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A vision and keeping it personal will help you in the war for talent


Without a doubt, the tech recruitment market is highly competitive as employers compete for talent. It’s a theme that comes through clearly in the Nash Squared Digital Leadership Report – it seems that there’s an almost continual battle going on! Post-Covid, competition is probably higher than ever. This isn’t just in tech – it feels like there’s a lot of movement in people generally as things open up again.

My experience in hiring people comes from two main sources. I’m Founder and Chief Executive Officer of Cypher Coders and Coco Coders, running in-person and online coding camps for kids aged 6-12 years. We have around 65 teachers (split mainly between the UK and US) for our online courses and another 35 for our in-person camps in London. The teachers are contractors, while we have a core team of 12 permanent staff who run the business. My other source of experience is via GoSpace, an artificial intelligence development company that I helped found and am still on the board. The main recruitment needs here are for developers.

I’d say that attracting and keeping people is a challenge for all businesses to a greater or lesser extent in today’s market, but I also believe that smaller businesses and start-ups have some significant advantages over bigger, less nimble corporates

A sense of mission with a personal touch

Firstly, start-ups with a clear vision or ‘mission’ are a natural draw for a lot of tech talent, and especially the new generation. If you can articulate what it is you’re trying to achieve – what difference you’re trying to make – in a compelling way, this is something that today’s talent will buy into. Covid has made many people reassess their lives and careers – it gave them time to stand back and think about what they really want and what they value. Having the opportunity to be in on something from its formative stages, to take part in building that story and working towards the vision – that’s a compelling proposition that most large corporates can’t really offer.

Another important factor is the personal element – smaller teams are usually more centred around the individual, they feel more ‘human’ and supportive. The bigger the organisation, the more rigid and pervasive the bureaucracy is likely to become. It’s something I really work on at Cypher – making sure that we have that human touch and that everyone feels a genuine part of the team. We even run a personality test during our onboarding phase that identifies 16 different personality types – we use the results to work out who is likely to click best with who!

Connected with this personal sense is another big consideration: flexibility. Post-Covid, most people want and expect some flexibility in when and how they work, and employers are responding. There’s no reason why many big employers can’t embrace this of course, but I think that small enterprises are usually able to be more agile in their approaches and let things find their natural level. At Cypher, our core team now works entirely remotely. That said, we meet up for team building events and are looking at taking some space where we can come together regularly. There’s so much value in being around other people, especially for younger team members looking to learn. Getting the balance right in the hybrid model will be crucial to many businesses – and key to talent retention.

Join a start-up? Why not!

In these unpredictable times, you might think that big tech employers have an advantage in that they can offer more job security and stability. But in fact, I think Covid has created another shift here. The pandemic showed people that nothing is safe or stationary. Anything can change – even notions of ‘corporate security’. This means that more people are willing to take risks, rather than just play things safe. This is especially true among the young generation who have only been in the workforce for a few years.

The result is that start-ups and smaller enterprises have become a ‘why not?’ in career terms. If people have a worst-case scenario backup plan, why shouldn’t they pitch in with a bold start-up with a big dream? I think we may see more polarisation here as time moves on: between those drawn to start-ups and accelerators, and those for whom the more traditional benefits of a stable corporate environment hold more sway.

Redefining and broadening ‘tech’

There’s another key aspect to the talent challenge businesses are facing – to think more broadly about what a ‘tech role’ is and who may be able to fulfil it. The fact is that more people than we probably realise are proficient in tech and use it every day in their role – and this could help to bridge the gaps. For example, many marketing professionals are highly skilled in the collation and analysis of data. They may even write bits of code themselves to help do this. Many such professionals have the potential to work in the tech sphere if they are inclined to do so. It was interesting to see that half of respondents in the Digital Leadership Report expect cross training into tech to increase – I think they’re certainly going down the right path with that.

It’s also about how you present a role and communicate it. For example, we recently ran a very revealing experiment at Cypher. We advertised the same marketing role with four different job titles to see what difference that would make. And it made a lot! The job title sales coordinator, for example, had no applications. Two other job titles generated 25% of applications between them. Marketing guru, meanwhile, mopped up with 75% of applications received! The moral of the story is clear – if you want to attract talent, you’ve got to talk to people in the right language and make a role seem relevant and appealing to them.

Biggest challenge, biggest opportunity

I think the biggest challenge the tech sector faces is simply keeping up the pace! A phenomenal rate of growth and speed of development is needed to support the new ideas that are being generated.

But this feeds into the opportunity – to meet these growth demands by broadening how we look at tech and realising that there is a much wider range of skills and people that can be considered tech proficient. It’s what Cypher is all about. We’re not so much looking to populate the world with little computer scientists as to raise technology proficiency among the young because tech is becoming a base foundation for so many careers. And as the skills base for tech broadens, it helps address the gender gap: 52% of our students are female. We are going to need technology skills across the workforce – computing proficiency is the new essential skill alongside literacy and numeracy – and if we can embrace and nurture that as a society, the future will be so much brighter.

This article was originally published in The State of Digital 2022 and is part of the Digital Leadership Report series. Other articles in the publication discuss a CIO's remit, cyber security, diversity, and ESG in IT.

Crimson is an IT consultancy, an IT solutions provider, an IT recruitment agency, and a Microsoft Gold Partner with offices in Birmingham and the City of London.