Talent in a free agent world

A few weeks ago, I was talking with a friend of mine who is working as a consultant these days. We worked together at Signature, developing research prototypes together. He’s interested in doing similar work as a consultant, but it’s difficult to pull together a good team of research scientists and engineers when there is no company to do the coordination. So we started talking about what technical research projects would look like in a free agent world, where there were no companies and everybody worked for themselves.

As part of this, we talked about the importance of prototypes, of how they provide a focus to these sort of research efforts. Because prototypes provide a concrete manifestation of the team’s intent, they remove a lot of the ambiguity that is often associated with specification documents, where everybody has a different vision in their head. For the sake of reference, books which go into more detail on the importance of prototypes are Serious Play, Experimentation Matters, and especially Latour’s Aramis.

My friend mentioned how once he got a prototype, it was easier to get other consultants on board a project, because he had something to show them. This reminded me of a discussion I’d had with my friend in LA, whose wife is a screenwriter (note: all that follows is my interpretation of his interpretation of how the film industry works). One way that films get made is that somebody writes a script. They find a producer who wants to turn that script into a film. The producer uses the script to coordinate everybody else that needs to be convinced to join the film project. This is where the negotiations get complex, as actors say they’ll work with certain directors, and vice versa, and nobody wants to be the first to commit to the project. It’s up to the producer to get all of the contingent agreements together so that the project develops enough momentum that it moves forward towards actually becoming a film.

So while I was talking to my friend, I suggested that perhaps the movie industry could serve as a model of how to organize free agent talent into projects. Two guys could come up with an interesting idea that they hope to turn into a major project. They build a prototype, which serves as the equivalent of a movie script in generating interest. They start looking to attract talent such as high-powered software architects and CEO types, where the film industry equivalents would be actors and directors. Once those are in place, they go looking for funding, where the venture capitalists are the equivalent of the movie studios, able to inject the big chunks of cash to scale a project up. Then once the money is available, they can go enlist all of the workers they need to make the project, the code drones and the testers that are the equivalent of lighting technicians and gaffers.

It seems like this is already the way things are starting to work in the web programming world. It’s possible now for two guys in a bedroom to put together a prototype web service with free packages like the Apache web server, and the mySQL database. They can put it online, then attract more people to work with them. Once they attract some attention, they can either go to the VCs, or, more often these days, get bought by Yahoo, Google, Amazon or Microsoft, who then scale it up. Think of Flickr or del.icio.us, now owned by Yahoo.

I don’t know if the same sort of model could work for projects based in the physical world. I have a hard time believing that the CellKey instrument could get made in a free agent world, for instance. But it’s interesting to speculate about what the free agent world will look like. Because it seems like it’s coming as talented technical people realize they want to control their own destiny and choose their own projects (as Paul Graham explains).

But now it’s time to go watch the Bears in their first playoff game in four years. More thoughts later today or tomorrow as I start to catch up on my backlog of half-developed ideas.

6 thoughts on “Talent in a free agent world

  1. If you want to talk about this some more, I ‘ve had similar ideas and conversations with other people… The addition of a prototype, which can be used to motivate people into joining a team as free agents, is a good one. What with all the social networking stuff going on, it should be straightforward to build a really good team from a bunch of free agents.

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