Hiring Fractional Developers at HiddenLevers
Part II of My Fractional Journey
Sep 6, 2022
As I discussed in a recent post, I spent three years as a fractional developer myself in the late 2000's. I must have been restless in those days, because in addition to my day job and my contract position, I began to think seriously about a startup idea aligning my tech and finance skillsets.
By late 2009 I had committed to starting the company HiddenLevers, so I wrapped up my fractional work at the end of that year. I quit my day job and went all-in on HiddenLevers by late 2010, and the company started to experience real growth in 2011.
Up to that point, we had a one-person dev team (me) and a one-person sales team (my cofounder Raj). We needed more capacity, and after working with interns in the summer of 2011, realized we'd need to invest further.
How could we get senior development talent on our team without funding?
How could we get senior talent without substantially diluting our equity stakes?
Those questions, combined with my personal experience, led to a natural answer - let's get a fractional senior developer!
We had an immediate need for a senior integration developer, as HiddenLevers was just then beginning to integrate with software partners in the wealth management industry (firms like TD Ameritrade, Fidelity, Orion, Tamarac, etc).
In my experiences as a fractional developer, I had met others with a similar mindset, and I was able to hire one of them as HiddenLevers' first fractional dev. Our initial fractional hire was a huge success!
Over a period of 9 years this single developer completed and maintained 25+ different integrations!
We continued to build our dev team fractional-first, hiring our future CTO as a fractional developer initially. We also built out the development team with full-time junior and mid-level hires, as junior developers needed more mentoring, but could help build out the core of the team once we'd invested in them.
By late 2020 we had built a complete software development team with a full-time CTO, six full-time developers, and five part-time (fractional) software developers. We leaned into the fractional model, using it to help staff our product management and marketing functions as well! Our use of fractional resources was instrumental in staying efficient and profitable, which helped drive our successful exit in early 2021. Below I’ve listed our complete history of fractional software developer hiring along with some lessons on what worked and what to avoid.
HERE IS A FULL LIST OF PART-TIME SOFTWARE DEVELOPMENT (FRACTIONAL) HIRES I MADE AT HIDDENLEVERS:
Senior Integration Developer: He stayed with HiddenLevers for 9 years, while switching full-time positions twice during that time. He worked 20-30 hours per week throughout.
CTO: Our CTO was initially hired as a half-time senior full-stack developer. He was coming back to the working world from being a stay-at-home Dad, and the fractional-to-full-time path worked well as a flexible transition.
Senior Front-End Developer #1 : Joined the team and contributed 20 hours per week through HiddenLevers' acquisition and beyond, as he is still contributing to the product post-acquisition by Orion.
Senior Front-End Developer #2: Contributed major front end components over a period of about 18 months, but perhaps bit off more than he could chew, and eventually wrapped up his time as a fractional developer.
Senior Full-Stack Developer: We tried to work with a senior full-stack developer who had a full-time in-office job. Despite his motivation to do the work, we just couldn't get our schedules to sync and I was tired of meetings at 9 PM, so we decided to end this trial.
QA Engineer: Our team needed to invest in QA automation, and we found a talented QA Engineer who was available for a 0.6 FTE schedule. We had to smooth out some kinks in communication, but our QA engineer was able to modernize our automated testing framework and integrate it with Slack and other endpoints. She continued to contribute post-acquisition as well.
BASED ON THESE EXPERIENCES, HERE'S A LIST OF WHAT I FOUND WORKED WELL AND WHAT WENT POORLY:
WHAT WORKED WELL FOR ME IN FRACTIONAL HIRING
Gaining access to senior talent that is otherwise out of budget or unavailable in the market
Adding discrete skillsets to a development team, particularly skills where a full FTE may not be needed
Integrations between systems were particularly well suited to the fractional model
QA engineering was also well suited to the fractional model
DevOps and database management proved well suited from my experience
Front-end component work and building large volumes of pdf report output was also a big fractional win
Turnover was very low, with developer-initiated turnover at zero over a 9-year period.
LESSONS LEARNED IN FRACTIONAL HIRING:
Unrealistic schedule expectations. If a developer has a full-time in-office role, it's highly unlikely to work. They can do the work on nights and weekends, but you won't have enough communication overlap to get the model to work unless you're willing to do those calls at night.
Core Tech + Self-Management Skills. Ensure that developers have both the technical skills and the ability to self-manage, as they will be working independently. The ideal candidates are senior developers who might lead a team by day, but who want to keep their development skills sharp through a fractional position.
Fractional roles can work for core IP, if…. Fractional positions can work for virtually every part of a software team, but core IP can be most challenging. Developers responsible for the core business logic of your system need to work closely with Product Management in real-time. If a developer brings vertical industry experience or is available for 30 hours/week, there’s still a path to success, but you have to plan for a tighter relationship with product management.