The IT sector has a skills shortage. In 2018 70% of tech employers said they expect a talent shortage. Cybersecurity is the hardest hit. So what can we as an industry do about this? It’s not good enough to say to recruiters “do better”. It’s not viable to keep increasing salaries to match a demand which will continue to grow. The reality is much worse than the figures suggest. LetsDevOps, DevSecOps, Machine Learning etc, all these specialisms didn’t exist 5–10 years ago. So how many of your employees are trained to fulfil their roles to a high standard?
To truly understand the effect of the skills shortage, we have to identify our requirements. It doesn’t do anyone any good saying I need 10 CISOs or 20 DevOps engineers. Technology is unlike all other business units; it’s constant creative problem-solving. Creating an environment that supports and nurtures the continual experimentation and learning required will often allow you to unlock the potential in your existing workforce. So before you ring up that recruiter, it might be worth looking closer to home.
It All Starts With Culture.
A skills shortage makes it a sellers market; engineers have their pick of places they can and want to work. A lousy culture will always turn away good employees fast. That doesn’t mean, to fix your companies culture, you need to run out and buy a Fussball table, most people see through these gimmicks for what they are. What I’m talking about is genuine decisive leadership from someone who’s opinion they can respect. I recently heard a story from a colleague who went to give a presentation to his CTO. Before he went in, he was warned: “Remember the CTO’s not technical”. The thing is you could tell. His SVP’s weren’t technical either, or his directors. If they were, it was by chance rather than design. It brings me back to the same point time and again. If you’re going to compete in the technology sector, you are a technology company. If you’re a technology company, your CTO needs to know what he’s doing. How else can they comprehend the strategic technical decisions they’re making. In fact, in the most successful tech companies, the CEO comes from an engineering background too, allowing from the outset technology to be a money earner and not just the cost-centre of old.
All this affects retention, having worked in many organisations it’s blatantly obvious when the technology leadership are simply salesmen. Within companies like that, you often find the skillsets of the engineers lack because all the good ones do their six months then leave. You end up without a navigator, your morale is low, and everything grinds to a halt.
Your senior management is ultimately responsible for hiring, retention and culture. If your retention is weak, then there is zero point hiring any new talent till it’s fixed. The reality is often that retention figures are far worse than they seem. Your best, most capable employees are also the ones who are most in demand. If you can’t hold onto them, you have no foundation from which to build successful teams. A decisive, informed, and stable strategy will make all the difference in the belief your staff place in you.
Don’t Rely on Your Superstars.
So you’ve found your rockstar engineers, they know who they are, but hopefully, so do you. However, for your company to succeed, it needs successful teams, not individuals. Skilled engineers who don’t share that knowledge with the rest of their team are worse than useless. They’re toxic, they’ll create an atmosphere where no one can make mistakes, and this stifles learning.
What you want to do is distill their capabilities and share them within the team. You want to take the pressure off these guys so they can train the rest of your engineers, and give talks about how amazing your company is. Just like any machine, your team(s) are only as good as their weakest part. That’s where the focus should be, the mythical 10x developer exists and is a useful tool to turn the tide of a failing engineering team, but only if they play well with others. The goal of this exercise is to get a top-performing team, not a couple of highly skilled individuals, carrying everyone else.
The metric I tend to use to judge a team is the difference between the highest and lowest performing team members. The more significant the gap, the more problematic the team will likely be. Divide that number by the overall output of the group (however you measure it), and you’ll get a reasonable idea of their health.
Trust is the foundation of any team that exists. Look at high performing teams; you’ll see incredibly high trust. You will go out of your way for someone who goes out of their way for you. That’s the foundation of all trust. But how many people can honestly say their boss would go out of their way for them? Would risk losing face, or even their job for you as an employee? Without that trust relationship, your team will never perform at their best; your staff won’t be happy. If you are sending unhappy people home after a day of work, there’s much wider consequences to their personal lives and that of society as a whole. If you, as a leader, put yourself out for them, support them, enable them to grow in confidence, you will be someone they remember for the rest of their lives.
We have to look at ourselves as leaders, not managers. Not as people who hire existing talent, give them work, and chastise them if they fail, but enablers for each of your employee’s personal growth. Growth that they may not have the confidence to see themselves. It’s our job to recognise it and nurture it. If we grow our current employee’s belief in themselves, that is how you solve the retention problem. If you’ve resolved that, it’s half the battle won.
