Hiring in a Tech Skills Shortage by@ryandawsonuk

Hiring in a Tech Skills Shortage

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Ryan Dawson

Principal Data Consultant at ThoughtWorks. Hackernoon Contributor of the Year...

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Pretty much everyone in tech knows hiring is not easy. Yet whenever we realize we have a need for a new role we say “let’s just hire someone with the right skills”. Why do we forget how hard this is? And how can we make it easier? Here are some tips, mostly derived from the book Empowered and its analysis of what the top tech companies do.

Don’t Just Let it Be Someone Else’s Problem

The big problem with hiring is getting candidates that meet the spec. It’s easy to forget how hard this is because normally somebody else does it. Typically an outsourced recruiter or part of HR.

Trouble is, we then find we don’t get suitable candidates. And we waste lots of time explaining what the spec means and adjusting the wording in the hope of finding more candidates.

There is an alternative. The hiring manager can get on LinkedIn themselves and start making the initial approaches. Techies tend to take approaches more seriously when the job title is a technical manager and not a recruiter. Of course, this is time-consuming. But how much time do you spend reviewing inappropriate CVs? It’s at least worth considering for vacancies you know will be tricky.

Remember the Power to Learn

Often tech job ads include every technology and the kitchen sink. This encourages a matching game where recruiters try to find candidates that tick as many boxes as possible and candidates try to get as many skills on their CVs as they can.

But we rarely need everything in the description. What we really need is the aptitude to learn and a demonstrable ability to produce good, relevant technical work.

Aptitude to learn is not raw talent. It requires background. Switching programming languages or from frontend to backend is typically a big jump. But less than this is quite doable. Most techies are learning all the time to keep up with the trends. But we tend to forget this when we look at CVs.

Often we think we need highly niche skills right away. But then in the time, it takes to find them we might as well have hired a generalist and given them an opportunity to learn.

We overvalue specific hard skills and undervalue problem-solving and collaboration. But we can assess problem-solving and collaboration skills in a relevant way.

Overcome the ‘Too Junior’ Fallacy

“Many companies have little choice but to hire people that are inexperienced in their new roles and to coach them to success. There is often such fierce competition for talent that companies either have to pay extraordinary salaries or hire based more on potential than proven performance.” Marty Cagan and Chris Jones, Empowered (p. 158)

Everyone seems to think they need people with at least a few years of experience in an area. New grads or people making a switch have a hard time.

Why can’t we take on more grads? Because it requires active coaching. You need to have mentors who show the new folk how it’s done and help them find the right training. You also need to accept the risk it might not work, recognize when it doesn’t, and be willing to move people on in the best way possible.

Empowered argues that this culture of coaching is good management and we should be doing it anyway. Coaching in Empowered is the main way that managers are able to ensure teams keep improving their craft (and the product with it). Coaching senior engineers could sound patronizing and may not work everywhere - Empowered sees it partly as a career coaching for how to set and achieve career goals. More on this in the coaching and retention section below.

Stop Nitpicking

Technical test interviews can easily descend into nitpicking. Looking for corner cases missed or a hypothetical possibility of a null-pointer or not as many tests as the other candidate. Tech test code needs to be knocked up quickly so we shouldn’t expect perfection.

We forget sometimes that tech interviews can require a lot of time-consuming prep. Sometimes candidates only put in some of the time that we’d like them to. Is that really their fault or are we asking too much?

Don’t Let ‘Cultural Fit’ Become a Straightjacket

The ‘cultural fit’ idea varies a lot from company to company.

If ‘cultural fit’ means assessing problem-solving and collaboration skills then that’s a valuable filter. Personally, I would look to also assess those things in technical interview but assessing them from different perspectives is great too.

If ‘cultural fit’ means assessing vague general notions like ‘ambition’ or ‘entrepreneurship’ then that can be a back-door to hiring people like the existing employees. That’s not a useful filter.

“[R]ather than narrowing a very large pool of people to the small subset that are perceived as a cultural fit, I argue to instead keep the pool very large and just filter out the relatively few assholes.” Marty Cagan and Chris Jones, Empowered (p. 146)

Not having any definition of cultural fit can also be a back-door to hiring people like the existing employees. It can allow judgments like “I couldn’t see X working with Y” (without looking critically at why there might be a clash).

Really Look at Coaching and Retention

“[T]hose managers who are genuinely concerned about the careers of their employees, and who are constantly coaching and working to get them the promotions they deserve, rarely have retention issues.” Marty Cagan and Chris Jones, Empowered (p. 182)

Many companies have had some formal concept of levels and what behaviors are expected at different levels. In this setting, it can make a lot of sense for the levels to be the basis for a coaching plan with employees. Managers would need to figure out where an employee's strengths and weaknesses are and work regularly to help them get to the next level (not just discussing it once a year at review time).

The purpose of this to build an ever-improving organization. It has the handy offshoot that people won’t leave so much, meaning you won’t need to hire so much to fill gaps left by leavers.

Use Internal Promotions

Whether or not you’re using coaching to help employees level up, it is worth looking at how you promote. Many companies when they recognize a gap then advertise the role externally without doing anything to encourage internal applicants. This can be a missed opportunity. If people can’t get promoted then they will leave. It’s also typically easier to fill junior positions than senior ones so if you can promote internally then you leave yourself with an easier problem to solve.

Have a Clear Mission

“Strong product people want to work on something meaningful. They want to work on something larger than themselves. They want to be missionaries and not mercenaries.” Empowered (p. 198).

People want to work on something meaningful and play a meaningful role in it. This doesn’t have to mean tackling big social issues. It just means being super clear about what your product does, why people use it, and how the role contributes to it. Many job ads barely mention the product because it either isn’t seen as of central relevance or because there isn’t a good public statement of the product vision. This is a missed opportunity on many fronts as a good product vision can be inspiring for new hires, customers, and those working on the product.

Other Tips to Leave You With

Of course, there are lots of tips and tricks to help with recruitment. There’s a lot of demand so companies are trying everything. In the above, I’ve tried to emphasize angles that are least talked about. But here are some other ideas worth considering:

  • Run events with guest speakers or sponsor something
  • Advertise in different places
  • Rewrite the job ad to stress the attractions of the job
  • Rethink your process and shout about how candidate-friendly it is
  • Streamline your process so you don’t lose the best candidates through inaction
  • Stop requiring a computer science degree
  • Consider interns (and be nice to them so they come back as employees)
  • Considers relationships with bootcamps Look at how well known your brand is among candidates and how it is perceived
  • Play the long game and keep building networks and relationships for potential future hires

Title Photo by Brady Knoll from Pexels.


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