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The Hunt for Developers: Should You Hire, Try Staff Augmentation, or Find An External Expert?

Nick Walsh By Nick Walsh // 10.12.2021

Developers developers developers: We’re all competing for a sparse pool of developer talent, but the shortage isn’t slowing down the projects that need them.

Sorting out whether to hire or bring in a vendor is a long string of decisions. What expertise is required? Who’s in charge of oversight? How much is there to do? What’s the budget? Each project — and, often, each role on the team — may arrive at a different answer.

Hiring. Staff augmentation. Experts. Let’s run through the options, how they match up, and when it’s right to lean in each direction.

So, You Need a Developer

We’ll do the pros and cons thing later. For now, here’s the set of definitions that we’re working from to categorize the choices.

Internal Hires

Hiring a full-time employee. Adding someone that’ll make it to the team page of your website. This one’s pretty straightforward, and the most traditionally understood source of talent.

Staff Augmentation

If you squint, someone that’s “staff augmentation” looks a lot like an internal hire. They operate as a member of your team (as the name suggests), but someone else is signing their paychecks and covering their benefits. A full-time contractor, if you will.

External Experts

Here, we’re in the realm of the consultant. They bring their own process along and operate outside the usual day-to-day of your staff. Something like an arms-length integration.

The Matchups: Comparing Ways to Source Developers

Let’s get down to business and see what they look like head-to-head.

Internal Hires vs. Staff Augmentation

If your sole focus is on how much per hour, an internal hire is the “cheapest” option. Those quotation marks around cheapest are a reminder of everything beyond salary: Recruitment, retention, benefits, advancement, management, and everything else your organization will be on the hook for.

This is someone you’ll have access to year-round, and who’ll know the ins and outs of office politics, culture, and the history of decisions made. The development tasks they’ll tackle affect them more than anyone else on this list, so there’s an implicit sense of ownership and a built-in incentive to get it right (or have it boomerang in the future).

Staff augmentation, on the other hand, introduces a degree of separation. You’re bringing in an outside resource to slot into a defined role (augmentation), but they’re someone else’s employee. You’ll pay more per hour than you would to an internal hire, but that’s the price of flexibility:

  • All of those pieces beyond salary (recruiting, benefits, retention, etc.) aren’t up to you.
  • In skipping everything around job interviews and resignation notices, staff augmentation is the fastest way to get a body into a vital role.
  • It doesn’t have to be a year-round gig: Scaling down (and up) can happen at will.
  • You won’t be limited to one person’s expertise or capacity to learn.

Flexibility aside, you’ll still need your own process in place for both of these choices to succeed. Management, oversight, product ownership, and roadmaps will all be required to point individual contributors in the right direction.

Staff Augmentation vs. External Experts

Now, let’s place the two outside options side-by-side.

External experts come with most of the same flexibility perks as staff augmentation, but fill a different role. Instead of taking over someone’s proverbial desk, they’re more of a distinct unit. Starting from a consultant’s vantage point, they often tackle ideas and objectives without defined solutions.

You’ll be able to offload process, technical leadership, and some amount of decision-making, but those services mean:

  • External experts are the most expensive choice.
  • You’re obliged to cede some authority to justify that cost.

In short, you’ll want to have sufficiently hard problems to throw an expert’s way. Flipping back to staff augmentation, there are two new favorable comparisons in light of that:

  • It’s better positioned to handle routine, long-term maintenance.
  • Increasingly, agencies that provide staff augmentation may also offer a (fee-based) way to transition someone into an internal hire.

So, two outside choices, but each carries a few key differences.

External Experts vs. Internal Hires

Two comparisons in, we’ve covered the bulk of how everything matches up. Let’s circle back around and close the loop.

External experts and staff augmentation carry a lot of similarities in a head-to-head with internal hires. The same points around flexibility and cost hold true, as does an internal employee’s advantage in everything culture-related. Someone on your staff knows all of the acronyms, has a history of collaboration with their teammates, and can navigate office politics like it’s their job (because it usually is).

Putting aside what’s already been discussed, there are two additions for external experts worth talking through:

  • An outside set of eyes. With an expert, there’s value in experience — with other organizations, with similar problem spaces, with different industries, and so on. New perspectives can arrive at solutions that may not form internally.
  • Less oversight. That experience comes with a process and the ability to temporarily fill leadership roles. You’ll be able to avoid standing over their shoulder.

As mentioned earlier, though, all of that expertise comes at a price. If the need is long-term, the cost difference with an internal hire becomes more and more actionable.

The Criteria: Picking the Right Path

With our matchups resolved, let’s pull the specific criteria out (some of which you’ve likely inferred) for an at-a-glance look at which paths are worth exploring.

When It’s Worth Hiring

When’s it worth setting up a desk for someone? Here are some of the major factors that point towards an internal hire:

  • The role is something that your company will always need.
  • There’s a bit of lead time to find the right person.
  • Your organization has a fair bit of existing technology and is short on folks dedicated to their upkeep.
  • When looking at your process, much of it is navigating internal politics.
  • You’re scaling up for acquisition and head count is important.

When to Seek Staff Augmentation

Need a role player in a hurry? Here are the signs on the road to staff augmentation:

  • Having someone start next week would be great.
  • You may need to scale up or down often or with little notice.
  • You have a number of great managers and product owners, but lack individual contributors to carry out their vision.
  • You’re in need of many different specializations for limited periods of time.
  • The option to hire an external resource later is appealing.

When to Turn to an External Expert

Ready to offload some of your decision-making duties? External experts make sense when:

  • You lack the technical know-how to manage developers.
  • Decision makers are overwhelmed and need their choices narrowed.
  • There’s an abundance of problems without actionable solutions.
  • It’d be great to recreate some of the nimbleness of startups.
  • Your process is hurting projects or just doesn’t exist yet.

Tackling Engineering Talent at Scale

Multiple sources of talent, all with tough competition: It isn’t easy to navigate the decision trees and make the right pick. Some paths may even make sense at different points in a project’s lifecycle — experts to get you off the ground, internal hires to get you acquired — but there’s no one-size-fits-all advice.

Your best bet? Treat it like an investment portfolio. Many organizations diversify their holdings and try a bit of each, sliding the ratios around as needed. It helps to put the product roadmap and the org chart side-by-side and consider different time horizons. What do you need this quarter? This year? Next year? Looking at objectives narrows your decisions pretty quick.

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