Teaching How to Learn.
If there’s one thing about tech that differentiates itself from all other disciplines in an enterprise, it’s the speed of change. Five years ago, most of the tools we use today didn’t exist; in 5 years, the tools we’ll be using don’t exist today. So the only thing that differentiates a sound engineer from a bad one is the willingness and ability to learn. Experience counts for something, ask anyone who’s been woken up by an outage a 4 am. But it doesn’t count for all that much. The ability to think critically about the problems your company is a far more powerful asset than how many programming languages you know. After all, if all you have is a hammer, then everything looks like a nail.
Empowering your team members to learn about new things. Supporting them to solve problems on their own. Getting them excited about the potential technology holds can only be good for your business.
If the cornerstone of solving the skills shortage is getting people management right, then the foundation of that is removing the fear of failure. If you have a culture of fear, then you don’t automatically get rid of failure. You hide it; you get examples like Nick Leeson destroying Barings bank. The issues get hidden away and not talked about until they are too huge to be solved. Encouraging failure is the key to success. If you are failing, then you are taking risks, and those risks will pay off eventually. It’s an outcome of all the learning your doing, which is something you should celebrate. But all failure isn’t beneficial, you need to ensure that anything that fails is correctly evaluated, diagnosed, and the strategy changes as a result. If failing once is the key to success, repeating that same failure is the route to madness.
But make the risks you take smaller, have a quick turnaround and ensure at all times you have data to learn from the results. Ninety days for a project to prove it’s usefulness is a good rule of thumb. Even if it doesn’t succeed in driving revenue, the learnings you’ll get will be invaluable.
Creating the Right Environment.
One thing that we overlook in the tech industry is that engineering and development is a creative task. It’s a craft no different to pottery or landscape painting. I like to think of craft as problem-solving without a map. Same as pottery, you need a level of skill to be able to bend the clay to your will. But also knowledge to ensure that when you remove the pot from the kiln, it’s still a pot and not just shards. But you need more than that; you are bringing something new into the world that never existed before, no matter how trivial. For that, you need creativity. That’s why engineers complain about context switching in ways you’d never hear accountants complain. Enterprises have been designed over the years to stamp down on creativity, a creative accountant, after all, is not a good accountant. But you can see with the plethora of startups entering every market, companies that use technology like clay. As a creative tool, bending it into shapes that never existed before, are the ones that come out on top.
So where having a busy, dynamic environment might work well for your accountants or your project managers who require discipline to succeed. It doesn’t work for your IT staff who need to be able to focus. Concentration is key to development, and context switching is going to destroy your team’s productivity. Being responsive, enabling flexible working patterns and judging your team by their output. That’s what makes all the difference to the speed with which they can get work done. It will significantly increase the quality of work delivered too.
There are certain things which will positively affect your employees quality of life. A generous work from home policy often means you’ll get engineers working on sticky problems well outside of office hours. I’ve known some companies where they’ve got every other piece of the puzzle wrong. Yet people still stay because it means they can pick their children up from school or be with their families more. The employee feels like they benefit from the freedom of setting their hours, but in reality, your company benefits from the increased output of your teams.
Invest In Your Staff
Fundamentally this is a paradigm shift from staff being a resource, a cog in a wheel. To staff being the thing that makes or breaks you as an organisation. If you trust them, empower them and allow them to learn and grow under your leadership, so will your company. If you don’t, they’ll leave, or lose confidence (which is worse) and so will your shareholders.
This transformation isn’t about the quick win; this is about a strategy that will slingshot you into the new decade. In 2002 Jeff Bezos initiated a plan to rearchitect all their systems to become more agile, spending over $1 billion in the process. From that decision came Amazon Web Services, born in 2003 and today AWS creates over 50% of Amazon’s profit and made him (for a time) the richest man in the world.
That’s the value you will be unlocking by empowering your staff, understanding their needs and ensuring there is shared trust. Most importantly, it will give you the retention you need to ensure your hiring strategy makes sense.
It’s not easy, but if you follow these points, you’ll have a chance of making those next few appointments stick.
- Ensure you have the right leadership.
- Retention is the most critical metric.
- Embed a trusting, learning-driven culture within your company.
- Ensure your environment is conducive to a happy work/life balance.
- Invest in your staff, and the rewards will pay off a hundredfold.