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How to build the perfect tech team despite talent shortages

The technology skills gap is growing worldwide, despite digital skills being as important as ever. So how can IT leaders develop the perfect tech team in the current talent environment?

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: Can the internet take the strain?

In a world where a global tech talent shortage of 85.2 million people is expected to materialise by 2030, costing the world economy an estimated $8.452tn in unrealised annual revenue, it might seem something of a pipedream for any IT leader to imagine they could ever succeed in building the team of their dreams.

But the idea is not as far-fetched as you might think. Amanda Finch, chief executive of the Chartered Institute for Information Security, says the secret to success is in planning and thinking through the issue strategically.

In other words, getting it right involves truly understanding the organisational requirements, getting a handle on your existing team’s capabilities, which includes establishing strengths and any skills gaps, and working out what resources are available, and from where, in order to fill any holes.

“You can either buy people in or develop your own in-house capability,” says Finch. “But we try to encourage the idea of growing and developing people you already have and backfilling if you need to supplement the team.”

While it is not always possible, or even affordable, to hire a perfect fit in terms of skills and experience in this context, going for someone with transferable skills who could be trained up is a great way to develop staff loyalty and, ultimately, retention, says Finch.

Other potential, if non-traditional, sources of talent include “grow-your-own”’ apprenticeship schemes, which, while requiring investment, also provide the “ability to mould people to your own culture and way of working”, she says.

Referral schemes can also be useful here, as can networking at events and conferences where suitable talent might be found. Another idea is to develop people from other areas of the business who may not have a technical background but have potential in areas such as business analysis.

Focusing on potential

“It’s about looking for potential rather than knowledge, which means seeing if they’ll fit into the team, have an enquiring mind, are bright, and hungry to get on and do things,” says Finch. “You can always teach basic tech skills, but it’s attitude that’s important.”

Another important consideration in this context is ensuring that teams are not only balanced in terms of both soft and hard skills, but also as diverse as possible in order to ensure they include “different people with different strengths”, she adds.

For organisations wanting to set up a tech team from scratch quickly, an effective strategy might be to partner with IT consultancies, such as Accenture Digital or AKQA. Such firms can supply all the skills required to scale, giving IT leaders the space to hire a permanent team to replace them over time.

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But no matter what approach is taken, says Susie Turpin, director at executive search firm Wilbury Stratton, creating a sound employee value proposition (EVP) is key, not least because of the “massive headhunting and recruitment fatigue” currently being experienced by members of the tech community.

“People are approached for roles daily and so tend to ignore them, particularly as they say most of the pitches aren’t honest – they’re just based on offering more money and promises of a beer fridge,” says Turpin. “But what people want is a positive working culture and flexibility, and, most important of all, a clear progression plan and knowing they can have an impact on the business.”

Such issues are important, not just in creating a positive employer brand to help attract staff, but also for retaining talent once they have been hired. In other words, “culture is a big deal”, says Turpin, but it can’t boil down to just a series of buzzwords with little substance behind them – it has to be “authentic”.

Where IT leaders tend to fall down repeatedly, though, is in failing to plan their EVP and recruitment strategy properly. All too many try to hire people at the last minute and are simply “not putting due consideration into any of this stuff,” says Turpin.

Here are cases studies of two companies that have been doing just that – Wavemaker UK and BP.

Case study: Wavemaker UK – giving people time to learn new skills

The secret to building an effective tech team is not only hiring in a compatible mix of technical skills and personalities, but also ensuring that existing staff are given suitable opportunities to upskill, says Lily McCann, head of business transformation at Wavemaker UK.

The media agency employs 180 people in its Precision, or data and tech, department, about 50 of whom have “deeply technical skills”, while the rest have “medium-level” expertise. she says. The focus is very much on “people using tech skills to solve problems”, for example by analysing and manipulating data, rather than “geeks sitting in a darkened room playing with servers”, says McCann.

As a result, recruitment is not limited to traditional sources, such as computer science graduates. Instead, the organisation hires people with potential from a wide variety of backgrounds, ranging from individuals with chemistry degrees to graphic designers. “It’s always wise to hire for attitude as skills can be learned,” says McCann.

