively researching opportunities. An agent could also manage and vet incoming inquiries (READ: clean out your LinkedIn inbox) to see if they are realistic options or a waste of time. Instead of replying to every recruiter, imagine having your agent reply that he/she will be fielding questions.
  • The under-networked – Those without an established network are often limited to the traditional job market (listed positions) and don’t have access to the many possibilities that aren’t in the public domain. An agent must be connected to this hidden job market and to the major players.
  • The transitioners – These are people who just need a true advocate during a challenging job search, which usually involves either getting out of a bad situation or transitioning into something significantly different (new tech, new industry, etc.). When a job seeker goes it alone, they are their only advocate. When using an agency recruiter, the job seeker now has another advocate, but that recruiter will only advocate for jobs represented by his/her agency.
  • The meek – Those lacking confidence are more likely to accept jobs which are not ideal and approve of compensation packages below market. An agent will protect the client and help them say “no” to the wrong opportunity, provide guidance on regional market rates, and assist with negotiations if an offer comes in low.

Would You Actually Pay An Agent? And How Much?

The question of career agents usually comes down to money. Agency recruiters provide a free service (essentially paid by hiring companies) that some job seekers value and appreciate, but the service is clearly flawed due to the misalignment of incentives outlined earlier. The recruiter may do a great job and represent your best interests as well as possible, but at the end of the day, the recruiter works for the hiring company.

To hire an agent who will truly be representing without bias, the job seeker has to foot the bill. And how much should it cost?

The value of this service likely varies depending on who is being represented and what services the agent provides. Lebron James doesn’t need an advocate to generate interest in his abilities but rather just needs someone to make sure that market rate is received, help making the right choice, and ensure the terms of the contract are favorable.

Developers might feel that the value of this service will depend somewhat on how much an agent would be able to negotiate above the developer’s expectations. It’s been suggested that the agent’s compensation might be n% of the difference between actual compensation and expected compensation. So if the client would be satisfied with 100K and the agent negotiated an offer at 120K, one element of the agent’s pay would be a percentage of that 20K difference, keeping in mind that this is a one-time payment for an annual salary (that 20K difference multiplies every year). One flaw in this model is that the agent has an incentive to recommend the highest offer, even if that highest offer is not the best career move for the client.

Hourly rates are another possibility. One issue with hourly rates is that it encourages the agent to draw out the process. Any arrangement that doesn’t include some commission on the salary provides little incentive for the agent to negotiate aggressively.


There are companies who claim they are providing this type of service for technologists now, but those are mostly recruiting companies that are rebranded as agencies. A true agent will be able to help you with any employer, so firms that only service a select group of clients are not true agencies.

I’d be curious to hear thoughts on this topic. Again, I don’t expect this service would be appealing to everyone (what service is?), but it certainly would help to change the typical recruiter/candidate relationship that is so unpopular in the industry.

Disrupt Tech Recruiting - Hire an Agent


A recent anti-recruiter rant posted to a news group and a subsequent commentary on HackerNews got me thinking about the many ways that tech recruiting and the relationship between recruiters and the tech community is broken. I saw a few comments referencing that the community always says how broken it is, but no one tries to fix it. Here are some ideas on how we got here and directions we can go.

Why is the recruiting industry the way it is?

  • The high demand and low supply for tech talent creates a very lucrative market for recruiters. Many technologists might not be aware of this, but successful recruiters probably all make over 100K (some earn much more) and as a commission-based business your compensation has no maximum.
  • Recruiting is an easy field to enter. No formal training is required, although you will need some sales training and tech knowledge to truly make an impact. One can easily start with a computer, a phone line, and a basic website.

So we have an industry that can be very lucrative (for some much more lucrative than the tech industry itself) with almost no barriers to entry. Of course an industry with these characteristics will draw both talented, ethical professionals as well as carpetbaggers and bottom-feeders just as the gold rush did.

What are the biggest complaints about recruiters
(and how can we solve them)?

