Recruiting Great IT, Design & Software Engineering Talent

I am regularly asked the question “How do you hire great tech talent?” – Over the past 15 years, Thinking.Studio has been extremely fortunate to have some exceptional people. So in writing this post, I thought it would make sense to share what I believe are some key contributing factors to recruiting excellent experienced IT, design, and software engineering talent.

First of all, though, it is important to understand a little more about Thinking.Studio. We are a small business, we were not always conveniently located in the middle of Sydney, and we didn’t always pay top of the market, so how did we possibly recruit great experienced talent?

I believe it comes down to culture, creative conflict and control.

Culture

Transparency, minimal bureaucracy and a focus on purpose

We try to have a relentless focus on process optimisation – this means making sure there are no processes that exist without a strong motivating reason – and those reasons should be free to be challenged at any time. Clear thinking and discussions about processes are what defines a culture of constant improvement (Kaizen) with minimal operational overhead.

Having a culture of continuous improvement means there has to be a real desire to hear everyone’s input, debate it, and potentially take action on it. In an environment like this, it also makes sense to be transparent: clearly communicate what we are doing and why and be open to discussion and debate at all levels.

We use the ‘Rockerfeller Habits’ and the ‘One Page Strategic Plan’ to connect our vision and mission with what we are each doing every day – this makes transparency conversations much simpler as there is already a foundation of understanding about underlying motivations for doing things – including our core values.

From my experience over the past 20 years, even when we didn’t use the ‘Habits’ – if you can demonstrate you have a purpose and a clear mission and explain it in a way that others can ‘buy into’ – you can attract great talent. I cannot stress this enough; people buy into a great purpose told in a compelling and inspirational way. If you’re not able to do this, you will not be as attractive to great talent. I might be insanely busy, but I will make time to speak to promising candidates as early as possible in the recruitment process. If they start to get as excited as I am about our mission, we’re on the path.

Hand in hand with a clear mission is a core set of values. Values are real principles, not just a single word. This cannot be corporate poop-polish meaningless stuff, rather, they should be statements that clearly define what we are and are not as a team – and people on the team must believe this is a true reflection of who we aspire to be at all times. These values serve as our decision-making compass. If in doubt, check the core values!

Here are the Thinking.Studio values:

  • Our tenacity is our edge: We are resourceful and persistent. We find solutions, not problems
  • We value competence: Our depth inspires our team-mates and our clients
  • Reliability, consistency, and honesty are all a big deal to us
  • We believe in sweating the details
  • We are not content to accept the status quo: Ingenuity, adaptability, and creativity are like oxygen to us
  • We invest in understanding and partnering with our clients to build strong relationships and create great outcomes

The other aspect of strong culture from my perspective is a real and honest desire to care for every individual’s well being and growth – in and out of work. Everyone with a report needs to have this perspective and motivation. Spend some time reading John Maxwell’s 17 Laws of Teamwork and you will see what I mean.

Not everyone responds to this, however, it is an essential ingredient in building a culture of psychological safety to allow the magic to happen (see Creative Conflict below).

I make this a key ingredient in the recruitment process: How? Ask. “Are you working on open source projects?”, “You want to host a tech blog?”, “You want to be more assertive?”, “You want to start your own company one day?”, No problem! If this is the right person, do everything you can to support their long-term goals. Even if it means they will outgrow you in a few years – make it an amazing few years!

Creative Conflict

A big locus of control, while being challenged with a very high bar

Experienced, smart, ambitious people like the idea of taking on big challenges and having control over the outcomes. We try to set up projects such that each role has the maximum possible engagement – with the client, the rest of the team, and the design of the solution. At the same time, it means we can each challenge the other’s ideas – even across domains of expertise. This allows for more cohesive cross-domain project transitions and generally better solutions – but it isn’t for everyone.

This is what is commonly termed creative conflict – and working like this requires maturity and emotional intelligence from all participants – it is more effective when it can be spontaneous and not require being ‘mediated’.

Key elements to focus on are:

  • the ‘delivery’: effectively challenge ideas and not people.
  • the ‘receiving’: to handle criticism and either
    • prove why your solution is better, or
    • use that criticism to develop a better solution

In environments where experienced high-performers collaborating with psychological safety and creative friction, there are demonstrated higher levels of performance and quality of outcomes.

Control

Freedom and flexibility

We treat grown-ups like grown-ups. This has worked spectacularly well and also failed spectacularly at times. Areas of freedom we focus on are:

  • where you work
  • when you work
  • how you grow

I took the position that we don’t need everyone in the office all the time, however at the same time I drill the concept of ‘relationship inertia’ – the idea that every relationship gets energy from face-to-face interactions:

Think of a relationship as a heavy ball. When you meet and get to know each other face to face you start the ball rolling. You can spend some time working remotely using collaboration tools to be ‘digitally approximate’ – for this we use Slack and Google Meet – but without being in each other’s space once in a while, the ball slows down and will eventually stop. Spending time together gives the relationship the extra push it needs to keep moving in the right direction.

We try to be as generous as possible in pay and conditions, however time is the most precious, so we want to recognise that. I don’t want people working long hours and pretending to be busy. When it’s time to show up – we do. When its not, we don’t. This behaviour is demonstrated from the top down. Show up when it counts, and do what it takes to help each other deliver the final result. That’s it. Look after each other.

Some organisations focus on trying to emulate that Silicon Valley tech giant style. I don’t buy it. Some try to be formal. That’s just not us. I would rather be a little irreverend, with an open, honest and supporting environment that is focused on the stuff that matters.

This means I don’t want people to have to report every time they have to take some time out to run an errand. I don’t expect people to see approval for every expense. I don’t want people to worry about holiday balances.

Hand in hand with this, we expect grown-ups to value the time they spend and make it as effective as possible. We expect grown-ups to recognise that they have a lot of freedom and to treat this freedom with respect.

There is a body of evidence in psychology showing that when people feel like they have control they are much more engaged. You can see how this can go horribly wrong – and choosing the right people to be on the team is very hard. When you get it right, working with a team like that is absolutely worth the effort!

Conclusions

The three focus areas described above do require a certain reality in the organisation to exist – maybe you cannot flatten the hierarchy in your organisation – whatever – does this mean all of this is useless? Not at all.

While I believe the three focus areas are universal, the implementation will be different for every organisation. In our case, we are at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to big brand recognition and the kinds of perks our candidates might see in other organisations, so we needed to find the things we could control and turn them into our strengths.

You will need to do the same thing in your organisation: understand what you can do, understand what uniqueness you can create in your teams, and use the three focus areas of culture, creative conflict and control to define how you approach candidates – and recruit great talent too!

Image credit: Marylena under licence

thinking.studio

Level 25, 88 Phillip Street
Sydney
NSW 2000
Australia

+61 2 8024 5975
[email protected]

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