But she also believes that, for the sake of the team, it is crucial to ensure each candidate has a sound mix of technical aptitude and social skills. “You can’t bring in someone who is brilliant technically but will have a huge impact on the rest of the team, or vice versa, as it’s not fair to ask everyone else to carry them. So it’s important to get a balance.”

“We encourage people to look at opportunities across the board”
Lily McCann, Wavemaker UK

But it is just as important to ensure that employees are given the chance to upskill continuously, says McCann, even progressing their careers by moving to other parts of the business.

To this end, Wavemaker applies the so-called 80/20 rule, under which each employee dedicates 80% of their time to focusing on the requirements of the business and 20% to their own personal needs. This approach enables them to develop new skills, such as Python, or explore new areas that pique their interest, such as machine learning.

Staff members are also encouraged to network with their peers, shadow other teams, join their departmental meetings and generally “build their relationships and image in the company, so they’re not just known for being in the data and tech team”, says McCann.

Although most of Wavemaker’s employees start in the Precision team as tech skills are valued both across the business and by customers, the idea is to promote individuals from within, where possible, into whichever suitable roles arise, no matter what the department.

“We encourage people to look at opportunities across the board, so we have a website that shows which roles are open and we can put people in touch with the right hiring manager if they’re interested,” says McCann. “It’s not a taboo subject – it’s fine to look elsewhere. In fact, we expect it.”

Case study: BP – creating effective teams

“Our industry is changing faster than ever before due to innovative technological advances and the energy transition, all of which mean digital technology is now at the heart of our strategy,” says Hung Nguyen, director of BP’s Upstream Digital Centre of Expertise.

As a result, in 2019, the Upstream business unit started investing in its digital transformation agenda. This led to the setting up of a new digital organisation, which includes a centre of expertise with three core objectives:

  • Recruit, develop and retain top talent, particularly in areas such as data science, user experience and user interface design, where skills are universally scarce.
  • Put together cross-functional, agile teams to work on projects in its sister Digital Factory for a standard 16 weeks – although extensions for a “finite amount of time” are possible – with the aim of solving high-impact challenges.
  • Improve the digital skills of the wider employee population in order to create “citizen data scientists” and boost their design thinking expertise.

Other key components of the digital organisation comprise BP dataWorx, whose role is to transform data into information assets, and Digital Operations, which runs, optimises and maintains segment-specific applications on behalf of service owners.

The Digital Factory, which currently employs 130 staff in London and 90 in Houston, Texas, consists of various teams of six to eight members each. They typically comprise a project owner, agile coach or scrum master, subject matter expert, data scientist, developer, and possibly a designer depending on the end-product.

“It’s a different way of approaching problems that we’ve not necessarily been able to crack in the past,” says Nguyen. “But by applying a different methodology and adding subject matter experts, we are now creating more innovative solutions.

“People want to enjoy their time at work. It’s important”
Hung Nguyen, BP

As to how the centre of excellence goes about rapidly creating and dismantling its teams, the secret is having clear frameworks and structures for doing so. Everything starts with project owners, whose role it is to identify and prioritise business opportunities in the company’s various operational units.

After a given project has been scoped, suitable individuals are then identified from the available talent pool based on their hard and soft skills and their personalities. Ensuring team diversity is also considered another important factor, which has resulted in BP not only going after the usual graduate talent sources, but also broadening its scope to include apprentices and actively networking in “places where digital talent hangs out”, says Nguyen.

To enable new teams to become effective swiftly, there are a number of “health readiness check points” to ensure everything is in place in terms of people, tools and infrastructure. Key here is an on-boarding meeting hosted by the agile coach or scrum master.

Nguyen explains: “They set the structure to ensure everyone is speaking the same language. Everyone is trained in agile ways of working so they understand the general rules of engagement, but the initial meeting is crucial as it ensures everyone’s on the same page.”

Ultimately, though, creating effective teams is not just about finding the right people when required, but also holding on to them over the long term, says Nguyen. “Above and beyond the compensation package, it’s about career development and learning, being part of meaningful and cutting-edge projects, but also having fun – people want to enjoy their time at work. It’s important.”

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