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.
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.
Nothing impacts your working life like company culture and yet culture is very difficult to assess. This problem keeps me up at night and I’ve written about it before in ‘Why work at your company?’
The trouble is that in many cases, the company itself does not really know that much about its own culture and even if it did, expressing it in a sincere manner is challenging, in fact most companies don’t even try at all.
But how about this as a question to quickly determine a how a company feels about its staff?
“HR hoops aside, what happened the last time someone left your company?”
Seems pretty innocent, no? Every company can answer that question in a positive manner, but I think the variations speak volumes.
For instance, recently we said goodbye to junior (ish) developer, he’d been with the company 18 months and was leaving to pursue a childhood dream to work as an air traffic controller (actually true).
On his last day there was a leaving ceremony where a few words were said in the office and a leaving gift presented, immediately afterwards there was a trip to the pub for those wishing to see him off.
Nothing unusual so far.
But it was the whole office of eighty people that turned out – the parting gifts, while inexpensive, were completely personalised – in this case it was a ‘make your own picture book’ with each picture and audio presenting some sort of in joke – jokes understood by the whole group. In similar situations, gifts have included a ‘time of day’ vs ‘date’ commit plot for a notoriously nocturnal team member, a Wordle of IRC logs for an especially chatty colleague and even a framed 3ware card (his nemesis) for a long suffering sys admin.
The pub trip was not just his team or engineering, but had attendees from across the entire company, and at all levels of seniority. Numbers were high, especially given it was a Friday night.
It was a sad occasion, but in many ways felt like a celebration. ‘Great working with you, can’t wait to see what you do next’ – it’s one thing for your immediate work mates to say this, but how about a whole company?
What struck me was how normal this felt, this is completely standard practice for us. Why wouldn’t we act in this way? On reflection I think that this would be considered unusual at most organisations. Such sends off are not unheard of but usually reserved for especially treasured members of the team. This difference say something about our culture.
By comparison, at my friend’s organisation, a senior (much loved) member of staff of 20 years service cannot even expect their manager to drop into their leaving ceremony. Their reluctance to attend driven by fear of tacit endorsement. It’s the same set up, leaving ceremony followed by pub, but a completely different feel.
How a company treats its exiting employees, speaks volumes to remaining staff. The actions of individuals in response to the leaver, reflect the company’s culture. Since the leaver no longer has any direct value to the company, these actions speak honestly about how the company values people.
So ask yourself, how does your company treat exiting employees and what does it say about the culture? What message are you sending to remaining staff? It is not for management to mandate a leaving procedure, but it is for management to create an environment where people matter.
When people say ‘Simplifying Complexity’ I hear ‘I don’t know what these words mean’. This isn’t entirely fair, as we shall see, but it gives you an idea of my preconceptions before attending a training session of that title.
The facilitator started off by inviting each member of the group to talk about the influence of complexity in their professional lives. As we went around the room it became clear that for most of the group complexity was a synonym for hard or complicated. Many would agree, including the Oxford English dictionary. However, here was a group dominated by senior members of a very large IT professional services company. These are people for whom complexity science is highly relevant to their professional lives and people for whom there ought to be value in defining Complexity with a big C and in particular differentiating the Complex from the Complicated.
The Cynefin Framework characterises systems (and problem spaces) into five classes – Simple, Complicated, Complex, Chaotic and Disordered. Once the class of a system is identified the framework provides guidance on how to work most effectively with the system. On a personal level I find it very useful in explaining to me not only why an incremental and iterative approach generally works well in software development, it also suggests to me under what circumstances such as approach does not hold. You won’t see NASA using Scrum for instance, more on that later.
Cynefin can be expressed visually like so:-
The key distinction I see is that of Complex and the Complicated.
An example of a complicated task is building a submarine. It’s definitely not trivial, but if the tasks are broken down sufficiently the problem is tractable and predictable – essentially it becomes a series of Simple tasks. By contrast a Complex task retains its complexity even after being broken down.
An example of a Complex task could be to ask a room of people to arrange themselves such that the closest person to them is exactly half the distance from them as that of the 2nd closest. It would be extremely difficult for an individual to orchestrate this task, instead each individual actor must make a small change, observe the consequence and then make a further change based on the feedback.
What does this mean for Software?
Taking a manufacturing production line as an example, once it reaches steady state the system can be described as Complicated and is predictable. This is important because for many years Software Development looked to the world of manufacturing for guidance. In doing so, implicitly defining software development as a Complicated task. The thinking being that with sufficient up front analysis the problem could be solved without a line of code being being written. It is for this reason that the Waterfall model rose to such prominence and was so readily adopted.
More recently manufacturing has been shown to be an inadequate metaphor and that in fact software development is more akin to product design, thereby inhabiting the Complex quadrant. This means that the correct approach, according to Cynefin, is to probe, sense and respond. In effect the iterative and incremental approach practiced by those inspired by Agile and Lean thinking.
So what does this mean for NASA?
If what I say is correct, what does this mean for NASA? After all they have some of the smartest brains on the planet available to think about this sort of thing and yet their processes appear to assume a Complicated rather than a Complex environment.
NASA is an extreme organisation and it is only natural that what works for them will deviate from the common case. Despite the challenging nature of their work I would argue that their domain is Complicated rather than Complex.
Complex systems are characterised by there being many unknowns and an inability to determine the nature of those unknowns at the beginning of the process. In NASA’s case they are genuinely in a position where, for software at least, the problem space is well defined.
For instance, the software runs upon hardware based on Intel’s 386 architecture, hardly cutting edge, but whose behaviour (warts and all) is well understood and has not changed in years. This means that the inputs to the system are well understood and the behaviour deterministic. NASA has managed to turn what would ordinarily be a Complex system (that of software development) into a Complicated system and in doing so their software teams work to vanishingly small defect rates, albeit at enormous cost and at the expense of delivery time. I found this article to be a fascinating insight into their working practices.
In conclusion, Complexity science provides a means to characterise systems, the Cynefin framework provides definitions to differentiate the Complex from the Complicated. Software development is almost always Complex though it was originally assumed to be Complicated. This is why agile and lean approaches have been shown to much more effective than traditional methods that assume a Complicated system such as Waterfall.