We’re At a Tech Talent Crossroads, But More Developers Isn’t Always the Answer

The tech industry is at a confusing crossroads when it comes to hiring. On the one hand, the unemployment rate for tech workers is at its lowest number ever – 1.3 percent. The demand for top tech talent is high, as companies strive to keep pace with the ever-changing digital demands of their customers. On the other hand, major companies like Uber Technologies Inc. and Inc. are laying off developers, citing the need to re-prioritize and streamline.

How to make sense of this gap? Why are some of our biggest tech companies eliminating the very people who develop products?

The answer, I suggest, is that companies are slowly realizing that the key to creating top products might not be en masse hiring. In many cases, all it takes is the right mindset – and someone to lead the change.

Take PBS: In 2007, the organization made a single hiring decision – to bring in a senior vice president and general manager of digital – that helped transform the company from a stodgy public television station to an award-winning media powerhouse in just a few years. This decision radically changed the culture of the company and its approach toward attracting and developing the most effective and valuable future talent. By foreseeing that eventually more content would be consumed through digital media than over the airways on cable, PBS changed its image, its trajectory and its bottom line.

In other cases, answering the call for better tech means doing more with what you have by cultivating existing talent and bringing on the right talent – which often isn’t even technical. How do executives accomplish this? By building an innovative product culture that drives results.

Executives should focus on three things as we move toward this innovation world:

1. Strong executive sponsorship. Executives should view themselves as the heads of digital companies, not just the heads of television stations, clothing companies or advertising agencies. They should provide consistent strategic direction so that their teams understand where they’re going and how to get there. You can hire all the mountain climbers in the world and give them the best gear, but if you don’t tell them they are trying to scale Mount Everest, they won’t make it to the top.

Executives also need to understand that obstacles will occur, and they need to empower employees to make the right decisions when these obstacles arise. They can do this by emphasizing the importance of risk taking and learning from failure. Sometimes, the best way to find out what works is by figuring out what doesn’t.

2. Shared product mindset. Mindset matters. Facebook’s mantra in the early years was “move fast and break things.” They took big risks, made acquisitions fast and released new user features at a record pace. They created a culture in which, when there was a decision to be made, everyone on the team knew to come back to these principles.

It is our responsibility as executives to create a set of guiding principles that reach across the whole company. First, we have to move fast and minimize time to value. The days of taking two years to release software and drive revenue from it are beyond us; we have to release digital products and begin to derive value from them quickly and often. Second, we have to teach teams to build for customer need – not just build a new feature because the technology is available, or because it’s cool. And third, we need to teach our teams to excel at change, embrace it and not fear it. Today’s digital world changes quickly, and we have to change quickly to keep pace with it.

3. Cross functional competence. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that hiring more data scientists or more engineers is the answer to every tech problem. Sometimes, more talent isn’t always the best solution.

If a company wants to build with competence, they should first establish a robust product roadmap, so that the company’s goals and direction is clear to everyone on the team. Next, they should make sure they have a great user experience competence, by engaging and understanding customers. Only then should they focus on building technical competence.

These steps will allow executives to build a healthy ecosystem and drive results from their digital efforts. Not only will it empower current employees, but it will also create an innovative culture that will attract talent. People want to build the business models of the future. They want to be involved in something that matters. By focusing on these elements, a company puts the building blocks into place that will help them make smarter hiring decisions, attract new talent and build up the next generation of talent from within.

David DeWolf is founder and CEO of 3Pillar Global and co-author of “The Product Mindset: Succeed in the Digital Economy by Changing the Way Your Organization Thinks.”

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