I recently spoke at Code Slinger on the subject of scaling engineering teams through periods of rapid growth.
Hiring quality developers is a hot topic, you can’t move for guides on how to get the very best to work for you. In fact it is such a hot topic that many writers on the subject forget why recruitment is on the table in the first place.
In order to be successful, a business needs to be able to build highly productive, durable teams that can adapt to changes to the business of over time. To do this, good recruitment is essential, but is only a small part of the whole.
Start ups pride themselves on disrupting the status quo, reimagining products and processes to gain an edge over incumbents. This has led to rapid innovation in engineering, product and marketing but HR, and relatedly talent management, has for the most part remained static.
What would happen if talent management was re-imagined from the ground up where the only metric to optimise for is retaining quality teams? How would the roles of recruiters, HR and functional managers evolve in response?
I’ll go through four suggestions of what a retention optimised system would look like. The conclusions are counter-intuitive and in some cases directly conflict with current recruitment good practice. Optimising for retention means that a company will undoubtedly lose out on quality staff in the short term.
I should say that every suggestion is something that I have implemented myself in multiple teams. I have run each over a sufficiently long period to believe that it supports retention in the long term. For arguments sake I will consider ‘long term retention’ to mean a company tenure of greater than five years.
Since I’m writing from my own experience, there is a bias towards software engineering organisations in a startup environment. Though I think many of the lessons can be applied more generally.
Before I get there though, let’s just recap on why retention is important.
Why is retention important?
- Long term Investment in staff possible
- Get you through the hard times
- Much cheaper…
Retention is critical for building a strong culture. If you want a culture to persist you need continuity, especially from your most influential staff. I’ll talk about culture in detail later.
Secondly, an assumption of long term retention makes it easier to invest in people. This means that they can improve at their job, also improving the team and subsequently improving retention… It also means that every part of the business is likely to have good industry domain knowledge. So not just an expert on Software Development, but also knowledgeable about the fashion industry or the Telecoms industry (say). This domain knowledge allows the team to make better decisions on a day to day basis.
When everything is going well in start ups, the team can forgive most things, but every company goes through rough patches. Perhaps there is concern over a new direction or growth is slowing. It is at these times when you really need a team to pull together to get the company through.
Also, it’s cheaper. All manner of management consultancies have tried to put a cost on replacing a member of staff, they seem to be landing at between one and two year’s salary – I’ll not argue.
In short, companies that can develop and retain their best staff will have a clear advantage over those that do not.
Hiring for retention
With that in mind, there are four areas that I’d like to discuss further.
- Embedding recruitment into the culture
- Sell the company, not the role
- Hiring exclusively for fit
- Don’t mess about with money
Embedding recruitment into the culture
Every recruiter I’ve ever talked to says that they really benefit when the hiring manager is engaged in the process. How do you actually go about making this happen? There is only so much a recruiter can do.
Recruitment has to be everyone’s business, and management should make sure recruitment activity is a first class citizen.
This means two things:-
- Make working in recruitment aspirational, reward recruitment skills like any other skills. If one of the team is spending 20% of their time on recruitment and their peer is spending 0% then comparing them solely for their engineering output sends a very strong message that recruitment doesn’t matter.
- Recruitment is hard, so you need to find ways to help people improve. This could be as simple as adding a high level of transparency to the process and give constant feedback. Whatever you do, people must feel that they are learning a skill that is valued highly in the company.
To be honest I think that embedding recruitment into the culture is something that is always a good idea, regardless of how you are recruiting. So not especially controversial, it just requires sufficient on the part of management. Onwards.
Sell the company not the role
The role will undoubtedly change, the company will not. If the goal is to focus on retention rather than simply getting the best candidates through the door, it is most important that the candidate is sold on the company.
This can create a conflict since a great way to close a candidate is to help them imagine what their new job will be like. This means going into detail on the specifics of the role, the immediate project etc.
If instead the bulk of the sell is around the company, it is entirely likely that you will lose out on quality staff, though those that you do hire will be that much more durable through the inevitable twists and changes that will occur in coming years.
It is worth noting that this idea is well established. It is relatively easy to do in a startup context, since a company’s mission is likely to be extremely important to the candidate, but it is also possible at much larger organisations. Facebook, for instance, wait until after their 6 week bootcamp before pairing staff up with their eventual teams.
Selling the company not the role will help with long term retention but it will definitely mean losing out on capable staff in the short term. If a recruiter is assessed solely on the number of new hires they can get through the door, it is unreasonable to expect them to do this.
