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The Software Developer's Career Agent, Revisited

If you've ever felt like you needed an agent to represent you in your career, this post explores what that might look like in reality.

· Agile Zone

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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 were offering and whether those would be better for Lebron's career. Lebron would likely want to work with multiple agents so he could be considered by the other 27 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 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 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.

Who Would 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. 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 Lebron make 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 best 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. 

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