IT Pro Panel: Tackling technical recruitment

IT Pro Panel: Tackling technical recruitment

Digital technology has become the foundation of a huge proportion of modern businesses, so it’s little wonder that recruiting the right talent to maintain and expand that technology is near the top of the priority list for IT leaders. Digital transformation is exploding, and demand for qualified staff is at an all-time high.

As part of last month’s IT Pro Panel feature, we asked our community of expert IT leaders what their top priorities are for the coming year, and a substantial amount reported that plugging skills gaps within their organisations and ensuring a steady stream of new technical hires was going to be a strong focus.

This month, we decided to dig into the issue of technical recruitment, looking at why it continues to be so important for businesses, and sharing our panellists’ top tips for attracting and retaining talent. Interestingly, however, while this is a significant part of their strategy for the year, it’s not a new element; for most of our panellists, the rate of technical recruitment isn’t projected to significantly increase compared to previous years. Instead, it’s the result of steady growth in organisations’ digital maturity.

It’s the candidate’s market

“We have a fair amount of software engineering roles open at the moment,” says Moonpig’s head of cyber security Tash Norris, “and whilst we're filling them at a good pace (thanks to some superb in-house recruiters), we are constantly growing. Finding all the software engineers we want is definitely a challenge.”

Guide Dogs CIO Gerard McGovern reports that across his department, more than 10% of roles are currently vacant. One of the main factors that makes filling them more complicated is the extreme level of competition in the market – which means staff have the luxury of being much more selective about where they work.

“The challenge is that over the last two years it’s been both easier and harder to get the right people,” he says; “easier in that everyone recognises that we don’t need people to be physically in the office to work, but harder because everyone else has realised that too.”

“For me, the key thing is to remember that in the talent acquisition journey, you're selling the job as much as the candidate is selling themselves,” says Manila McLean, CIO of Newcastle Building Society.

The growing importance of digital services also means that businesses are no longer just competing with rivals in their industry or vertical for staff. As William Hill CIO Killian Faughnan notes, “for a lot of the skills currently in demand, almost everyone is a competitor for talent,” and this means that filling vacancies is no longer the one-sided effort that it once might have been.

“It feels very much like the candidate’s market and I've certainly felt the need to be more 'sales-like’ when talking to candidates,” Norris says, “focusing on highlighting the unique challenges I'm looking for the role to solve rather than just how our benefits might be better than someone else's. I do think we all have to work harder on how we sell our businesses and our problems to candidates. Our most effective recruiters are basically excellent sales folk!”

“Promoting the total employer proposition is so important,” agrees McLean. “As a mutual and a purpose-led organisation we highlight this, along with total remuneration packages, flexibility and the opportunity to work on some really interesting and challenging projects.”

Buying into the culture

LafargeHolcim EMEA CISO Jose María Labernia also points out the importance of a strong gender balance within the workforce as a recruitment tool. By leaving unaddressed biases in hiring practices or creating an unwelcome environment for female candidates, organisations may be cutting themselves off accessing large amounts of talented professionals.

“The technical competencies are essential, but they’re just the foundations,” McLean says. “It's important to get the right cultural fit. Our diversity and inclusion agenda is really important and we try to demonstrate that we're an inclusive employer throughout the process. I encourage the team to offer candidates to meet a range of stakeholders that they'd be working with so that all parties have the opportunity to check the chemistry before anyone commits.”

This focus on wider business culture represents a growing trend within technical recruitment in particular; as salaries rise throughout the industry, organisations are now having to rely on other elements to differentiate themselves from candidates. Factors may include workload variation, corporate social responsibility positioning and increased personal development.

“We’re finding the tech recruitment market challenging,” McLean admits. “As Tash says, it's definitely a candidate’s market. There’s pent up demand across the board and a general increase in demand for tech skills. About 8% of the roles in our tech team are vacant, and the average time to offer is around one month, which isn't bad – although there are outliers with specific skill sets, such as DevOps and digital product owners.”

Recruiting for specific skills is an eternal challenge for technical organisations, and for Labernia, the high level of specialisation he requires from his new hires combined with the rising demand has made recruitment “very difficult”. He says technical certifications are a good way to determine whether someone meets the minimum requirements for an initial interview, with further technical tests as a further option over the course of the process.

Arrested development

As William Hill consolidates its IT platforms and migrates away from legacy systems, it’s also reducing the diversity of skills it’s looking for. Faughnan, though, reveals this has been a double-edged sword in some ways. “On one hand,” he says, “this is a good thing as it allows for easier internal personnel development and/or movement, but it’s also a challenge, as it means you’re fishing in a smaller pool of candidates.”

The issue of finding skilled employees is compounded further when, as in Moonpig’s case, a specific blend or combination of competencies is needed. It’s finding these multidisciplinary candidates that can be a particular struggle, says Norris, particularly when the skills in question aren’t often used in tandem. She points out that while .Net developers aren’t hard to find, finding an organisation where .Net and AWS are used to equal levels is rarer.

Moonpig’s solution has been to stop looking for candidates that already have all the necessary skills it requires, and to instead prioritise looking for potential recruits that have demonstrated their ability to pick up the skills in question on the job.

“We've got a number of roles open across tech,” Norris explains, “and there's really been a push for all hiring managers to be clear on the problems they're trying to solve so that we can be as flexible in the job description as possible!”

McGovern, meanwhile, expects his biggest recruiting pain point to be finding developers for Salesforce and Jamstack, and notes working in the charity sector can introduce even more difficulties in this regard than those already faced in other areas.

