Half Time Software Engineers

Status: This is a rough draft. I believe strongly in the thesis here, but some of the details here are still hazy.

This post is about why hiring software engineers at half time - instead of full time - can be a great model.

Half time employment can address some core problems with the software engineer labor market:

  • Companies can’t find the software talent they want.
  • Many great engineers feel that life as a full time software engineer is unfulfilling.

Half time isn’t for everybody. But if you aren’t totally satisfied with your hiring, consider this alternative!

How it works

Let’s be specific about what “half time” means:

  • An engineer is paid on salary, and is expected to work 50% the hours of a full time engineer.
  • The engineer can elect to receive benefits (i.e. health care) or a commensurate higher salary.
  • The engineer sets an outline of when they are working, and keeps it consistent. Any time when they are totally unreachable is blocked off in a calendar.
  • In the employment agreement, the engineer agrees not to work with any competitors. Culturally, the engineer is expected to discuss any other serious work with their manager.
  • Leave (sick or vacation) is also 50% of a full time employee. In practice, a half time engineer shouldn’t be taking too much vacation.

The engineer can then do anything else with the other half of their week. Some may have two half time jobs (e.g. work at a startup and big company); some may do something artistic (record an album?); some spend more time with family (e.g. watch their grandchildren for 2 days/week).

How is this different from contracting?

Contracting is a dirty word at many software companies, but this is just cultural: contractors are usually cheaper and less important than full time employees.

Half time employment must be treated differently than contracting. Scheduling aside, you treat a half time engineer like a full time employee in every other way.

Most importantly, a half time engineer isn’t temporary. They can be half time for years and still be a pillar for the team and company culture.


Now let’s review some reasons this model gives a comparative advantage over standard full time employment.

For employers

  • Better candidates. Many great engineers would be open to half time, but are totally out of reach for most businesses as a standard hire.
  • Can be cheaper. Some engineering roles don’t require 40 hours/week - e.g. maintaining one microservice - so you pay half instead.
  • You get their most productive time. Each week, your engineers should be doing the most important work first, then they will be marginally less productive. You get the better half.
  • Shared best practices. New hires often bring helpful best practices from past teams. With half time employment, these can come from current employees.
  • Retention. You can retain insider knowledge when an employee would otherwise leave.
  • Management efficiency. As a manager, it’s often easy to ensure an engineer is productive 3 days/week - then an outsized effort goes into managing the other two.
  • Option value to scale up fast. Say you’re a startup that begins to hockey stick. You have 3 half time engineers with free time. You can make them a sweet offer for full time and scale up overnight.

For engineers

  • You have time to pursue other interests, in or out of tech.
  • Mental health. Writing code can be hard at some points in life. In those periods, often the worst thing to do is force yourself to work 40 hours alongside the new hires.
  • Individual identity. When someone asks what do you do? at a cocktail party, you no longer have to lead with your employer. (But you can if you want to.)
  • Easier transitions. This removes the uncomfortable dichotomy of employed/unemployed.

For both

And finally, some additional dynamics that can make half time good for everybody:

  • Diffuse stress. At some companies, office politics / interpersonal stress is unavoidable. If an employee is unhappy, taking a few days off to work on something else can be help.
  • Firing is less painful. Both parties feel less pressure to remain in a toxic relationship.
  • Hybrid offices. Hybrid work seems the inevitable future, and
  • Finally, my personal favorite. Long term, half time employment can ease the (IMO inevitable) transition to lower employment. As more roles are augmented with AI, many businesses will be forced to evolve into small teams. Half time employment provides a different type of “small”.

Addressing some drawbacks

Can the engineer coast?

Yes, just like they can (and do) in full time employment. See /r/overemployed. For responsible adults, this is no higher risk than half time employment.

Can employers overwork the engineer?

Again, this is no different than full time employment.

How do we schedule meetings?

Software engineers shouldn’t spend all day in meetings. This model wouldn’t work someone with a manager’s schedule, e.g. a product manager.

No skin in the game?

Companies love to talk about how they want employees to be long term committed. This has good and bad implications. Half time employees can be just as committed within the bounds of reasonable employment.

Too much setup time?

This is a real risk, and must be acknowledged by both parties. For most roles on a performing team, a good engineer can start producing within two weeks - so, within four weeks at half time.

If anything, half time employment can amplify problems with development processes.

Too much management overhead?

This will depend on the company. If this is a concern, it’s worth examining where the management cycles go. Time spent mentoring will increase a team of half time engineers, but time spent at a whiteboard solving technical problems will remain constant.

Frankly, most software managers have capacity - and most managers selfishly love the idea of managing more people. This is solvable.

Too hard for HR?

Some HR teams will balk at the extra complexity. That would have been valid 10 years ago, but modern HRIS systems reduce the extra workload.

Plus, since half time employment brings better candidates into the funnel, HR won’t have to spend as much time on lesser fit candidates.