Career Building

The Biggest Problem with the Tech Talent Pipeline (and How to Fix It)

The biggest crisis in the tech world today has been well-documented, and it’s even larger than you think. The tech talent shortage is growing exponentially as the demand for experienced technologists continues to rise while companies with innovative models like Exelaration race to fill the gap. For every 10 open positions, only six are filled […]

by | Feb 19, 2020

The biggest crisis in the tech world today has been well-documented, and it’s even larger than you think. The tech talent shortage is growing exponentially as the demand for experienced technologists continues to rise while companies with innovative models like Exelaration race to fill the gap. For every 10 open positions, only six are filled and it takes 50% longer to hire a tech position than other roles.

One phrase is at the center of the cause of this crisis… one phrase that frustrates CIOs, recruiters, and human resources leaders alike because it leads to futility. The phrase that’s behind today’s crisis? “two to four years of experience required.” You’ve read it a thousand times, but have you considered this ‘innocent’ phrase’s damaging consequences?

It seems logical enough: an organization needs technology built. Maybe it’s an app, an e-commerce site, an upgrade, or more quality assurance in its delivery pipeline, the pipeline that takes software from development into production. To illustrate the problem, and how to fix it, let’s examine a real company that’s experiencing this right now. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

CEO Beth Wilson to CIO Todd Franklin: “Good things are happening; we’ve won three new clients and, to deliver, we’re going to need to launch the top 3 tech projects on your whiteboard.”

CIO Todd: “Does that mean the full budget is approved? Cubes, laptops, licenses, and new hires?”

CEO Beth: “Yes, as long as you can get this done by July. We need these running by third quarter latest.”

CIO Todd gives the good news to his team leaders, and they decide they need to hire 8-10 new people, most of them software engineers. He tells his team, “This is no time for training new folks; we need experience. A minimum of 2-4 years’ experience. I’ll let Norm in recruiting know.”

And just like that, their fate is sealed…

The team departed early that evening for drinks and nachos, excited about their new agenda, but they were oblivious to the futile plan they had just put in motion. They had set themselves on a collision course for a summer of 80-hour workweeks, new cubes and laptops that will never be used, and a deadline they would miss by seven months. The nachos and beer of springtime turned to antacid, coffee, and cancelled summer vacations.

Every week that summer, Beth asked Todd why IT hiring wasn’t progressing faster. “We’re hiring marketing folks, a new accountant, and a new administrative assistant,” she observed. “What’s the issue with our engineering hires?” Todd blamed it on Norm in HR. Norm said the recruiting firms weren’t performing (true) even though he doubled their fees. He said the skills required for these jobs made it almost impossible to find candidates (also true), and that the company’s salary bands were too low to attract enough candidates (true too). In June, they tried advertising, hosting meetups, and offered current employees $8,000 as a referral bonus. They even added pet care as a benefit and posted it on social media. Meanwhile, the IT team worked 10-hour days and weekends waiting for the relief of a new colleague.

Fast forward to Labor Day, and we’ve got the post-mortem analysis:

Of the nine new engineering hires they needed to hire, here’s what happened: they interviewed 11 candidates, made seven offers, and hired two new team members. But guess what? They lost three veteran team members during that same period. Two cited burnout and another pointed to unfair salary practices. Instead of growing by nine, their engineering team shrunk. To capture the two new hires, they paid each one a five-figure signing bonus and agreed to let one work remotely from 800 miles away. The two new hires are paid higher salaries than all but one of the existing engineers.

Not only is this story true, it’s happening at thousands of organizations all over the world. Beth’s company, while creative and innovative in many areas, exhibited zero creativity and innovation when it came to IT recruiting and talent development. They are looking in the same place, for the same profile (2-4 years’ experience) as thousands of other organizations already have. This is the equivalent of looking for a designer suit in the bargain basement bin of a closeout sale (…actually nine designer suits).

This is frustrating on a number of levels, but you might have missed the worst aspect of this saga. It revolves around the software not written, the projects left unfinished on Todd’s whiteboard. We didn’t explore those, but what if one of those undelivered IT solutions is an improved matching program for organ donors? What if another is a thermostat app that could save 1.5% of energy costs every month? What if it is a security protocol that allocates local first responder teams to neighborhoods based on predictive analytics? Across the world, code needs to be written, and it’s not getting written because of the shortage of people to write it. This unwritten code can save lives or make lives better for millions.

Meanwhile, the flip side of this travesty lurks: talented individuals who can build this software sit idle. Who are these folks? Where are they? Why aren’t they being mobilized?

Instead of looking in the same old places for the same scarce, expensive talent, organizations should approach this challenge with the creativity and innovation they apply to so many other challenges.

