During my consulting years, I’ve come across many corporate clients who faced difficulties with building engineering teams. They struggled despite having a dedicated team of internal recruiters and running recruitment drives all year round.
One of them, a local telco, has had a 11-month median tech tenure. Tech employees stayed for 11 months in the company on average.
No matter how good your sourcing effort is, it will become undone if you can’t retain those you have hired.
To smaller companies, it is costly having to constantly recruit to fill vacancies.
Therefore it is important to have a retention strategy in your mind, while you are recruiting to build a tech team.
If there is something in your workplace that compels people to stay on their jobs for a long time, words of mouth will spread in the tech community.
This sentiment attracts talents to your company automatically. It forms the story behind your employer brand.
In a previous email, I have shown you a picture of a recruitment pipeline.
I pointed out that there is a characteristic closed loop in any such diagram.
The closed loop is the third type of sourcing – cultivating words of mouth for the purpose of recruitment. It is called viral sourcing.
Its efficacy? Suppose two companies, a new startup and Carousell, apply the same inbound and outbound techniques for sourcing. My personal experience says that Carousell would get 10 times more applications per opening per year than the new startup.
What is this charm that attracts talents to apply to a company?
Is it because of the competitive salary package offered? Pools and ping pong table in the office? Unlimited time off? Many companies do use these perks to entice software engineers to join them.
While they contribute to employee retention to some extent, we are looking for a stronger motivator—something that actually makes the staff feel proud of recommending their workplace to their peers. We want them to become the brand advocates themselves.
The only formula that I’ve ever seen work is to have someone really good in charge of the tech team.
With this formula, an employer brand equates to good tech management. So you can skip doing things like instagramming your tech team’s weekly activity or publishing a tech blog.
This 5-year-old study made the same observation as mine: People leave managers, not companies.
Now for the unpopular opinion: A non-technical manager has 0% chance of managing an engineering team successfully.
Those I know who tried have failed, every single one of them. If you can find a counter-example to prove otherwise, that person actually possessed some technical skills that you don’t know of.
Nobody likes to hear this, but I need to break it to you…
You need a technical leader to be at the helm of your engineering team or not have the team at all.
One of the best Scrum Masters (agile process facilitators) I have worked with had a strong technical background. Although he claimed that he has not been coding since his graduation, he often surprised the tech team with useful technical insights.
He did not provide solutions but knew how and when to ask the right questions, which gave the engineers new perspective during the planning meetings.
He commanded deep respect from the team for that.
If you do not have a technical co-founder / CTO and do not plan to have one, one possible choice is to become technical yourself.
Many non-tech founders cringe when they hear this. But becoming technical does not mean learning how to code. That is a common misconception.
You just need to become technical enough for you to communicate and collaborate well with the engineers in work and gain their confidence.
The best project manager I have ever worked with was a woman who initially did not have a technical background. But she was willing to dive into the technical end of things.
When I met her to discuss a project, she had an impressive skill for estimating how long a given task would take, and whether things were going well or badly.
Your employees are always watching you. What concern them are not only what you say and how you work, but also your personality.
– Matsuo Iwata, ex-CEO of Starbucks Japan.
As a non-technical manager, if you make an effort, no matter how small at a time, to learn the technical aspects of your project, you will definitely gain the trust of your engineers in the long run.
So book a slot in your calendar to start learning some technical skills.
Remember wisdom #1 from the first email: the success of a project has three parts—organizational success, technical success and personal success.
If you care only about the ROI of your project, your engineers will quickly lose motivation working on it as they get very little space for personal development.
As a tech leader, your foremost responsibility is actually not delivering the project (which is the team’s responsibility), but building the team and cultivating the right values and culture in it.
Good tech leaders spend a lot of effort “serving” the team, helping them to remove any obstacles to their work. They facilitate a smooth and predictable development routine within the unpredictable business environment.
Having said that, you can make your life easier by hiring the best talents in the beginning and empowering them to make decisions for the project.
Starting from the next email, we will show you the system for selecting the right candidates to hire in order to nurture an engineering culture.
Obito “the tech leader”
P/S: to grow your tech leadership skill and strengthen your employer brand, here is a very concise summary of what you need to do.
Learn More: What makes a good engineering culture?
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