I recently sat down and answered some questions from Sam Wilkinson over at ReThink recruitment about the ‘state’ of the market at the moment, how recruiters (at least some of them) have upped their game in the last 18 months, and how I’m strangely perplexed as to how any student thinks they’re ever going to get a job given those that I see applying with no experience and little passion… Enjoy.
- How significant is the people challenge for your growth – both attracting and retaining?
Growth is and always will be a key factor for us – it wasn’t much longer than 5 years ago we had 6 developers, now we have 30 – and we’ve had that level of growth across the entire agency!
Whilst retaining staff is always important, numerous client wins mean we find we’re focussing quite extensively on the recruitment of new talent right now. And it’s something we’ve been focussing on for a while now. How are we trying to attract new talent? I’d love to say that web, social and self-advertisement were large and growing aspects of our drives for people, but we’ve not seen a whole lot of traction from adverts on our website or social media releases, and equally who has a hours on top of their normal job to pour through hundreds of poor quality CVs from the likes of advertising on Monster, jobsite or Stack Overflow in the hoping of finding that one special candidate? So I’m somewhat sad to say that recruitment in the development team is usually done through using recruitment consultants.
I remember when I started in my role as CTO and I’d put a .NET job spec out and have 10 CVs of varying quality by the end of day 1, currently it’s hard to pull in 1 decent CV in 10 days.
What’s been interesting to me over the years is that the standard of CV seems to have gone up, or perhaps it’s the quality of the consultants? It’s very unusual for me to get a CV these days that hasn’t been checked and the contents been pre-assessed before it comes over. No longer am I getting CVs that are lazily matched on keywords I’ve supplied – and this can only be a good thing – for both the development industry and the recruitment industry too!
In terms of the roles we have, I think we’ve struggled to at times to fill roles for a number of reasons:
- Being a digital marketing agency I think server side developers (specifically .NET) wonder whether are we technical enough to give them things meaty enough to get their teeth into? – we do our best to show that the project work is varied and goes from simple to massively complex, but we’ve still had people go to system integrators and software development houses because they’ve had this fear
- We have separate technology (and departmental) teams – that means having great levels of talent which are very focussed, but also means for example, that giving interface developers who also want to be designers the opportunity to do so isn’t possible – we’ve lost fantastic people because of this and that’s awful, but equally we work the way we work, because it works!
- Size – at over 130 people there are people who want a more boutique feel, to be a larger fish in a smaller pond – you can’t change this obviously, but you can emphasise the team as opposed to the agency!
In short, all things that we can’t change!
From a retaining talent once we’ve found it perspective I’m particularly proud of the turnover rate within the development team here at twentysix (and also the agency as a whole) – outside of those members of staff who joined in the last 12 months, the development team average for the length of service is around 5 years, and the hope of course is that this continues to go up!
As salary expectations have increased over the eighteen months or so there may well be the temptation for people to move on and our staff turnover rate might well change in the future, but the experience I’ve had with most of the people here at twentysix is that they are more interested in growing as developers working on great projects, going on training that they might not get the chance to go on should they work elsewhere, getting extra-curricular benefits such as parties, pizzas and beer, and working in an environment where they work side by side with great people, where everyone is pulling in the same direction and everyone is on board with practices that they know work.
So, will the likes of Sky coming to Leeds with their massive salaries and free TV packages make a dent in our workforce? It’s too early to say either way I think, but I really do hope not.
- How do you attract people to work with you in a very competitive market?
I believe that you can only be the agency that you are, and the second you start looking to change your that people coming in – or worse, start lying about what you are and what you offer – then you’re failing everyone, not just the needs of the new staff member but those that you already work with day in, day out.
This can be a very hard pill to swallow and I know we’ve lost a few people over the last 6 months because we haven’t been able to meet their needs as a candidates in one area or another, and whilst it’s disappointing in the first instance I also know that in the long run it’s better for us because we’re a team of people who all subscribe to the same mission statement and want the same things…
Ultimately I think that you have to “be yourself” as an agency and you’ll attract the talent that is right for you – what’s the use in spending weeks or months hiring people that are only going to stay for 6 weeks because you’re not a good fit?
In terms of selling twentysix I think most people that work in the industry know that there aren’t many USPs when it comes to selling themselves, and so I generally concentrate on the things that make us truly great… I know that we do great work and I know that we have great people! And that’s what I focus on whenever I need to sell twentysix!
- Why should people stay with you?
You have to have great projects, you have to put in place training, you have to give people a team to work with and learn from, and finally an environment that makes them want to come to work every day
We’re a closely-knit team that works together to deliver projects and to learn – as a department we have development nights out, we have weekly progress meetings for the entire team and also sub team meetings for everyone in their own technology teams to share learnings and concerns. We also have weekly development lunches where members of the team share what they’re passionate about – this might mean that a .NET developer sits through something really tailored for a PHP developer, but even across these teams there are learnings to be made
From a personal growth point of view we have a policy of almost always hiring at mid-level, even when people are coming to us from previous senior roles – we do this because it allows us to gauge what level a person is at in terms of ability not only from a technical standpoint but also in terms of a social one, a tooling one, a project one – fit is extremely important to me, we don’t just want developers, we want developers who have a social side and are able to communicate and get on with both the development and wider team!
This policy on growth means that we promote internally and grow internally – we have people that have been with the development team for over 9 years and have come up from graduates to being very senior within teams. We’re proud of this internal growth and of the low staff turnover it leads to.
- What do you think are the best ways to counter skills shortages in technology areas?
You’ve got to rely on not just your own ability to sell your agency, but also the local councils and development agencies to sell the city and the area – are Leeds City Council and the associated consortiums responsible for pushing Leeds doing their job at the moment? I think it’s a very interesting question to ask. As is the one about how digital as an industry works in Leeds. We have a much more fragmented industry here in Leeds than the likes of Manchester (who have the fantastic Manchester Digital) and I don’t think that necessarily works for us or gives us the draw that the other side of the Pennines necessarily has – not to even mention London!
How do you ensure that grads and young people are able to enter the market and not be a burden? You’ve got to be prepared to work with Universities to ensure that they’re teaching the right things! I’m currently working with a local university which is still teaching Action Script – while they’ll claim that this is for syntax and theory, I’d be much happier if they were actually teaching the technologies and languages that we’re using so that graduate developers can more easily slide into my roles – so it’s about having those meetings and trying to influence syllabuses wherever you can.
It’s really hard to do on the job training for people that know nothing – we’ve considered intern placements a number of times in the development team, and as much as we’d love to put apprentices and interns into the team I honestly feel that over the years since I started in my career (back in 1998), people’s expectations about what they need to do to get into the industry has plummeted – I had a portfolio, a good knowledge of HTML and ASP, and a can do attitude, I used to build websites as a hobby and knew inside out what would be expected of me in a web development job. By comparison most every placement, grad, intern and apprentice application I see these days has a personal statement that uses the words ‘dedicated’, ‘self-motivated’ and/or ‘hard worker’ and that’s where it ends – they have absolutely nothing to back the words up – no website (beyond Facebook), generic if any programming skills (if you’re lucky) and seemingly no desire to work in the web beyond it being ‘A job’.
That said, of course we know that some training is always going to be needed – even for seniors etc. – but if people can’t put their own time and effort in to develop themselves to a reasonable standard, why do they expect an agency to pay them to do so? Maybe more needs to be done in terms of training younger people or communicating the above – but I’m not about to take out an Ad in the Metro.