Incumbent companies must learn from the tech industry and change the way they view their tech functions if they are to survive a looming skills crisis.
As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, amid evolving work-from-home policies, many organizations have accelerated the pace of their intelligent transformation.
There is no doubt that digital skills will be fundamental to how businesses operate in the future. Companies realize all too well how important digital skills are to function well.
A study by The Learning and Work Institute shows that more than nine in ten companies consider having a basic level of digital skills important.
The pace of demand shows no signs of slowing down – three in five predict their reliance on employees with advanced digital capabilities will increase over the next five years.
Despite this growing demand, the reality is that the number of young people taking IT courses has dropped significantly.
At the GCSE level, this figure has fallen by 40 per cent since 2015, and in the last two years, the number of students enrolled in further education has fallen by 18 per cent, indicating a significant digital skills gap in the UK.
From a business standpoint, low enrollment levels for digital courses can be catastrophic. More than three quarters of employers say their profitability would decline with a workforce without digital capabilities.
The shortage of qualified professionals will result in a meager talent pool, and attracting the best individuals will be a challenge for companies.
Technology companies, given their culture of valuing engineers beyond engineering, are best placed to attract such talent. However, this does not apply to traditional organizations.
When it comes to IT development and operations, the approach of many traditional organizations is to split responsibilities into separate groups. First, there are those who develop IT applications and implement changes in systems.
Then there is a second group of engineers who implement and manage the change, and who handle services such as infrastructure, network and computing for end users.
The separation of these functions ensures that engineers do not make changes to the same environment used by end customers.
This can lead to security breaches and further problems. Such an approach also helps organizations meet compliance and regulatory needs, such as maintaining data privacy (because technicians can’t see customer data).
However, this structural design is contested because it creates internal tensions, misaligns incentives and fails to meet business objectives. One side wants to implement changes quickly, the other side wants reliability.
Ultimately, this leads to debt, a lack of cooperation and potentially a threat to the company. Fortunately, many technology companies have developed a new approach. Some are testing a model in which engineers have the freedom to build, deploy, and use their own services.
For example, Netflix has designed a culture of “freedom and responsibility,” in which technologists are given the opportunity to work across the entire technology stack. Engineers are skilled in a variety of disciplines, such as build tools, deployment pipelines, metrics and alerts, and insight tools.
They undergo rigorous developer boot camp training and are referred to as a “full cycle developer.” With a skills crisis looming, traditional organizations need to look at engineering differently.
Technology companies believe that engineering gives them an edge, an edge that is becoming increasingly difficult for traditional organizations to achieve and surpass. First, technology companies value technical skills that go beyond engineering.
At Google, most business and technical positions know coding skills. For example, project managers must have a minimum of coding skills to understand the implications of engineering on products and work effectively with engineers.
Second, knowledge building goes beyond coding skills. Engineers are encouraged to work in pairs to build knowledge, fine-tune coding processes, and mentor junior engineers.
Code reviews are performed on colleagues’ code to arrive at a common style and level of quality. In addition, engineers train in skills outside of engineering.
Algolia puts engineers through a 10-week bootcamp to gain skills in agile, test automation and writing high-quality production code. Resilience topics such as ‘code-smell’ patterns of problematic code are also covered.
Finally, engineers focus on automating everything from code reviews to implementing changes to monitoring services. Scalability and resiliency can only be achieved through automation, with one of the greatest benefits of quality control using test automation.
Tech companies perform an average of 10,000 to 50,000 automated tests before changes are implemented, and if a problem occurs in production, changes are automatically rolled back.
Attracting the best talent will be a challenge for traditional organizations and the gap between digital skills and demand will make it all the more difficult.
Engineers look for companies that take pride in the quality of their software and this is a concept that traditional organizations need to understand. Quality comes from many factors – in a market where talent is scarce, this change in focus will be a key factor in attracting the best talent.
Closing the gap is possible, but requires diligent effort. Norbert Faure is General Manager and Dan Martines is General Manager and SRE Leader at BCG Platinion.