Tech Talk – July

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Let’s talk tech talent.

In the wake of a global pandemic, to say the workforce has shifted is an understatement. Restaurants are paying $15.00 an hour base pay to staff who used to make $2.13 an hour plus tips. Some folks have re-prioritized and are just dropping out.  A former colleague of mine quit a very healthy salary in the tech world to work for manual labor wages at a co-op farm in preparation for his own farming venture. Adding to that, tech workers now fully expect 100% remote flexibility. They were already accustomed to working across every global time zone via VC every day before the pandemic, then they VC’d into work from beaches and remote cabins and mom’s house last year, and they realized they were in a new era. Couple these trends with the insurance industry’s mass rush to digital transformation and innovation, and you’ve got a tech talent issue.

What does all of this mean for the next big idea in your company? It means that unless you can outbid Silicon Valley, you need to honestly assess where you sit on the tech talent spectrum this year more than ever, and then strategically invest based on your true business needs. What follows are not hard and fast rules; there is untapped talent everywhere, but it’s good context before you start the recruiting process.

The top-tier tech talent goes to tech firms. Market leaders & start-ups get the hungriest, most competitive workers that drive innovation, investment, and the bottom line. For employees, the risk is high, but the rewards are great. The behemoths over-hire with intent to weed out, and you have to out-perform incumbents to ever see vested equity. The start-ups load you with impressive equity, but it may never vest. For those sure of their talent and industry acumen, the risks are worth it.

The second tier goes to customer-facing roles in respected multi-national SIs and consulting firms – it’s stable, it pays well, the benefits are above par, and the layers of business processes means it takes a while to weed out under-performers. At the third tier, you move away from customer-facing roles into internal IT for those same SIs and consulting firms, and non-tech multi-nationals come into play. Finally, you have domestic companies’ internal IT departments, where the vast majority of this blog’s readership find themselves.

So, now you know where you are in the recruiting pool. You also own the bottom line, you see the competition, you have the vision, but you don’t know how to get there with what you’ve got. The common first reaction is to throw money at the specialists.  Take note: having AI project does not mean that your most critical hire is a highly expensive, world-class AI Engineer.  The transition to becoming “tech forward” is a journey. Step one is taking stock of where you are, and then determining with surgical precision what talent you need to attract to progress.

If you’re finding the business & IT at loggerheads, e.g., IT says yes but doesn’t deliver, the business has no patience for IT’s rigorous discipline, you’re in an earlier phase of that journey and you need to bridge the gap. Consider translational roles that sit between the business and IT, such as an up-skilled CIO who can strategically advance the most important projects. If the right players are in place at the top and the breakdown is further down the chain, examine your organization to see if you have the right BAs, PMs, and Technical PMs. Amazing players in those fields are far more likely to step outside of tiers one and two tech employers than top engineers, architects, & developers, they love problems, they are motivated by making a real business impact, and as a bonus, they’ll help you uncover where you truly need to invest in talent. If those roles are in place, but you’re still trying to shift from IT as a cost center to IT as a strategic business partner, you may need internal product owners – people who drive the tech but whose incentives are strictly tied to business metrics. This last role is the most commonly missing key player in non-tech firms. If you already have the best & brightest in these roles, do you need to directly hire top engineers, or can you outsource standing up the latest project, and then dial down to key staff to maintain it? The needs are unique to each business and each project.

Don’t just throw money at the problem; it will be an especially costly mistake this year. If you hire the best specialists you can find for that new AI project while competing against tech firms for their talent in a tight marketplace, but you’re not far enough along in the necessary organizational transition phases to being a tech forward company, you will find yourself with extremely costly, highly frustrated talent who are unable to deliver because the translational roles aren’t in place. Take a step back with trusted partners to determine where you are on the talent spectrum, where your business is in its relationship with tech, and then make your strategic hiring decisions. 

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