With economic uncertainty and an ever-present skills gap impacting businesses, here are four ways in which organisations can build technical talent
At a time when economic and social turbulence is turning everything we know upside down, business leaders must reinvent how they work. We’re facing a couple of complex challenges right now. We need skilled teams to build products that allow us to stand apart and compete, but great technical talent is increasingly hard to find. We feel compelled to hire on repeat, or outsource to plug gaps, but this requires even more time and resources – both in short supply.
Build up your internal technical talent
My own experiences of building talented tech teams has led me to the belief that there is a logical answer to these conundrums. By focusing inwards, prioritising learning and better harnessing capabilities, businesses can thrive and nurture engaged employees. By viewing continuous team learning as a strategic imperative, we can lay solid foundations for a highly talented and adaptable workforce. Here are four tenets that I find essential to implementing such a strategy.
#1 Learning is more than a perk
A HackerRank report asked 116,648 developers what they want most in a job. Professional growth and learning new technical skills on the job came out on top, with a whopping 59 per cent ranking it as their biggest priority. People care about their own learning and acquiring new skills, which is why I’m not a fan of the word “training”, as it suggests something passive. Learning never is.
This focus on continued learning makes sense given that the formal qualification requirements for tech talent has shifted considerably in recent years, with tech giants like Google and IBM lifting their four-year degree requirements. Coding bootcamps, vocational classes and learning on the job are becoming increasingly viable routes into tech roles. Tech teams are growing with major gaps in their knowledge. On top of that, our industry moves at breakneck speed – even newly graduated computer scientists must continuously expand their knowledge to keep up. Whatever your level, we must all strive to improve our skills.
Learning opportunities are therefore not a “nice to have”, a perk to sit in between good biscuits and a monthly games night (not that I’d ever say “no” to either of those). The beauty of an organisation which puts learning at its core, is that you’re not only attracting and retaining great technical talent, but you’re also investing in keeping your business energised and up-to-date. As a business owner, upgrading the capabilities of your team offers as many benefits for you as for them – if not more.
#2 – Work on your culture
Building technical talent capabilities goes hand in hand with building a tech culture. If you’re invested in shaping a workforce of the best technical talent, then that means putting tech front and centre in your organisation. You must consider all teams, not just your engineering or tech people. For some, embracing this new world is going to present a sharp learning curve. Not only in terms of acquiring new skills, but also in how your people work and approach certain challenges. The whole organisation needs to embrace the new way, and be ready to adjust and iterate accordingly.
This change in culture is difficult to pull off, and requires a long term investment. In practice, this will likely involve a lot of communicating why change is necessary, talking through the strategy, supporting teams with the shift and feeding back results until you get there.
#3 – Focus on the whole team
Each person’s capabilities contribute to (or risk) the overall success of the team and company. This is true of any department, but especially in software organisations. Our industry works at such a fast pace that new skill gaps are constantly appearing. An alternative to filling deficits through recruiting new talent is to think about the team rather than the individual. Analyse each person’s strengths and weaknesses in the context of the needs and goals of the team. You may have a bootcamp grad that’s extremely capable in coding, but lacks awareness of design patterns to help reduce technical debt. Or you may have a more seasoned developer who knows the fundamentals very well, but not advanced techniques and ideas that would let them deliver more robust code, even faster. Every individual is working at a different level, and that context is crucial. At Skiller Whale, we talk about “team capability development”.
#4 – Realise an employee’s potential for change
As an industry, we need to stop seeing learning as a series of isolated one-off ‘surgical’ changes, but also as the vitamins or exercise that we continually take to improve step-by-step, day-by-day. When a CTO thinks that only their juniors need formal learning opportunities, I see that as a red flag. No one is ‘done’ with learning. Some people are naturally proactive when it comes to upskilling, and others allow growth opportunities to pass them by. When learning is systematic rather than arbitrary, all employees benefit.
>See also: What is the role of the CTO?
The value of creating a ‘learning organisation’
By actively investing in the growth of your people, you’re ensuring that you have the right tech skills covered. The idea that a company has to learn and grow to survive (which, among other things, requires its people to learn and grow) was expounded in the classic book The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation by Peter M. Senge: he argued that ‘systems thinking’ was key, and that in our rapidly changing world, companies can only succeed if they change the way in which they deal with problems.
Nurturing a culture of learning gives you that and much more. It offers you the opportunity to differentiate yourself as an employer. By supporting your people and enabling them to succeed, you’ll create an environment where people are empowered and engaged. When employees feel engaged, they stay. And in a tumultuous economy, you’ll create an organisation that can constantly reinvent itself, respond to change, innovate, and thrive.
The next challenge business leaders face is providing right-sized opportunities for their teams to learn and grow. Recorded video lectures covering the theory don’t stick as well as learning tech skills piecemeal as people are using them. Through focused, expert-led coaching, people learn gradually and have the opportunity to come back for the next piece in the puzzle. I therefore recommend adopting a ‘DEEP’ coaching approach (one that is Diagnostic, Expert-led, Experiential and Problem-Based), as it’s the most impactful for building tech skills.
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