As an alternative to developers with 2-4 years of work experience and a diploma, here are six top sources of untapped engineering talent:

  • Early career professionals (recent graduates) with 0-1 years’ experience
  • Students (college and high school)
  • Veterans
  • Retooled experienced workers
  • Hard-to-reach individuals
  • Individuals without diplomas

It requires varying degrees of creativity and investment to enable these sources, but the payoff is significant. Let’s walk through an approach for each source:

Students. By the time they reach their junior and senior years, IT and engineering students are well-versed in one or more languages, have worked with database technology, libraries, and development frameworks, and are planning a capstone project. They need training and oversight, but they can produce quality deliverables. Many of them spend their spare time working part-time and summer jobs, in factories, restaurants, and retail. This is the very opportunity that drove us to create the Exelaration Center, where our full-time senior engineers lead student teams to build real software for our clients. This model unlocks a massive source of untapped talent, while at the same time, using the crucible of real projects to accelerate learning. The output is graduates who leave school with years of skills and seasoning under their belts in addition to their diploma. Many organizations have thriving internship programs. We built Exelaration for those who don’t: our clients enjoy the full benefits of a fully functional internship program run by us.  A vibrant internship program changes a “recent graduate with 0-1 years’ experience” into an early career professional with 2-4 years’ experience on day one.

High school students. This strategy takes a little more effort, but the same principle applies. Students are comfortable with technology, and many know they want to make it their career. They’re building games and apps for themselves and their friends without getting paid. Many school systems offer a job shadowing program that can provide a platform for tapping this talent source. And the shortage of technology teachers means that schools are eager to partner with local companies to engage their students in tech projects.

Veterans. It’s well-known that veterans are some of the most highly-skilled workers on the planet. And yet there’s a perception that transferring those skills to non-military environments is exceedingly challenging. What would the ramp-up time be for a fighter jet repair engineer to learn software development? How difficult would it be for a specialist who can disarm an improvised explosive to write an add-change-delete module for a database interface? This takes some investment, but not all that investment must be borne by the employer: veteran retooling programs and grants are abundant.

Retooled experienced workers. An educator who has the passion to enroll in a boot camp and learn Python is someone who probably already has the collaborative skills to work well on a team. Their resume will never appear in a recruiter’s filtered search, but their potential lies just under the surface for an employer that wants to make the investment.

Hard-to-reach individuals. Despite its awkward name, this source represents a massive payoff: the traditional interview process makes it difficult for individuals on the autism spectrum to prove their capabilities. But the natural affinity these individuals have with machines and technology can produce a tester’s dream: software highlighted by maximum consistency and minimal defects. Finding a way for your workplace to invite, engage, and retain such individuals can be challenging since almost every job tests communication and collaboration skills. In fact, the very nature of Agile and Scrum centers on intense feedback, listening, and transparency. Defining some positions around a primary deliverable of code, while providing analysts and leaders who can compensate for less communication may be one way to unlock the potential that lies in this source.

Individuals without diplomas. Requiring a college degree or high school diploma is the ubiquitous twin of the famous 2-4 years of experience requirement. Here again, we have a filter that is blindly applied to all candidates with no regard for its value. The tech workplace should be more inviting to everyone, regardless of the path they took to the adult job market. The burgeoning market of coding boot camps (Flatiron, Coding Dojo, and General Assembly), and coding websites (CodeAcademy, Coursera, and edX) is a testament to how many people want the chance to retool themselves. And like we see with veterans, the seeds of a budding technology career can bloom quickly within the garden of many non-technology fields, such as construction, real estate, or hospitality. These oft-overlooked fields don’t require diplomas, but often require certifications as (or more) rigorous as professional qualifications within the tech sector.

We in the technology world have made careers in technology seem so unapproachable and complex that we’ve built an invisible wall that becomes a self-fulfilling barrier of intimidation and exclusion. For a field that is literally the definition of innovation, we tech professionals are displaying a surprising lack of creativity in recruiting and talent development. Maybe this “talent pipeline crisis” is of our own making, or at least it’s entirely curable. Next time you read “2-4 years of experience required” or “bachelor’s degree required,” ask yourself if this is the best we can do. There’s too much vital software that needs to be written to leave so many worthy contributors on the sidelines.

With over 30 years’ experience in technology consulting, Steve Cooper has founded three successful companies whose clients include Fortune 100 companies, leading federal agencies, and world-class non-profit organizations. Starting his career as one of the first relational database experts, Steve’s focus is helping individuals achieve exceptional careers, and helping leaders build organizations around them. He founded NextUp Solutions to focus on transformative learning for teams and individuals. Steve is a vocal leader in the effort to invite more diverse and abundant participants to the technology workplace through internships and experiential learning.

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