First, complaints from candidates (tech pros):

  • Too many cold calls.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  Without some widespread changes from all three parties (candidates, hiring firms, and recruiters) in the industry, this one is probably impossible to solve. Simply mentioning that you do not wish to hear from recruiters is no guarantee that they won’t contact you, but if I see on a LinkedIn page that someone specifically doesn’t want to hear from recruiters I won’t contact them as it is clear they do not value the services I provide.
  • Dishonesty about the job description or salary.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  What if companies gave recruiters some form of ‘verified job spec‘ to share with candidates? Salary range, job description, location, whatever else might be helpful. A candidate could request this from the recruiter before agreeing to an interview.
  • Being marketed/used without their knowledge.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  Companies could require a ‘right to represent‘ email giving a recruiter permission to submit his/her resume for any or all positions, which would at least eliminate some of this. Of course, recruiters will still send blinded resumes (contact info removed) to client prospects. A better idea may be for candidates to have a document that they ask recruiters to sign – a contract where the recruiter agrees not to send their resume in any form to any company without the express written consent (the ‘right to represent’) of the candidate. I’m not a lawyer, but I assume there could be some financial penalties/restitution allowed if you were to break that trust, as you may damage the candidate’s career. As a rule, if I want to market a candidate to a client, I always get their permission first.
  • No feedback or follow-up. POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  Unfortunately there is little value that a company gets by providing specific feedback about a candidate, and it actually exposes them to substantial risk (ageism, racism, etc.). Likewise, taking time to give rejected candidates details provides nothing to the recruiter except goodwill with the candidate. This one is difficult to solve, but probably not as big an issue as the other problems.

And complaints from hiring firms:

  • Too many resumes.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  If you provide a very good requirement to a good recruiter, he/she should be able and very willing to limit the resumes. Telling your recruiter that you want to see the best five available candidates should encourage them to limit submissions.
  • Unqualified candidates.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION: Same as above.
  • Misrepresenting a candidate’s background. POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  Well for starters, stop working with the recruiter and that agency entirely. If you want to make a positive change for the recruiting industry, contact the recruiter’s manager and tell your side of the story. Having liars in an industry is bad for everyone except the liars and those that profit off of them.
  • Marketing cold calls.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  If you truly will not use recruiters for your searches, list that on your job specifications both on your website and the jobs you post publicly. I would rather not waste my time if a company has a policy against using recruiters, and if your policy changes perhaps you will be calling me. I will not call a company that specifically lists that they do not want to hear from recruiters, as it is clear they do not value the service I provide.
  • Price gouging.  POSSIBLE SOLUTION:  This could be when recruiting agencies mark-up their candidates’ hourly rates well beyond what is a reasonable margin, or when recruiters who receive permanent placement fees tied to salary will stretch every penny from the hiring company. Flat transparent fees work very well for both of these problems (a flat hourly mark-up on contractors and a flat fee for permanent placements), although recruiters would particularly hate a flat fee structure for contractors. The recruiter’s ‘sale’ to a contractor is, “If I can get you $300/hr, do you care if I make $2/hr or $100/hr?“. The answer is usually ‘no’, which is all fine until the contractor finds out that you are billing your client $300/hr and only paying the him/her maybe $50/hr. That is rare, but that is when things get ugly. Flat and transparent rates exposed to all three parties involved will solve that problem, but don’t expect recruiters to go for it.

To all the technology pros who claim they really want to disrupt the industry, I have one simple question.

Would you be willing to hire, and pay for, an agent?

I’ve heard the argument from some engineers that they would like recruiters to care more about the engineer’s career and not treat them like a commodity. Recruiters are traditionally paid for by the hiring companies, but only if they can both find the proper talent and get that talent to take the job (contingency recruiting). This can lead to a recruiter treating candidates like some homogenized commodity that all have similar value.

