Body-leasing: self-imposed trend to make team shaping even harder

This blog post is some sort of a supplement to my previous post on building teams organically - you can find it here.

As we all know, software developer job market is terribly twisted by huge disproportion between demand (crazy) & supply (barely dripping). Huge gap between these two has resulted in uncontrolled boom of a particular trend I find strongly harmful: developer "body-leasing" (or "talent outsourcing" - as some prefer to call it).

It's basically about hiring developers in companies that work pretty much as intermediaries / work agencies who offer their employees for Time & Material contracts in Enterprises that suffer from lack of developers on board (pretty much all of them, but the most desired unicorns & tiniest, garage-style workshops).

At the 1st glance - what's the problem, really?

  1. Body-leasing companies cover for (& specialise in, & are paid for) what their clients (Enterprises) suck in - recruitment, head-hunting, "sifting" the job market to find suitable (& willing) people
  2. Developers are happy, because they have someone else to look for job / client / contract. And, as assignments are time-bound & temporary, they can swap projects if they are bored / annoyed / whatever.
  3. Tenants (companies that use body-leasers' offers) get the "resources" they need, while remaining flexible in terms of headcount adjustment (getting rid of unneeded body-leasing devs is easier than own employees) - many of them also require an allowance for employee hijacking clause (to snatch individuals they like most)

Win-win-win. Everyone's happy.

Nope, I still think that this trend is pathological and in the long run it's detrimental to all participating parties (except maybe body-leasers who do nothing but body-leasing). Not just because it pumps up the rates (due to intermediary's premium), but because it has a significant impact on how teams can perform internally.

Guns for hire

Fact: getting correct people on board is helluva hard.

Wrong person can cause a great deal of harm, impeding whole team or even beyond that level. State of art recruitment shouldn't be done by HR, but mainly by one's future leaders/managers & co-workers (team members) - to confirm that "it's a match" & particular individual can be a useful addition to the team.

Both sides (recruiters & recruited) both "buy" & "sell" in the same time - in the end they are supposed to end up rowing shoulder-to-shoulder whole days & standing in the same shield-wall in a fiery battle. Subjects to the same rules, shaping shared future, aiming for the same goals.

Now try to put "outsourced talent" in this setup ...

Team has DNA

By leasing a dev from "talent outsourcing" company, you're relying on someone else's recruitment skills & process (which details are unbeknown to you), w/o your local team/project/organization context, 99% tech skill-based (because these are easiest to describe/verify), disregarding character / personality compatibility (against your current team) considerations (in depth or at all).

People brought that way may be true, world-class experts in their domains, but context is the king here: no two teams are alike & particular setups require particular combinations of skills, character traits, temperament, experience, strength of will, leadership, risk averse, etc. Someone who did perfectly in 1st team, may be completely out of place in the 2nd one.

Ironically, well-shaped team of average (skill-wise, experience-wise) developers who are a good match will easily outperform a bunch of cherry-picked ninja-rockstars who can't get along well (so they'll work in separation & set clear boundaries to cover their asses).

Crisis of identity

Let's think a bit about such a mercenary individual:

  • first, sense of belonging - where does (s)he truly belong (whose goals is he aligned to, which strategy does (s)he share & treat as her/his own)? To her/his mother company? Client's? None at all? This is more important than it seems as it's supposed to give her/him some sense of long-term stability

  • which is the corporate culture he conforms to / should conform to? Do body-leasing companies even have any kind of corporate culture? What values do they pass to their employees? Actually, how do they even pass it as these people have face-time only with their clients?

  • who really cares for her/him - provides valuable feedback, invests in development, gives career advice? I don't really think tenant (& his personnel) cares ...

An element of intrapreneurship

True professional will surely do what (s)he's paid for. This is what being a pro is about. But ... is it enough? Nothing helps value-alignment as much as a realisation that whole team works for its own future & has true impact on

  • financial results & measures
  • the execution of set, strategic goals
  • company's position against the competition

Truth is - whether you're building for yourself (in your own business) is different than building for your employer (one you identify yourself with & one you bind your career to - long-term) and this one is even more different from building on fixed-term contract for someone you may respect & admire, but you don't feel connected to.

This difference usually manifests in form of:

  1. preferring short-term goals over long-term ones
  2. limiting creativity that may go beyond current assignment boundaries

It's not that mercs just don't give a f%ck about stuff that's not explicitly in the contract - many are far more committed & determined than everyone around. But by the nature of their work model, externals in 99% lack the factual ability to make a significant impact on the organisation they are leased to (especially in so-called "soft areas" - like corporate culture, org structure, leadership behaviour, etc.).

A sense of temporariness ...

... is something that comes naturally when you utilise body-leasing & it reflects on they way mercs are treated (what tasks they are given, what responsibility / accountability they have, how their opinions are treated). Well, let's be honest - many mercs pick this job model to avoid what they find boring aspects of their work: maintenance tasks, dealing with legacy, repetitive tasks. Needless to say, some have no remorse to explicitly ask for assignment change if any of these elements appear, even if it's caused directly by their past actions - they just don't feel accountable for the long-term product.

It's really hard to build a mutual trust (crucial for teamwork) is such circumstances.

This ability to easily escape "the pain" is also detrimental to development skills of mercs - instead of solving problems / dealing with consequences of their decisions, they flee & ... miss real-life learning experience (of how to deal with challenging situations - reduce tech debt, gradually increase quality level, automate dull tasks, etc.).

Too frequent project changes (even w/o such reasoning) is a problem itself - if dev tends to switch projects before team gets to performing stage of Tuckman's team's lifecycle, (s)he'll never experience the synergy of true, high-performing collaboration. Yes, teamwork is also a skill, so it can (& should) be learned & practised frequently.

Alternatives

So, does it mean condottierri times are over & they are useless these days? Of course not, external expertise can be very valuable if applied carefully & reasonably - with a clear, well-defined targets, knowledge transition plan, tight role shadowing, etc.

Other option is to restrict body-leasing to non-critical, auxiliary domains (that are far less important in context of building competitive advantage). If the situation forces you to use external folks to build something more vital to your organisation, consider using for this purpose full, battle-proven (with a written, confirmed track of record!) teams, not individuals.

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