We’ve all been there. A dishwasher gushing water all over your beautiful new kitchen floor. A dead battery, conveniently discovered just as you need to leave for an important appointment. Or coming to the realization that the glorious shade of golden brown you selected to adorn your 18-foot vaulted-ceiling entry 13 years ago no longer qualifies your estate for potential inclusion in Architectural Digest.
But very few of us possess the specialized skills of a licensed plumber, certified mechanic, or artful painter to address these situations. But we all have systems (everything from Angie’s List to word-of-mouth) to help us locate trustworthy professionals to address these sporadic, yet important, life needs.
Technology resources are, in many ways, no different. Sure, your firm will maintain close relationships with certain third-party technicians that will be carefully nurtured, such as local practice support specialists and network engineers. But in many situations, there is only an occasional need, such as for application developers, database analysts, or security engineers.
In these instances, developing “fractional” arrangements — think vacation timeshares — with IT professionals can generate significant financial advantages for your organization. Knowing that you have a trusted, predictable professional available can be as comforting as knowing that when you open the door to your vacation condominium, there will be no unpleasant surprises.
Consider, for example, database analysts (DBA). Clearly, technology companies want the best and brightest minds available to deal with client crises and emergencies — such as server failures or data corruption.
But on the other hand, relatively rote tasks, such as the management of user accounts and creation of new database tables, might be easily assigned to project managers. Similarly, support functions, such as database monitoring and the issuance of alerts, can often be conducted by software utility packages commonly offered by professional database management companies.
So by carving up the DBA role into distinct parts — such as advanced work, basic work, and automation — you likely will be able to contract with a remote DBA company willing to provide its expertise in specific areas.
When you do so, a good negotiator can effortlessly work out a monthly retainer cost which is a small percentage of the expense associated with a full-time DBA.
But whether you need a painter or a programmer, the rules of the road are fairly homogeneous.
LESSON 1. USE ALL AVAILABLE RESOURCES TO FIND THE RIGHT PEOPLE.
You’ve likely worked with hundreds of people in your career. Carefully consider who has, and hasn’t, done the job. Reach out to your network for recommendations. Use tools and professional organizations, such as LinkedIn, the International Legal Technology Association, and the Dice.com job search site for technology professionals, to locate and vet potential candidates.
Be sure you define the role you envision; only a certain type of company or individual will be willing to enter into a fractional sort of working relationship.
As you entertain your options, here are some things to keep in mind. First of all, be sure to focus on merit. As an example, there is no doubt it’s quite enjoyable when you can grab lunch or a cup of coffee with a friend who you brought in to work on a project, but at the end of the day it’s the work that is most important. Don’t get mesmerized by impressive salespeople and slick PowerPoint presentations; rather, take pains to evaluate technical resources by asking good interview questions, designing pilot projects, and checking references.
Carefully consider the importance of geography on your project. If your team requires face-to-face interaction, plan accordingly. If not, be willing to bring aboard remote resources. Flexibility, especially for fractional work, may help you attract and retain the best talent, such as professionals seeking part-time work or those residing in areas where employment is difficult to find.
LESSON 2. SOMETIMES, THE RIGHT PERSON IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN HAVING THE RIGHT SKILL.
Every April, sports fans interested in the NFL Draft are subjected to weeks of speculation on whether your favorite team will draft for “need” or select the “best available athlete.”
That holds true in the technology world as well. In many instances, knowing that a best colleague is a good “organizational fit” can mean the world to the success of a project. No one wants to work with someone who is inflexible, or otherwise incapable of adapting to a company’s culture. It goes without saying that someone who has demonstrated a past eagerness to learn and willingness to dive headfirst into a technical manual is probably the type of person you want on board, even if they aren’t the perfect fit for whatever “position profile” you drew up for a role. There are many times the “best available athlete” is who you want to snag as your new team member.
LESSON 3. BUT OTHER TIMES, YOU REALLY DO NEED THAT SPECIFIC SKILL.
At the risk of being contradictory, Lesson 2 has the potential to wreak havoc on a project if it is taken too far. There’s also considerable value, especially in the short-term, in picking someone who can hit the ground running, having “done that before.” As an example, it’s never in your best interest to have an entire project team sitting on their hands waiting for encryption to be enabled on your database, or some other esoteric, yet vital, technical task to be completed.
Be sure to assess the actual technology need and attempt to determine if it is a discipline that requires a specific targeted skill, or the best general resource — i.e., that “great athlete” with the versatility to quickly adapt and contribute to a team in many ways.
LESSON 4. ONCE YOU FIND THE RIGHT RESOURCE, CULTIVATE AND DEVELOP THE RELATIONSHIP.
This is key! After you’ve searched, vetted, and evaluated a person or company, if they are producing for you, by all means work hard to keep them around! As we all know, training new people, no matter how talented, requires time and effort. Whenever possible, make the transition from “vendor” to “partner.” Positive feedback, using words like “please” and “thank you,” and offering scheduling flexibility go a long way towards developing the long-term relationship that is in your collective best interest.
For example, in my day-to-day vocation, I am thrilled to have developed long-term partnerships with firms such as the remote database company Remote DBA Experts (Pittsburgh, Pa.), web hosting company Network80 (St. Louis, Mo.), and software architecture firm Corridor (Tallahassee, Fla.). They each provide superior service and value to us, in a relationship that is mutually beneficial. Whenever possible I remind them of my appreciation for their contribution to our success.
LESSON 5. SEEK OUT WAYS TO CREATE A TRUE PARTNERSHIP.
Last but not least, strive to strengthen the bond between you and your partners. Discuss mutual referral opportunities; offer to serve as a reference; give them preferred status for future assignments.
Fractional relationships with technical staff or companies are not without peril. The lack of a formal employee-supervisor relationship means the professionals (or you) can walk away at any time. They may be more challenging to manage, especially those providing services remotely, or to multiple clients.
Respect those dynamics, but bear in mind that the benefit of keeping high-quality experts who are comfortable and confident can provide excellent work at a lower overall cost to your enterprise. Whether you need a new faucet, brake pads, SSL certificate, or litigation budgeting module, the value of a true professional is truly priceless!
DO THE MATH
Fractional relationships with technical companies or individuals can provide peace of mind for IT leaders. In essence, you are creating a cadre of specialists who are “on call” when you need them, but off the clock when you don’t. You get the comfort of knowing what to expect (like buying a timeshare) without the expense of maintaining the “property” full time. But be mindful that these arrangements are not without risk. Without a formal employer-employee relationship, you lose certain protections, and there’s always the chance that another “co-owner” beats you to specific dates.
Keneth Jones is the COO of Xerdict Group, a subsidiary of Sedgwick. He can be reached at email@example.com.