It’s no secret that attracting, developing, and retaining top engineering talent is one of the most significant challenges faced by employers in the industry, and whilst it’s historically been a demanding process for acquisition and development teams alike, the effects of Covid have inflated issues even further.
With teams having to take a multi-strand approach to solving this huge issue, we at La Fosse facilitated a roundtable event to explore some of the outside-of-the-box thinking that’s being adopted by businesses across the board. We heard from a diverse range of engineering leaders on the different mindsets and methods they’ve embedded within their businesses, which we’ve summarised and shared here.
Some candidates want to work with the latest technology, and there are a few older languages that simply aren’t as appealing. If you’re not able to offer cutting-edge codebases, then you need to demonstrate more depth; re-frame roles to focus on the complex problems you’re solving, the encouragement of creativity, and innovation within your engineering practices. Alternatively, many junior candidates are just excited to get a foot in the door, so tailoring job postings that reflect those differences is important.
The need to retain tech talent during the pandemic resulted in massive salary inflation for those who could afford to pay it; for those who couldn’t, many employees were rewarded with title changes instead. Unfortunately, this now means that some candidates may not have the skills or experience reflected in those titles, which can result in expensive mis-hires or difficulty in agreeing the level that new starters come in at. Roles are not always aligned from business to business, so it can be challenging for talent to make a sideways or upwards step, which is generally what candidates are looking for in a next role.
When you’re screening candidates, ability can be a very seductive element, but attitude and approach are much more important in the long run. You can teach new skills, but you can’t teach attitude. Identify the key characteristics you want for your team – entrepreneurial mindsets, career accelerators, and future leaders–and establish these first before looking at technical competency. Don’t overlook what can be known as ‘deep generalists’ – great people who have multiple skills in different areas rather than specific expertise in one language or technology.
Your interview panel is a vital part of the process, especially when discussing workplace culture with your candidates. Interviewers hire people who are like themselves (it’s human nature), so you need to ensure diversity, representation, and diversity of thought are considered, and that prospective employees can interact with different people across the business. After the interview stage, get feedback from the most junior panellist first so their opinion isn’t influenced by others.
Be open and transparent with your interview feedback, and if you want to bring someone on board then show your enthusiasm. Having the “I want you to work here” conversation with your offered candidates is the starting point to your working relationship and sets the tone for your interactions in the future.
Great engineers don’t materialise overnight. You need people who will grow and develop with the company, keep up with changes in tech and new skills requirements, and take ownership of their own learning. Guidance here is essential; a young team requires a solid knowledge base to draw from and bringing in seniors who have that depth of technical understanding is key.
Engineers who have worked in the company for some time will hold the knowledge base, and if you’re hiring above them then you need to strike a balance between acknowledging the work they do and placing someone who can provide leadership or mentorship. Make it clear as to what skills gap the new hire will be filling, the impact they’ll be making, the responsibilities they’ll have, and how the team can rely on them. If your engineers want to progress, they need to be shown how to do that and be given the opportunity to do so.
Are you clear on your employees’ career aspirations? Engineers fundamentally either want to hone their current skills or learn new skills; there are those who want to be experts in a specific language, and those who want knowledge across the board. Remember that vertical growth isn’t everyone’s goal. Your own views from a managerial perspective won’t necessarily reflect their personal ambitions. Take time to have open career conversations with your teams.
An Agile coach can be a great asset – they sit outside the hierarchy so have an unbiased, unemotional view to see where the gaps are. It’s a different type of nurturing and exploration from an alternative perspective; you’re opening eyes and minds to new opportunities and ways of learning.‘Career Scrums’ can also work well, splitting up the wider team into smaller groups of people who can be a sounding board, give support, highlight wins, and embed retrospectives.
Progression and performance management are a vital part of your employees’ development journey. Career ladders are one traditional approach that have stood the test of time because people want to grow and be acknowledged, and recognition of this with the ladder system gives people confidence that they’re developing. However, there shouldn’t be levels for levels’ sake – each step needs to be valuable and reflective of actual progression. It should be a supportive mechanism and not a driving mechanism.
Reward on the value that someone adds to the people and teams around them. It’s not really about number ratings (which can make people focus on an arbitrary score), it’s about identifying the people who really make an impact and who are an integral part of the team. Collate feedback from their peers to tap into this.
At the beginning of the career journey, 6-month probation can be more successful than 3 months because it gives people the chance to react to feedback and demonstrate they can grow and adapt quickly. Bear in mind that a longer probation period can be demotivating for some people, so ensure open communication with new starters. Be on the lookout for imposter syndrome – it indicates a sense of humility, but understand where it’s coming from: are they in a toxic environment that makes them feel this way, are they not being recognised properly?
Create an environment where failing isn’t a bad thing - it’s a route to finding a solution. If you enable your engineers to experiment with ideas and try different approaches, the outcome will not only be more creative, but will also materialise quicker because your team won’t be spending large portions of time forecasting and managing failure. Approaches like this demonstrate your trust in your employees, and ultimately create more positive working conditions.
Equating monetary value to the value your employees contribute is hugely important – you need to keep up with market rates, what each person’s individual worth is to you, and how much your company value has increased because of the work they do. And whilst salaries are the driving factor for some, also recognise that for others, success is about progression, working on exciting projects, or building great working relationships. Establish motivations for the individuals on your team and keep communicating to ensure they’re being met.
Mental health care and wellbeing are now considered fundamental to the employee experience. The great resignation wasn’t necessarily about specific companies or roles: it was about people being burnt out, wanting recognition of mental ill health, and being more open about improving work/life balance. Employers need to provide support and facilitate regular, authentic check-ins with their teams.
Everyone cannot be a fit for your business, and attrition isn’t always a bad thing. The company, teams, and individual people will change over time: people’s priorities shift, values evolve, they reach different milestones, wants, and needs in their own lives. If something isn’t working, you need to have that open relationship from both sides to be able to say, “something needs to change”.
Be transparent and honest about what the career journey looks like. If you’re starting a period of transition that’s going to be challenging, you need to let people know. Not everyone will want to be part of it (and that’s fine), but if you don’t make it clear that the next stretch is going to be tough, then people will leave, and it won’t be a positive exit.
‘Retaining’ is not just about people, it’s also about knowledge retention. Code is written and understood by specific people, and if those people leave then that knowledge can be lost too. You need to make sure that knowledge exchange and handover is part of your ‘people exit strategy’.
Learn how to be good at losing employees. You want people to feel that they’ve spent their time well, that they’re leaving with more skills and knowledge than when they joined. Your alumni are an asset if you treat them well – if they go on to create great companies or teams or products, then what better accolade for your company to have been a part of their success story.
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