Tuesday, November 12, 2019

Scaling an Information Technology Organization

If your company is in the enviable position of growing rapidly and needing to scale their IT organization, there are a number of ways to expedite the process while ensuring that you get the right people on board and integrated into the team as quickly as possible.

First, we will take a look at a couple examples of what not to do. These stories are based upon first-hand experience

Avoid Accuracy through volume
It might be a good practice if you are a machine gunner, but accuracy through volume in hiring is a difficult and often disruptive undertaking. I worked for a company years ago that would hire multiple dozens of new college graduates each year. On one hand, it led to a lot of variety of thought and fresh, eager colleagues who could sometimes be a breath of fresh air at an otherwise old school and slow-moving company. On the other hand, the very high turnover and constant on-boarding where disruptive to the larger team and led work to be completed more slowly and less efficiently than it could have been with a more streamlined and well-planned team. New college hires can be a tremendous addition to the team, but they need to be balanced by experienced colleagues who can help achieve the first "what to do" item below to give the best chance of a new hire quickly becoming a productive member of the team who then stays with the company and becomes one of the experienced colleagues to keep the cycle going.

Avoid unattainable job requirements
It is very important to carefully consider what you are looking for in a candidate whether you are hiring just one or many. However, this can lead you to put together a job description with requirements so specific that no candidate will fill the bill. I sometimes like to refer to this as IT folks making it more difficult for themselves and others in IT to find a job because the IT folks are the ones building the algorithms that process resumes. When the number of requirements put into those algorithms is too high, a lot of resumes for excellent candidates can be rejected simply because of a missing keyword. There is certainly a base level of technical skill necessary to fulfill any IT role. However, I prefer to look for candidates with certain types of experiences like taking something from inception to production and an ability to passionately tell the story of interesting things they have worked on. Even a college recruit should have something they are passionate about though it might not be something technical. In all my interviews, I always ask the candidate to tell me, with a significant level of detail, about something interesting they worked on. During their answer, I pay attention to both their passion and their level of detailed knowledge on the subject. Even if the work is different from that of the role for which they are applying, a candidate who was passionate and picked up and utilized detailed knowledge in the past can do the same again for your company.

With those two examples of what not to do, we will turn our attention to a number of "what to do" items that will help find the right candidates and get them integrated into the team as quickly as possible.

Nail down your corporate culture AND your IT culture
Most companies of any significant size have a culture that is frequently carefully cultivated by HR and corporate leadership. This is definitely a great start, but there is more to be done in this area. Every company also has a culture, hopefully aligned with the overall culture, within IT. This is a culture of both soft and technical skills that needs to be cultivated by IT leadership. A few examples of key items to figure out include technology stacks, release schedules, 24/7 support, team composition, cross-team collaboration (development, operations, infrastructure, QA, etc.), knowledge sharing, colleague recognition, celebrations / postmortems, and the role of IT around the ultimate deliverables of the company. Beyond that, IT colleagues need to understand how their personal work is contributing to the success of both IT and the company. The more rapidly the IT department needs to grow, the more closely the IT culture needs to be monitored, refined, and even documented. When a candidate is partaking in an interview, the colleagues performing the interview should be able to provide a very detailed and uniform view of the culture so that all parties can determine if the candidate is a good fit. When a new hire starts, they need to be quickly ingrained into the culture to become a contributing member of the team as soon as possible. I have spoken with many people about and experienced myself instances of still not feeling like a part of the team and the IT culture even after 6 months of employment. The overall company culture may be clear, but a colleague may still have difficulty with all the nuances within IT. In the best case, such a colleague is a less productive member of the team. It the worst case, they have a ton to offer but leave to find a new opportunity where they can feel more supported as an important part of the team.

Generally speaking, many IT teams rely too heavily on HR and corporate leadership to drive the culture and forget that it is equally as important to define and refine the culture within IT and the key items that make IT unique.

Decide the right team composition in advance
Team composition to ensure the right assortment of senior and junior experience, the ratio of management to individual contributors, and diversity of thought is very important. Any guidelines can be revisited, and you certainly do not want to eliminate a great candidate who may come along at any time, but these topics need to be carefully considered and documented as you begin to scale the team.

Get the company name out there
If a company wants to attract top talent, they need to get their name out and associated with positive connotations. This can be tricky when it comes to IT if the company's primary product is not IT services. So, the company overall should ensure that it makes a positive name for itself, but leadership and key contributors from IT need to also help on the technical front. A highly technical candidate will generally prefer a company they see as a) meeting and exceeding their level of technical acumen and b) valuing technology as a significant contributor to corporate success.  The key is to give a face (more likely multiple faces) to the company at meetups and other more formal technical events. Attending and participating are fine, but sponsoring, presenting at, and even hosting will go a lot further towards cultivating the company's external, technical image. Certainly, a company needs to exercise caution to ensure that the right message is getting across to consistently highlight the best attributes. This goes back to an earlier bullet about cultural alignment above. If a company does not put themselves out there to build a reputation as an appealing place for a technologist to work, though, it will be very difficult to attract the best talent available.

Partner closely with recruiting
Assuming that your company has a recruiting department, partnering very closely with these colleagues is very important, They need to be brought into the fold of not just the corporate culture but the IT culture and the other bullet points noted in this article. I have seen many instances where IT simply creates a job description, passes it along to recruiting, and then complains that they are not getting the right candidates. Typically, a recruiter is responsible for many areas of the business or, if the company is large enough, even many areas just within IT. Working with the recruiter as a trusted partner and aligning very closely is necessary to find the right talent quickly. Beyond the job description, you need to define the personality, experiences, and other less-tangible traits for which you are looking. As candidates pass through, you need to be very thoughtful and thorough with the feedback provided to the recruiter whether the candidate was hired, offered and declined, or passed. There are many things to learn from each scenario, and it is important to share that knowledge both ways between IT and recruiting.

Work with organizations who place military veterans
This item is fairly obvious but often overlooked. Studies show that military veterans, at a higher than average rate, make for very productive and dedicated students, employees, and leaders based upon their experiences in the military. I have personally worked with a good number of veterans over the years and would not hesitate to hire more in the future.

Recruit from within
Recruiting from within comes in two flavors. One is fairly obvious and involves looking at existing employees to fill open roles. This can mean a promotion, a lateral move from one technology stack to another, or even a move from outside of IT. One of the best colleagues who ever worked for me came from outside of IT and rapidly worked his way to Director of Enterprise Architecture within fairly large IT organization. I hired him away from our original company and would be more than happy to hire him again in the future. Keep an open mind when looking within. It is a great way to keep colleagues happy through variety and challenge and to help a high performer spread their positive influence to other areas of the company.

The second flavor of recruiting from within is to mine the networks of your existing colleagues. If you are doing a good job of getting you colleagues ingrained into the culture and being happy and productive, then they should already be reaching out to friends and former co-workers to bring them into the fold. Extra incentives can but put into place to aid in this process, but I tend to disagree with significant, monetary rewards except for difficult to fill, critical roles. You do not want colleagues just using the opportunity to make a little extra money. Instead, recognition and non-monetary rewards can be used to influence participation.

Consider contract-to-hire
Sometimes companies forget about this option. Although it can be inconvenient to have new colleagues who may leave after a 6-month contract, it provides a good option for both sides to "try before they buy". If your company does not quite have the other items mentioned in this article in place, you may find really solid candidates willing to give it a try via a contract without signing up for a long term commitment. The key with these colleagues is that you should treat them just like any other member of the team because your goal is to bring them on full-time. If you isolate them from the full-time colleagues or otherwise treat them differently, the likelihood they will make the transition is greatly reduced.

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