Hiring exclusively for fit
In 1974 following Mick Taylor’s departure, the Rolling stones were in need of a new guitarist. The Rolling Stones were hot, they could have talked to anyone they liked:- Clapton, Beck … but they went for Ron Wood of the Small Faces. Perfectly competent but the not the best guitarist available. The reason they went for him was that being guitarist in the Rolling Stones was much more than simply playing guitar, just being in the band was a pretty tough gig. Ron got the job because he could handle all the other baggage that came with being in the Stones. A pretty good hire in the end and it is fair to say that the Stones know a thing or two about retention.
So here I want to talk about fit and culture. These are terms that abused quite a lot and different people mean different things by them. So here’s what I mean when I say culture. It is simply what is rewarded, what is tolerated and what is punished and it is the company’s leadership, formal leaders as well as informal leaders that set it and maintain it.
Strong culture is essential for retention because it is culture that bind people together. Life is easy when all the graphs go up and to the right, but it is during the periods of slow growth that you really need the team to pull together and it is culture that will get you through.
The most important thing before starting to hire for fit is know very clearly what culture it is you want to propagate. You don’t get to choose of course you just need to take a look around and look at the traits most likely to be supported by leadership (again I stress both formal and informal).
It is really important to write down what is meant by fit and then live it. If you don’t then fit just becomes ‘people like me, or people I like’ – this has implications for diversity which will likely ruin your business. If you can focus on just a few traits then it should actually help build a diverse team since all that matters is satisfying these specific traits, everything else is open.
So this means that fit needs to be a first class citizen to any other area you are selecting for. As important as coding, as important as architecture.
Through experience, I’ve found was that until you pass on a really good candidate purely on grounds of fit, your team won’t really believe that you are serious. If fit is the reason for rejection, then call it out loud and proud.
Once the team really understand how important a factor fit is, then you need to help them get better at assessing fit through interview. This goes back to training and feedback.
If you hire for fit, and reject those who do not, then you will lose good people. I’m not talking about passing on just really obnoxious, toxic people (though you should). I mean people who are perfectly capable, but won’t help support your culture in the long term.
Don’t Mess About with Money
What this means is that you need to put the needs of your current staff (who, you know, you’re trying to retain), ahead of someone who doesn’t work for you yet.
It means that if you are bringing in someone to work as a peer with existing staff, their salary must be in line. And sometimes this means you will lose out on good people, either because you assess them at a lower level than they assess themselves, or because you are simply not paying enough. In the latter case, since you care about retention you need to have a serious think about giving everyone a boost. Expensive stuff.
But it is worse than that. You’ve just spent weeks, perhaps months unearthing a unicorn, you’ve sold them on the mission, they’re a great fit, you offered them a package that is realistic and in line with the rest of the team and, quite reasonably, they want to negotiate.
For the sake of a few thousand dollars you could lose this candidate. But if you do so you are rewarding people joining the company not for their skills to do the job but their skills as a negotiator. It is an understatement to say that your best engineers will not be your best negotiators.
Some people say, ‘oh it is fine’, negotiate and then balance things out at the next review. But this means penalising someone who has already worked for you for perhaps a year. Salary doesn’t really work in absolutes, it is much more about relative change.
This is really tricky stuff to get right, and you will certainly lose good people to money if you peg to your current team and stand firm on negotiation.
Companies that can hire for retention have a clear advantage, over those that do not. But optimising for highly productive durable teams, means losing out on good candidates capable of doing the job.
Traditional approaches to recruitment typically do not consider the long term goal of building highly productive durable teams. In fact optimising for this goal would lead to recruiters appearing less effective since they would take longer to hire.
The question at the heart of the article is this. If I’m right about retention being key, and I’m right about existing structures actively encouraging short term gains at the expense of long term retention, then how should organisations evolve to support this need. How should recruiters, HR and management adapt to a world where retention is considered key?
Over the past month a few people have asked me for some advice on where to advertise for software developers. In truth, advertising is a tiny component of a successful recruitment function, but if you are at the point where you want to spend some money on adverts, you might find the following useful.
Many of the sources are internationally relevant, but all I’m doing here is reflecting my own experiences which are exclusively drawn from hiring for start-ups in London.
It is amazing how little companies consider the costs involved in recruitment. For some reason they happily sign off on a recruitment agent with a fee of 18-25% of first year’s salary then balk at the idea of a few hundred pounds on a job board. This is especially important when considering the costs of your own time. Even in small nimble companies it is entirely possible to spend 4 figure sums in staff time on each successful candidate hired.
Speaking of agencies
Recruitment agencies get a bad press, really it comes down to the incentives in the industry. It is possible to get results, especially for more junior staff who lack a pre-existing network but I generally think there are better ways to spend the time and money. YMMV.
