6 minute read Published: Author: Seonaid Lee

When a small team knows that they need to get started in automation and they only have the budget for one (or maybe two) hires, they are on a unicorn hunt… they need a DevOps specialist who knows the particular programming languages they are currently using, who is an expert across a wide range of different technologies, who has enough experience to operate independently and can help with strategic direction and positioning, but is still cheap enough to work on an unfunded project, and also… hey, can you fix that CSS issue on the front page while you are at it?

If this is your problem, you don’t just need a unicorn, you need a specific unicorn. And there is no guarantee that they even exist, let alone that they exist in your network, and are currently looking for work.

There are a few problems with this scenario.

1. Unicorns are Vanishingly Rare

I’m not going to say unicorns don’t exist; every senior tech person I know has a unique combination of skills that, matched with the right job requirements, would make them look like a unicorn to the person hiring them. But: when you find yourself looking for a person with a precise combination of technical skills up and down the stack, merged with the ability to work with your existing group of clients and employees, now you’re looking for a very specific person.

It’s like trying to find a perfect romantic partner… any potential magical unicorn you come across is almost certainly missing something vital that you need for this job.

This brings us to:

2. No Two Unicorns are Interchangeable

The previous issue can be summarized as such: The more circles you pile onto the Venn diagram, the fewer people exist at the intersection. It gets worse, though: you can’t change one of the circles and still have the same people in the middle. If you want to change the front end, the programming language, or the particular cloud architecture, you may have to start all over again, looking for a different unicorn.

3. Unicorns are Expensive

And can be high maintenance!

It’s a challenge to find all the right technical skills in one person. If you also need them to do the documentation, gather requirements from the client, run meetings, and keep all the moving parts of the project in mind to come in on time, you’re not looking for a unicorn any longer… you’re looking for a unicorn who is a mermaid (mer-person?) in their spare time.

The more capabilities you need, the more expensive they get to hire. When you don’t need all their skills on an ongoing basis, you can wind up with a seriously overpowered staff member who is both costly, and at risk of getting bored if the maintenance bits are not as interesting as the ideation and architecture stage. In fact, a lot of the folks who are great at integration and strategy are not your best options for ongoing development and operations. Now you’ve got a pricey unicorn where you need a solid draft horse.

And the last unicorn problem is…

4. You might just be hiring a horse with a plastic coffee cup on their head

Here’s a secret…

<whispers> Full-Stack developers are mostly just OK at all the bits of the stack. </whispers>

The goal of hiring a full-stack developer is for them to know the end-to-end integration. They have to be good enough at each component to be able to respond to changes rapidly and as needed. They have to be aware of how all the pieces fit together so that they will know what their changes might impact up and down the line. However, they can’t possibly be an expert at all the components… and deep expertise is possible at every layer.

Once you have moved beyond your team’s knowledge of the systems you are working with, especially if you are at the architecture stage, you’ll need that deep expertise, at least for a while.

If you’re searching for a person to fill in the bits you don’t know, you’re playing a high-stakes game, because you don’t have any way to assess whether somebody else is good at things you don’t know how to do. Since you’re not an expert, you are not able to assess somebody else’s expertise, so you need to accept their claims of how things are/should be done. You don’t want to leave yourself in a position to be dazzled by somebody’s confidence when what you really need is somebody who can accurately identify and address risks.

What You Should do Instead

Hire Skills, not People

This is where you might consider engaging a team to get the next stage of your project built instead of hiring an employee right away.

With a team, you get the benefits of high-level expertise without having to immediately identify and hire for a full-time role. You get the architect you need for a few months and the front-end developer without having to pick one or the other (or find one person who does both.)

Now, let’s be honest, the hourly rate for a senior agency will come with a bit of sticker shock. You may have to pay more than you, personally, are getting paid, especially if you’re hiring on a short-term/low-hours contract. It’s more like what you pay your lawyer or your chiropractor than what you pay your employees.

That can feel uncomfortable, but the benefit is getting access to a blend of the 1/4 of three different senior engineers that you actually need, instead of making do with an intermediate full-stack person (however wonderful) who has to spend a lot of their time trying to figure out the solution before implementing it.

This is particularly relevant when backfilling temporary roles on a project. When you only need a short-to-mid-term commitment, you are in the enviable position of being able to hire skills, not people. As lovely as we are (and we really are), you’re not choosing somebody to work with for the next several years; you need somebody to build the missing parts of your system as fast and well as possible - to do the build, transfer knowledge to your long-term staff, and exit.

It does not matter to your long-term success whether that skill set is spread over one or three people.

It is just so much easier to fulfill your need for a particular intersection of skills with a group of ten senior developers than it is to find it all tidily bundled into one magical, full-stack, generalist/specialist unicorn.

If you are currently at a stage where you need deep expertise in Automation or Architecture to get you through the next stage of your project, reach out to us below. We’d love to build a plan to get you on board with our team.

The article The Trouble with Unicorns first appeared on the Consensus Enterprises blog.

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