Scaling tech talent in a tight(ening) market

Turnover of IT specialists has long been an issue, but the pandemic and waves of lockdown has made the matter more acute. Technology Director Mike Arshinskiy brought the Inflexion portfolio together to talk about tech talent at the latest Digital Exchange.

Recruitment and retention are getting harder and harder, with the great resignation accelerating what was already a very high turnover rate for engineers in tech. A potential path, though infrequently utilised, is for teams to do less. “This is incredibly effective since it puts less pressure on your existing resource,” Mike says. Options include buying the product/feature needed, exploring open source and dropping low-value features that can constrain capacity.

As the tech talent dilemma shows no signs of abating, innovative firms are finding ways to continue to drive their businesses forward.

Bring in talent as a service (TaaS), augment your team or outsource a project as and when needed – If you need to scale your software capability, you can consider going to a specialist firm either to gain the specific skills through TaaS, or through team augmentation, which enables a company to scale up on demand, and places responsibility for timely delivery on the outsourced firm.  Both options offer flexibility for the customer and should blend in with other teams to work cooperatively rather than in siloes. They also both bring the exercise in-house, versus delegating a full software build, according to Mariusz Stolarski, Global Head of Technology office at Mobica, a software development and integration services firm which received a minority investment from Inflexion in 2015.  

Another option is to outsource an entire software build. He explains such projects may seem daunting for firms unaccustomed to outsourcing – particularly in terms of cost. For this reason, he advises launching a ‘discovery phase’ to truly understand what is needed before agreeing a fixed-price contract for delivery. A recent client on this journey went on to trust Mobica sufficiently after a year of collaboration to shift to an agile approach, whilst retaining full product engineering ownership. A team of 15 Mobica engineers are now regularly releasing new versions of the product for the client.

Focus on the culture of the company to attract and retain top talent. Creating a talent pathway is key for fast-growing companies such as Wise (We Improve Self Employment), a software provider for logistics delivery firms, which received funding from Inflexion last year and needed to scale the engineering team to serve increasing demand. According to the firm’s James Orton, “if you’ve got good people, you’ve got to keep them.” This, he says, comes down to culture – the focus on which saw Wise hire a People and Culture Manager once they hit just 18 employees – and ensuring you’re paying market rate.  “For us it’s more about building the software team in-house and retaining it. For projects we can bring in contractors but for new features, in the exploration stage where boundaries change a lot, we prefer to hire internally.”

So important was this culture that Wise has been careful and specifics in its hiring decisions – because skills can be learned, but a mentality and commitment to developing skills can be harder to come by. To ensure a continuous pipeline of hungry, junior tech talent, Wise has engaged with School of Code, a free skills bootcamp partly funded by the government. James adds: “It’s a full-time 16-week course, so people have to really want to do it and show true dedication. But it’s lifelong skills being taught and we hired a handful of people from the first cohort who all turned out to be huge assets to the business.”

Consider interim talent as a temporary or permanent solution. Nearly half of Greco Advisors’ clients have gaps to plug, and over a quarter (28%) are looking to interim and temporary markets for shorter-term solutions according to Johnnie Greenwood, Co-Founder at the private equity interim solutions specialist. Supply is growing, with interims increasingly looking for remote roles opening themselves up to a wider geographic market. But the demand is outstripping availability.

“I’ve never known a market busier than this,” says Johnnie. This tight market means extremely limited downtime between contracts, with people wanting professionals immediately or within a couple of weeks. “The trend we’re seeing is getting ahead of hiring and thinking of interim as a solution at the start rather than being reactionary and going to market too late.”

Interim isn’t a solution to all problems but has a part to play in wider hiring strategy, particularly i.) when looking to deliver a particular project, interims can work adjacent to the existing ‘run’ team to progress things swiftly; ii.) upskilling existing staff by using plural interims on part-time contracts; iii.) bridging hiring gaps during processes – it provides resource as well as a potentially relevant rolodex; iv.) temp-to-perm roles, where both can ‘try before they buy’ in terms of working together. It works well in a private equity environment since it has a natural end point, so people tend to be more open to these roles. Agencies should put ‘temp to perm’ in briefs from the outset.

A tight labour market necessitates flexibility in attracting, hiring and retaining top talent.  While a shortage of labour may put upward pressure on wages, salary isn’t the only area to consider when aiming to attract talent. Flexible working hours and location as well a ‘learn-while-you-earn’ opportunities may go a long way. Johnnie is seeing some flexibility on packages, such as completion bonuses. He advises firms also seriously consider the opportunity cost of not progressing a project.

With the tight market, Johnnie advises “if you see someone good but don’t have an immediate need, get them now anyway rather than be tied to a specific hiring strategy. It’s about creative ways of solving problems, so keep flexible.”

James echoes the need for flexibility: “Consider all options; sometimes it’s best to outsource, other times it’s to hire for the future so you can scale down the line. And always look internally first – have you go the right structure which can manage the scale?”

While market rates need to be offered to attract the talent, they aren’t necessarily sufficient. Says Mariusz, “To scale your engineering team, you need people to want to join you; you need interesting projects, since people love to develop themselves. If it’s just money, then they leave as soon as they’re offered more elsewhere.”