For designers or developers, actually trying is the key to hiring digital talent

October 31, 2019 Derrick Harris

Here is a cold, hard truth: Nothing turns off young, capable and in-demand digital talent like a large enterprise committed to retaining a stodgy, bureaucratic and adversarial large-enterprise culture. You don’t need to be a web giant or a well-funded startup to attract—and retain—the right people, but you do need to heed some lessons from those companies and put forth some real effort to implement them.

Now, there is a lot to learn, and it covers everything from office design and culture to how the corporate mission is presented. Becoming the type of company where the best and the brightest want to work is not something that's going to happen overnight.  However, Gartner analyst Brian Prentice provides a good starting point in an aptly titled report, “How CIOs Can Successfully Attract and Retain Digital Talent in a Seller’s Market" (no registration required).

The report focuses on digital design talent—a pool that presents its own unique challenges, in a space that’s increasingly strategic—but much of the guidance also applies to software developers. Here’s an abbreviated version of what the report suggests, as well as some additional context touching on digital transformation, in general:

  • Train employees. If you can’t hire the unicorns and top-of-their-class graduates that are destined for riches in Silicon Valley, you need to upskill the employees you do have and can hire. The short-term benefit is that your company gets some of the skills it needs in a few weeks or months. The longer-term benefits are that your company establishes institutional knowledge, processes, and people that should make it easier to hire the right talent as (1) universities pump out more qualified graduates and (2) mid-career prospects begin looking for something new.
  • Evolve your culture (and probably your offices). Collaboration and empowered employees are key components of any digital transformation effort, because the whole idea spans such a wide spectrum of needs. On the backend, the application lifecycle needs to become continuous. On the front end, experiences and interfaces need to become user-friendly. Across the whole organization, leadership needs to embrace a culture in which employees are encouraged to collaborate and solve problems without fearing repercussions for swimming outside their lanes. Also, office layouts and amenities do matter—people want to feel like they’re at a place that values employees and creativity—but without the right culture they’re only a veneer. 
  • Sell the opportunity and the company. Skilled digital talent is not a dime a dozen, which means employers need to sell themselves; “You’d be lucky to work for us” is not a line that will go over very well in interviews. On the contrary, let potential employees know how valuable their work will be for the company, and how it will help shape the company’s digital culture going forward—maybe even be the shaping force. Depending on the industry, your company also has an opportunity to sell prospects on how they can make a difference in people’s lives through better software—and not just through streaming content or yet another messaging app. Every startup, no matter how mundane, talks about changing the world; what’s your story? 

We’ve covered the topic of people management in the context of digital transformation at least a handful of times in other Intersect posts, sometimes coming at it from different angles. The most recent example is “The 5 pillars of digital transformation,” which is very much worth reading. Author Sutha Kamal lays out the case for employees’ creativity as a company’s single most important asset, and for smart technology adoption as a tool for opening up that largely untapped resource. He specifically discusses collaboration software as an enabling factor for successful organizations, but also dives into the value of democratizing access to data and even certain programming capabilities to a broader swath of employees.

We also touched on this in back in April, in a post about keeping true to your corporate identity (the good parts, obviously) while undergoing evolution of any kind. It includes a link to a blog post (and accompanying podcast) where my former colleague Om Malik interviews Microsoft CTO Kevin Scott. The interview itself is quite insightful, but Om’s synopsis of their discussion on the topic of how to build an engineering culture hits the nail on the head:

Every company has its own unique needs, and the company should be structured in a way that will enable it to serve those needs. That sometimes means the intelligence and talent of the team have to be managed more carefully and intentionally. Other times, it means allowing team members to be more autonomous. But it’s the DNA of that particular company that makes the determination.

One example I always look to as evidence of what this all looks like when done right is DICK’S Sporting Goods. The retailer has openly discussed how it rebuilt its technology practice into a thriving environment while maintaining the parts of its culture that make it DICK’S. But buried in all that important talk about software velocity, developer empowerment, and team organization (including this insight on training from former DICK'S CTO, Home Depot SVP, and current Kohl's CTO Paul Gaffney) are some little nuggets that any company can do to get started—such as this anecdote from DICK'S director of engineering J.P. White, just shortly after the company began its digital transformation in earnest:

“In addition to restructuring the way we’re working, we’ve restructured the physical layout of our offices, as well. So, as one team figures something out, there’s an opportunity to physically just spin around and … to talk to another teammate that may be facing a similar problem. And then that becomes kind of the de facto standard… The more we can identify these best practices and templates, it allows the teams to focus more on solving customer problems.”

Finally, I would point to this post from March, titled “How CEOs can drive digital innovation without learning how to code.” It captures some findings from a Forrester report detailing the most important things companies can do to prepare themselves for a software-centric future and—like the Gartner report discussed above—calls on the C-suite to take ownership of these initiatives. Not surprisingly, implementing a collaborative culture and placing an emphasis on hiring and retaining key talent are among the main suggestions.

But all of this being said, talking about these strategies is not the same as implementing them. And half-heartedly implementing them really isn’t much better than lip service. As Gartner's Prentice points out: "Upon realizing that they are not being set up for success, [digital talent] will depart for more lucrative opportunities," leaving executives to deal with staff churn on top of the broader goal of transformation.

The thing about these amazing digital designers and software developers that everybody wants to hire is that while they do expect certain things, perfection is not one of them. An honest effort at becoming the company you want to be can go a long way.

Extra credit: Commit to reading Hacker News comments for a week, on stories not related to software development, and you’ll get a good sense of what developers really want. You’ll probably find it isn’t always money or the freedom to write code in the latest, greatest new programming language.

About the Author

Derrick Harris

Derrick Harris is a product marketing manager at VMware.

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