My Experience As a Fractional Developer
I was once a fractional developer while I built a startup
Aug 9, 2022
I seek to spread the "gospel" of fractional development.
... ok that's a bit much - but I do seek to normalize the idea, as it's a concept that has served me well both as a developer and later when hiring developers.
My time as a fractional developer began in 2007 - I had moved from NYC to Atlanta, and in the process lost access to the lucrative Wall Street-focused technology jobs there. In that market I was able earn a premium as someone with both technology and investment finance knowledge - but my finance knowledge had far less value in Atlanta. Looking for positions in Atlanta at that time, it became clear that I'd have to rely on my technology skillset.
I found a position with Oracle (initially BEA Systems) on a technology "swat" team that was sent in to close critical enterprise deals by doing on-site development work. I'd often find myself at tech "bake-offs" where a competing team was right next door; it was exciting, but the job overall consisted of one intense week per month, with the rest of my time largely unoccupied (and working from home). I did well in the position and received above average bonuses, but I quickly saw there was no real promotion path beyond my role. I like to think of myself as a 10x developer, but no employer, Oracle included, would pay me 2x for my work even if they won every deal I touched. So what was I to do, as a senior developer making substantially less than at my last NYC job, and yet with ~30 hours per week on my hands? If lots of hard-working people juggle 2-3 physical jobs just to make ends meet - surely I could pull this off in front of a computer?
In January 2007 I decided to apply for contract development positions. This was in the era before universal remote work, so when I started a contract at Air2Web (an ATL-based sms startup), I timed my start date so that I'd have three weeks at the office. I impressed them with my work and got code into production in the opening weeks. When I next had to fly on behalf of Oracle, I told them “I have other responsibilities, and I need to be gone about one week a month. I can work evenings on those days, and make it work. Does that work for you?” Air2Web said yes, as they didn't want to lose a now-proven consultant! And so it began - I juggled those two roles, and a similar split between Oracle and ATT thereafter. I spent three years doing this before the startup bug bit me, and I started working on HiddenLevers.
Looking back, how did it work out for both sides?
Key Benefits for Employers:
All of my employers were happy with my work, and I received positive reviews and above-target bonuses throughout my time working fractionally.
My primary employer, Oracle, would have lost me years earlier had I not started fractional work, as I likely would have pivoted toward founding a startup sooner.
My fractional employers were happy with my work and kept me on for years despite the fact that my daytime schedule with them was preempted 25% of the time.
My skills were sharper for all employers, as I got to see how multiple companies (in non-competitive fields) attacked similar problems.
Key Benefits for Developer (me):
Oracle was paying me full-time for what was effectively surge capacity. The day-to-day reality for me was boredom, and through my fractional work I was able to put my surplus time to use and stay sharp.
I couldn't get paid 10x for being a 10x developer - frankly, it was hard to be paid more than 20% beyond my official target. By taking on fractional work, I increased my take-home pay substantially, which later enabled me to start a company 100% bootstrapped.
While juggling the roles might seem complex, I made the constraints clear to my fractional employer early on. That mutual understanding underpinned success. While there were occasional spikes in load that made me busy, it was worth it on the whole.
A few years later when I began to get traction with HiddenLevers, I needed development help - and I turned back to the idea of fractional developers. But that's a story for next time.