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Retailers engineer new ways to recruit and retain IT talent

Senior leaders at Holland & Barrett, Feelunique and BrandAlley offer tips on finding and keeping sought-after engineering and developer talent

June was a month of celebration for the UK’s technology industry, with London Tech Week shining a light on much of what is good and innovative about the sector.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics showed there are 100,000 more people in UK digital jobs than this time last year, and employment minister Alok Sharma waxed lyrical about “the UK’s powerhouse digital sector”.

There was also recognition from a global technology behemoth that London is a hotbed of tech talent, with Facebook announcing plans to create 500 jobs at an engineering hub in the capital’s Soho district later this year.

Internal IT skills and the battle for engineering talent in retail was also a dominant theme at this year’s Etail Europe event in London.

George Goley, the ex-Sainsbury’s-Argos CTO who became Holland & Barrett’s first-ever chief technology officer (CTO) last October, told delegates he prefers to build in-house teams of tech experts, developers and engineers, rather than work with third-party suppliers.

As he sets about his work at Holland & Barrett, Goley, who is also former vice-president of technology at Amazon, mapped out several rules he follows when sourcing new talent.

“At Amazon, we spent 20% of our time every Tuesday reviewing CVs and interviewing people, and trying to recruit them – we did this every week for six years,” he says, highlighting the intense competition for the best employees.

“The bad news is, once you’ve recruited a great team, as soon as people know, the poaching starts”
George Goley, Holland & Barrett

Goley says it takes about a year to build the right engineering team, and he recognises that employees with these skills do not tend to stay in one job for very long. He adds that he targets recruits from tech companies such as Amazon, Facebook and Google.

“I am happy that some people want to rent their engineers or buy their software because it leaves engineers available for me,” he says, observing that some of the best engineers around “have been engineers for 20 minutes” coming through graduate schemes.

“The bad news is, once you’ve recruited a great team, as soon as people know, the poaching starts,” says Goley.

“We built a great team at Argos, and one of the ways we knew we’d built a great team was when people started poaching from us, and when we were losing an engineer a week to somebody else in London because we had great talent,” he adds.

Engineering excitement

Neil Landon, CTO at online beauty products retailer Feelunique, says it is crucial to provide an environment of creativity – even in a small tech team such as his, where there is always a significant to-do list or “backlog” of work.

“To keep the developers motivated and engaged, innovation time is really important,” he says.

One day every month, says Landon, developers are permitted to work on any feature they want, such as “a passion project” or something down the list of business priorities which they believe could add value if given the chance. “By giving developers that freedom, you can keep them engaged in the business,” he adds.

Rob Feldmann, CEO of designer brands discount website BrandAlley, sums up the need for high-level tech skills in retail. “All online businesses are really constrained by how long and complicated things are to do in IT,” he says.

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Citing lessons learned in his 11 years with the business, Feldmann says key developers and their managers must be “very aligned and very incentivised to do things together in a very proactive way” – and success comes from teamwork.

Echoing Goley’s team mantra, Feldmann adds: “Try and recruit people who get on together because I think they’ll be twice as productive.”

Although not a topic that was given prominence at Etail Europe, hackathons also seem to resonate with the developer community. Superdrug parent AS Watson and US retailer Sears are among those holding and heralding such competitions in the workplace.

Tesco Labs – Tesco’s research and innovation division – has run a global hackathon for eight years now, and the winning concepts stand a chance of being introduced into general business operations. The winning idea from the 2019 event, which took place in June with staff from across Tesco’s global workforce, will be announced in due course.

Hackathon participant Lakshmi Madhavarao, a software development engineer in Tesco’s search and recommendations team, says: “More than winning, it is really fun to work with different people on an idea and learn new skills in 24 hours.”

No flash in the pan

Unlike some of the shiny new tools that retailers might introduce into their stores or the features they embed into their websites, which ultimately do not get used or are later replaced, the focus on recruiting and retaining engineering talent is no fad.

The need for tech talent will remain, and has been identified as a pressing matter at a time of digital transformation in the industry.

This month, Arcadia, parent group of Topshop, Topman and Dorothy Perkins, hosted a technology and engineering hiring event, where people seeking engineering and development roles were invited to gain an insider view of the business.

Jamie Ovenden, Arcadia’s digital and retail technology director, and Paul Sidebottom, head of engineering at the retail group, were on hand to answer questions and showcase the retailer’s tech stack and detail plans for digital and tech-fuelled development.

“Try and recruit people who get on together because I think they’ll be twice as productive”
Rob Feldmann, BrandAlley

The fact that the event took place highlights the two-way relationship needed if retailers and businesses in any field want to find the right talent. Retailers have realised that engineers and developers need a vision to buy into, and they must sell it to them.

It certainly puts skilful engineers in the negotiating driving seat. As Goley says: “There are ten units of demand for every three units of supply for engineers in the world.” This means that even big salaries, and favourable perks and working locations, are not guaranteed to help a retailer find suitable talent.

Goley’s utopian vision is that the DNA of every company should be “diffused with people who understand what data is and know how to use it, and are obsessed by it”. The theory is that the companies closest to achieving this model are those that will succeed.

“You will find engineers [at these organisations] are constantly finding ways to improve things for customers, colleagues and shareholders – and there is nothing more valuable in any of our businesses than that,” says Goley. “Great tech talent drives businesses.”

So Britain has definitely got engineering and developer talent – but retailers find themselves in a fierce battle to secure it.

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