Most people reading this will already know Hacker News. It is a community curated content aggregator backed by start-up accelerator Y-Combinator. It focuses mainly on start-ups and technology but has a bit of everything. Every month it runs a ‘Who is hiring?’ thread where companies can advertise their roles.
Be warned, it is not the most user friendly experience and you’ll need to wait for 12pm EST on the first of the month to post. The signal to noise is very good meaning that you can invest more time on each candidate. Given the nature of the board it is common to receive very strong applications from overseas candidates wishing to move to London, so it is worth figuring out your position on relocation/visas ahead of time.
I’ve hired most of my current team through HN and recommend it very highly – though be mindful that it’s very start-up focussed, if that’s not you you’ll need to work that much harder to be attractive.
Also worth a mention is the complementary thread ‘Who wants to be hired?’ where potential candidates place ads about themselves. This thread sees much less traffic but it still an interesting path and I would recommend it as a supplementary source of candidates.
Again, anyone in software will know Stack Overflow, through their Q&A service they have built a formidable community of smart and helpful developers. As a company you can pay to post ads for a few hundred pounds a month which appear along side the Q&As. There are various options to suit a range of budgets including bulk buy and featured posts. SO also offer analytics and applicant tracking tools – though you are free to use your own email to contact candidates.
You’ll come up against some fierce competition from other companies who do a great job of selling themselves. You’ll need to have a hard think about how to position yourself, to this end SO have produced a range of docs to get you going. It is also worth investing the time in creating a company page and using that to further promote your culture. I can speak from personal experience that you will see a big uptick in traffic if you take the time to tweak your content to work well in SO’s framework.
My results were mixed in that SO introduced me to many interesting candidates (and very few inappropriate ones), however to date I’ve not hired through this channel. When I was using it most heavily I was looking explicitly for people with a demonstrable entrepreneurial background, I suspect that with more generalist requirements I would have had more success.
It is also worth noting that you can also pay to contact SO users directly through their Candidate Search product, this means access to the SO database and then reaching out to people with good standing in the skills that you are looking for. I’ve not tried this myself though it sounds like an interesting approach.
London has a handful of startup centric job boards very much worth taking a look at. I’ve used Hacker Jobs and Unicorn Hunt (it was previously 3-Beards) previously, but they all serve a similar purpose. Since they are somewhat under the radar they get a better signal to noise ratio than larger generalist boards like Indeed/Dice/Monster etc.
- Work In Startups – Free with premium options.
- Hacker Jobs – Free with £150 premium option.
- UK Startup Jobs – £5 for 90 days. £30 to post and feature the ad.
- London Startup Jobs – Free with premium options
- Unicorn hunt £200 – choose your own discount
I previously worked at an American company with a bulk deal on ads. They used it to good effect to hire technical staff in Seattle, but I’ve never found LinkedIn to be a useful way to advertise for developers in London.
I’ve not done this myself, simply because I’ve never clicked on an ad from either. That said they both allow for targeting specific groups and I’ve heard anecdotally that people have had success through this route.
Honourable mention – Silicon Milk Round
Silicon Milk Round is a recruitment fair run out of the Old Truman Brewery on Brick Lane aimed specifically at start-ups. It is a phenomenal event and the standard of attendees is very high. With so many other interesting companies present you will need to work hard to differentiate yourself. I’ve found it to be an excellent place to either hire directly, or simply to start a relationship that may lead to a hire further down the line.
A final word
Good recruitment is all about building relationships over time, this means working through multiple channels, consistently and in a way that ultimately attracts the right people and and gently (or otherwise) dissuades the everyone else. Placing adverts alone will not get you very far but can form part of a broader strategy.
A final final word
I didn’t discuss ad content but for the avoidance of doubt. No ninjas, no pirates, no rock stars, no unicorns.
If I have a criticism of the agile movement it is that not enough time is given over to the role of management, and furthermore not enough care is taken over the distinction between project and line management.
In a study by VersionOne that looked to asses the reasons for failed agile adoptions, almost all could be traced back to reluctance or failure to engage on the part of management and little wonder when the role of leadership is left so ambiguous.
Gil Broza recently wrote a book entitled the Human Side of Agile that aims to address the human aspects of agile implementations, in particular offering practical guidance to how an agile team leader might incorporate these ideas into their role.
Prior to publication, Gil asked that I contribute an anecdote and I was only too happy to oblige – the chapter was on the subject of making the most of your immediate environment. I drew anecdote from my old office where space was in short supply.
It may not always be possible to create the perfect working environment, however it is important to make the most of what is available. My team were looking to map their work flow using a white board and sticky notes. Unfortunately we were situated in the middle of an open plan office without access to walls, nor did we have the necessary space for a for a free standing white board. In the end we bought a roll of white board sheeting and applied it to a nearby structural pillar. Work items flowed from top to bottom and space was tight, but it served our purpose and is still in use years later.