Much of the current candidate crunch being experienced by technical organisations comes down to pipeline shortages; there simply aren’t enough developers and engineers in the hiring market, and a popular solution to this factor is to explore alternative candidate pools. Bringing existing employees into the IT function from elsewhere in the business is a common tactic for doing this, but an increasing number of organisations are also taking advantage of graduate programmes and apprenticeships to bring in more fresh blood.

“We’ve had good results with both approaches,” says McGovern, “and some bad results too. We’ll still continue with both, though.”

Most of our panellists use a mixture of both strategies, acknowledging that both have their own unique benefits. They also require different strategies to manage and often require more proactive onboarding and management than recruits brought in through more traditional routes.

“Similar to the others here, we also have a variety of channels for bringing in new people,” Faughnan says. “Graduates can be an excellent source of new recruits. They require a lot of investment in terms of time, but yield great results. It's a bit of a longer-term process which sees them picking up their own projects internally, presenting to senior management, reporting progress, et cetera, so there's a lot of ongoing investment around how to operate in a business, how to synthesise information and present what's relevant.”

Softening the edges

As previous IT Pro Panel discussions have indicated, these soft skills are essential to building a career as an effective IT leader, and Norris highlights the fact that this is one key area in which cross-training existing employees has an advantage over graduate schemes.

“I find graduates and apprentices can have well developed technical skills,” she says, “but it takes time to develop the business context, communication & stakeholder management skills that come naturally to someone cross-skilling or moving laterally.

“I personally think strong stakeholder management skills should be considered as valuable as a technical skill as it's hard to craft and just as valuable – if not more so. I have a mix of both in my team and I strongly believe that's what makes us most effective,” Norris continues, adding “we'll continue to invest in both routes”.

Regardless of where companies source them from, finding enough candidates to fill open vacancies is enough of a challenge already without having to replace staff leaving the business. For obvious reasons, all of our panellists give equal importance to retaining existing team members, with a variety of suggested strategies for how to keep technical staff happy and fulfilled in their roles.

Pay and benefits packages are understandably key to this, but as with recruiting fresh talent, keeping hold of existing employees often comes down to giving them an environment in which they feel engaged and stimulated.

“In terms of retention, creating a good mood while in the office is key, together with a career plan in which each individual can have a say,” says Labernia, “and obviously the best possible package that would allow any other offers received to be disregarded.”

“It would be wrong to not consider financial compensation as important, especially in such a competitive market,” Norris adds. “I think, however, ensuring there are projects set at the right level of challenge and a clear direction of travel for the individual in terms of promotion paths is really important.”

Chasing your dreams

One interesting tactic being adopted by many engineering and development organisations is to allow team members to pursue personal projects outside of their normal duties. Giving them this time can not only make staff feel valued and supported, but also allows them to flex their creativity in ways their everyday role may not, which may benefit the organisation in the long run.

Every other Friday, both Moonpig and Newcastle Building Society give their tech teams the opportunity to work on personal side projects, development objectives and hackathons. The only proviso is they need to loosely tie these projects into the organisation’s tech stack or business challenges in some way. Both Norris and McLean report the initiative has been a hit with employees and has helped foster a positive internal environment.

“R&D time is definitely powerful for maintaining talent,” Norris says. “We've seen some neat things come out of the time, and it's been a good hook for enticing recruits.”

There are always going to be instances where it’s impossible to hold onto someone, on the other hand. If a developer wants to change careers and go into teaching, for example, no amount of salary increases or benefits upgrades are likely to convince them to stay, and as McGovern points out, sometimes you just can’t retain everyone.

“All you can do is create an environment that makes people happy, with great culture, continuous development and interesting projects to work on,” he says. “People will always leave, for various reasons; we just try to make sure it’s not for a reason that we could have changed.”

“All of the points above regarding internal retaining, cross-training, and internal mobility play a part,” notes Faughnan. “Though, as Gerard said, sometimes there's not much to be done. In those cases, it's just important you're happy for their success, and learn what you can from their departure. How you treat people on the way out is at least as important as how you treat them on the way in.”

“When people leave,” McGovern jokes, “we always order a card from Moonpig saying ‘sorry to see you go but you’re dead to us now’!”

Technical recruitment remains a pressing concern for all our panellists, and indeed for the IT industry at large. The insatiable demand for capable developers, engineers and product specialists continues to expand at pace, and often it seems that it’s all organisations can do just to keep up with it. At the same time, IT leaders must also balance this with keeping existing employees challenged and motivated in order to retain them.

Amidst all this, it may seem like an impossible situation to resolve, but our panellists remain hopeful that the situation is moving in a positive direction. As Faughnan advises, the best way to ensure that your business is in the best position when it comes to securing talent - as with so many other things - is to put into it at least as much as you hope to get out.

“Invest your best people's time into it,” he says. “If you do it right, then the people you're interviewing could be your next cohort of best and brightest.”

Adam Shepherd

Adam Shepherd has been a technology journalist since 2015, covering everything from cloud storage and security, to smartphones and servers. Over the course of his career, he’s seen the spread of 5G, the growing ubiquity of wireless devices, and the start of the connected revolution. He’s also been to more trade shows and technology conferences than he cares to count.

Adam is an avid follower of the latest hardware innovations, and he is never happier than when tinkering with complex network configurations, or exploring a new Linux distro. He was also previously a co-host on the ITPro Podcast, where he was often found ranting about his love of strange gadgets, his disdain for Windows Mobile, and everything in between.

You can find Adam tweeting about enterprise technology (or more often bad jokes) @AdamShepherUK.