If engineers want true representation of their best interests, having representation from a sole agent would be one obvious choice. As your agent, I could provide career advice at various times during the year, making suggestions on technologies that you may want to explore or giving inside information on which companies might have interest in you. You might come to me to discuss any thoughts on changing jobs, how to apply for promotion, or how to ask for a salary increase (which I could negotiate for you directly with your manager). When you do decide to explore new opportunities, the agent would help put together your resume, set a job search strategy, and possibly market your background to some hiring companies. As the agent is making his living by charging a fee to the candidates, the agent could charge a much smaller fee (or potentially even no fee) to the hiring company, which would make hiring you much less expensive than hiring through a traditional recruiter.

If you were contacted by a recruiter from an agency or a hiring company, you would simply refer them to me for the first discussions and I would share the information with you (if appropriate) at a convenient time. You could even list my name on your LinkedIn, GitHub, and Twitter accounts. “If you are interested in hiring me, contact Dave at”  How good would it feel to tell your friends that you have an agent?

All of this assumes your agent would have some high degree of knowledge about the industry, the players, market rates, and a host of other things. Many recruiters don’t have this expertise, but some certainly do. An agent could probably represent and manage the career of perhaps 50-100 candidates very comfortably and make a good living doing it.

Would you be willing to pay a percentage of your salary or a flat annual rate to an agent who provides you with these services?

If the answer is ‘yes’, look me up and I’d be happy to discuss it with you further. 

At a Career Crossroads - Management vs Staying Technical

I often find myself speaking with technologists at a crossroads in their career. Some of these folks arrive at the crossroads via a major change, like a layoff or a new job offer, while others get there after job frustration or stagnation cause them to question their purpose.

Part I of this series will address the decision to move to a management position or opting to stay on the more technical career path.

It seems that many in technology feel that the natural career progression goes something like this: start as a junior programmer and eventually senior programmer, then to a technical lead or architect slot, and then to managing developers, and then possibly just managing other managers. If you look at most org charts, that progression is a fairly reasonable path of ascent from the bottom to the top for those that perform. Being that most people are at least somewhat upwardly mobile, it appears the way to get more influence/power and money, and possibly job satisfaction, is clear.

What many technologists often ignore or fail to see is how they are suited for the different roles on that path, and whether or not the continued progression up the org chart is actually the best long-term career option. As the technology industry has matured over the past couple decades, most of you at some point witnessed the dated practice of simply promoting the “best” programmers into management roles becoming far less prevalent, and the concept that the best programmers will always become the best managers has become a running joke at companies that still make this mistake. This is obviously because the skills that are required to be a good developer, architect, technical lead, manager and executive are quite disparate.

Maybe you are one of those that have come to me in the past to discuss a possible transition into management, yet had some concerns about your marketability if you made the move? Perhaps you are even one of those that did make the transition, eventually regretted the decision, and subsequently asked what the best way back into the technical path would be?

If you are one of those that is considering a move into management that will distance you from reading and writing code, be sure to ask yourself some questions before coming to any decisions.

  • Why did I choose this line of work in the first place, and what do I like about being a technologist? (Money? Problem solving? Fame? Makes me more desirable?)
  • Do I have the leadership skills to mentor, motivate, and manage other developers?
  • Will I be happy in a position where a significant portion of my duties may include resource allocation, setting timelines, writing evaluations, negotiating with vendors, hiring/firing, reviewing resumes and interviewing candidates? Will I be challenged if I’m not solving technical problems on a daily basis?
  • Is a move into management and away from technology something I truly want, something that others want for me, or just what seems like that natural next step?
  • If I’m considering a move to management simply for the money, are there other options where I can continue to stay technical and make more money? How do I value job satisfaction when compared with compensation?
  • If I subsequently regret making the move to management, what is my way back to a hands-on technical role? Will I have to leave my company or take a pay cut in order to get back to the code? How steep will the learning curve be to learn the technology over again?

These questions are just a sample of the many you should be asking when considering a move away from a technical role. Many technologists can make the move farther and farther from the code without any problems or regrets. If it is a money issue that is causing you to consider the move, think about options in consulting or with companies that may place more value on those that code. Keep in mind that it is often a difficult transition back once you move into a management role, and be honest with yourself as to whether you feel you will be satisfied and successful in a less technical role.