Elsewhere in the book Gil also references How to do Nothing.
Great stuff Gil.
Why do sales guys find it so hard to pay an engineer a compliment?
Imagine this exchange
Jeff: Hi John, how was your weekend?
John: Great, I ran the London marathon and finished in 3 hours dead
Jeff: That’s amazing I can’t believe you managed to run all that way!
Jeff is trying to pay a compliment, but because he has such little idea of what John considers to be important he misses the mark and if anything is more likely to have caused offence.
Now take this into a professional environment. Jeff is a superb engineer, he sweats and bleeds over his code, he does this quietly and in the background, he takes pride in his work and just wants to see people benefit from using his systems. No-one outside of the engineering org really notices his impact because, due to him, everything ‘just works’ with almost zero drama.
One day he receives a request from John in sales who needs him to twiddle knob X, it’s a config change and he has it in production later the same afternoon – really nothing special. That said Jeff has really helped John out and John is very genuinely grateful. He writes him an email thanking him, he even cc’s his boss. “Jeff I really appreciate all the hard work you put into twiddling knob X, it’s guys like you crushing the knob twiddler that make this company awesome’. Now Jeff should pleased, it’s nice of John to take the time, he recognises this, but it’s a terrible compliment since Jeff took no pride in the change and what’s more it’s clear from John’s email that he has no idea what Jeff does all day – if anything the mail is a de-motivator despite John’s best intentions.
So what should John have done, how do you compliment an engineer? The best possible way is to take the time to understand some of the complexities of their work, and thereby uncover some of what drives them and their passion.
This is of course uncomfortable and frustrating, a bit like trying to write with your weaker hand – the benefits are huge though. Let’s forget for a second about expressing thanks being a nice thing to do – it also a way to influence and build trust across the organisation.
If as an individual, you can build trust and rapport in multiple parts of the org, you much better placed to get things done – especially when you really need a favour to get you out of a jam.
In this example, I’ve used a Sales guys and an Engineer, simply because I see this as the classic case, but it applies equally in reverse. It’s easy (and lazy) for an Engineer to dismiss Sales or Marketing as brainless – when in reality this attitude is simply highlighting ignorance of what it takes to be successful in these fields.
The point of this post? Try and figure out what those folks with the suits and nice hair are actually doing, it will benefit both you and your company. If they are open to it, try and share some of your stuff too.
So I want to tell you about a chap called Rob Ashton. I don’t know Rob but he appears to be extremely excellent. Having got a bit narked off with his enterprise consultancy gig, Rob decided to toss it all in. Without a firm plan in plan in mind, Rob decided to make an offer to the world – anyone willing to cover his expenses could have Rob come and work for them for free. Initially I think the plan was to stick to Europe but things seem to have got out of hand and Rob got all over the place. You can read about it here.
Rob was very strict on the whole ‘not receiving payment’ thing, noting:-
I was offered pay for a number of roles while I was doing this, and turned it all down because I felt it would sully what I was trying to do. Also – I felt it would muck up the balance where the people I was working for really wanted me to be happy because it was all they were giving me.
And this me thinking, companies want to hire the best people they can. As a means to achieve this some companies come to the startling conclusion that if you want to hire and retain good people you need to be prepared to pay for them.
But this isn’t enough. Staff can only be as effective as the company allows them to be. If the company culture stifles productivity and those same staff, while more productive that others, are still not able to fully deliver.
What’s worse is that the company doesn’t realise this is happening, no company deliberately aims to clamp down on productivity. Things tick on the way they always have done, the star hires perform well relatively speaking, and staff stick around because taking a pay cut is difficult. So the warning signs are less obvious.
An interesting thought experiment would be to ask yourself
What would happen if you staff worked for free, what would you need to change?
Let’s ignore the practical implications of this statement, all I’m saying is, if you take money off the table what would keep your staff wanting to work at your company? This isn’t about extra perks and a ball pool, I’m including all extrinsic motivators. This is about identifying what it is about your organisation that demotivates, and identifying how the organisation could improve intrinsic motivation.
- How would your approach to flexible working change?
- How about performance review and professional development?
- Most importantly, what would be the implications for your org chart?
The answers will highly dependent on context, but if we make the assumption that in many cases the goals of the staff member and company are aligned, then why wouldn’t a company want to act on the conclusions?
I think we are starting to see the results of this already in the form of a shift towards flatter hierarchies, ad-hoc work groups and acknowledgement that people are more important than process. Some companies lead the way such as Valve and Gore but any company could benefit from asking themselves this question.