Tech Leaders: Pandemic-influenced tech strategy and staff development

In our latest Tech Leaders webinar, we welcomed IT and Technology leaders from a variety of Northern-based businesses to discuss how the Covid pandemic has influenced tech strategy. Attendees also revealed how they are engaging with colleges and universities to help shape courses and offer internships and projects. Training and development and the importance of ‘growing your own’ were also on the agenda. Below are the key points raised for each core theme:

Tech Strategy: How has the pandemic influenced your tech strategy and as a Tech Leader what have you learned?

Key findings

 What tech leaders said

It's moving so fast. Before, you would advertise a job and get a few applicants to interview over a two-week period. During that time, they would also complete technical tests, etc. Then, you would have a week or so to decide who to hire. Now, it feels like if you haven't offered someone a job within three days, they're gone.”

“We've had to recalibrate a lot of our salaries because we're competing with the London influence – you get remote staff up here being able to take jobs in the South East, etc. Southern organisations are making huge savings hiring from the North East. The trouble is, from the North East, where do we go? Is it offshore?”

“People’s expectations have changed. We're a well-known Newcastle-based employer that offers hybrid working, but we're still finding that people want to spend less time in the office or are less willing to commute to work. Meeting these expectations around remote working is what people now expect in addition to a high salary.”

“During the last two years, we’ve focused on improving the organisation’s ability to support remote collaboration between colleagues. Onboarding is a key part of this. The technology team is now actively involved in helping new employees set up their home-based work stations and making sure they’re able to utilise all necessary tools to interact with their colleagues from day one.”

“There are several instances where the pandemic forced us to react quickly to implement technology solutions without a proper plan in place. Now, we’re dealing with the mess that's left over from this process, where, in many cases, employees are trying to utilise technologies – not the most appropriate tools either – at their disposal, without knowing what they're doing.”

“Our customer pipeline pretty much dried up and then we got a whole raft of new customers with very pressing needs. We were suddenly attempting to change the way we deployed our code several times a week, if not every day, or multiple times a day at that point. So, the pandemic did enforce some changes, and helped us accelerate some of the changes we were trying to make already.”

“We’ve migrated to Jira and other cloud-based platforms ­– we had previously tried to do this but found some resistance to change. Now that people have been forced to embrace cloud-based solutions, they realise it’s not all that bad. So, the pandemic has changed our business approach through the introduction of these enabling technologies and improved how we service clients at the same time.”

“We have a mixture of home and office-based staff which makes managing creative whiteboard sessions difficult. So, for the design innovation side of things, we still insist that all staff come to the office because we haven’t found a way to run these sessions successfully in a remote setting. Our creative capabilities definitely took a hit when everyone moved to one hundred percent remote working.”

“There’s a need for IT to get a better handle on what we've committed to in terms of license agreements, contract lengths, etc. Where do we carry risk? Have we done appropriate information security audits? We’re still playing catch-up from a governance perspective, trying to understand the various commitments made to suppliers, particularly when some technology choices don't always live with the technology team.”

“The mental health impact of the pandemic is very clear now, particularly the increased levels of social anxiety amongst staff. Many of our employees find attending the office a troubling experience for a myriad of different reasons. And it’s important, as leaders, to try harder to empathise with and understand their perspective, so we can better help them with any mental health issues that they may have.”  

Growing your own:  Could businesses work more closely with colleges and universities to help shape courses, and offer internships, projects and placements to produce more relevant graduates as a result?

Key findings

What tech leaders said

“Degree apprenticeships are great because the work isn’t disconnected – the students include their day-to-day projects as part of the course. They only spend one day a week at college too, and the rest of the time they’re here contributing to our organisation. You can grow your own, but you will lose them, so you have to continually grow your own.”

“Our challenge is having enough experienced hires in the team to enable us to train and develop an intern or an apprentice. A lot of our time is already taken up with training junior staff and giving them greater exposure to the business. I have utilised graduate schemes and undergraduate placements in the past, and it would be nice to get back to doing that again.”

“As a college, we have sought ways to give students access to real industry experience as part of their studies. We developed a degree apprenticeship, for example, where instead of doing a three-year degree in three years, students complete it in two and a half years with more time leftover for undertaking a substantial industry placement.” 

“The world of technology is moving so fast that colleges are no longer focusing on teaching students a specific coding language, for example, but rather the ability to pivot and learn whatever they need to learn to have a commercial impact. This means that when they graduate, they're better prepared for the world of work.”

Technology skills are academically less important than getting an overarching understanding of the industry that you're joining. Everybody learns on the job – it's the demonstrable experience that really counts. You might be able to write the most elegant piece of Javascript, but can you translate it into a software engineering context for a client?”

“The education system in Bulgaria is completely different from the UK. University education there is completely geared towards getting jobs in programming. Whereas here, it's all theoretical. It takes three years of on-the-job experience in the UK before a graduate is even anywhere near the same level as a recent graduate from a Bulgarian university.”

“There’s always a big difference in quality between someone who has completed a six to nine-month internship, compared to someone who hasn't. Client feedback often confirms this too. So, colleges and universities must continue adapting their courses to ensure that students are commercially ready when they join the workforce.”

Staff development: How do you manage career progression and training & development, whilst still delivering quickly and to a high standard?

Key findings

What tech leaders said

“We rely on peer-to-peer coaching and lean quite a lot on senior members of the team to deliver this. It could be a ‘lightning talk’ or every other Friday we all get together and discuss a particular deployment, for example. Or someone will provide a demo to the business, just to share knowledge about what they’ve been working on.”

“We’re trying to establish formal progression routes to get staff from a junior role to a mid-role to a senior role and look at the skills and behaviours employees need to demonstrate to achieve that. I value education and am happy to support external learning that will add value to the organisation and allow someone to progress into a senior role.”

“We allocate a percentage of time on each project for personal development and training. There’s also extra time allocated in our strategic plans to acknowledge that because we have live systems to support, we can’t always guarantee time is available for personal development, as well as the fact that we may need to develop skills on the go for areas we didn’t anticipate.”

“When we take on postgraduate trainees, we provide them with a runbook detailing all the organisational processes they need to learn. They then control the learning process and usually thrive on the responsibility. It frees up our time and gives me a good indication of what level they are at and who will likely progress into a management role in the future.”  

“Training here is more about building team capability rather than encouraging personal development. Yeah, it's self-led, but it's also focused on outputs and outcomes of what the business needs, rather than what the individual might need. That's something that we need to change – we are making progress but we're not there yet.”

“For junior IT roles, usually first-line support and other service desk positions, we quite often hire people that have no experience in IT. They may have previously worked in a restaurant, for example, and gained some experience in service provision. We then nurture that service approach while upskilling on the IT side.”

“We've recently taken on some apprentices and we’re happy to allow them to have as many days at home as they want. But on those days they have very specific objectives to achieve, and they must participate in regular check-ins with their line manager and team members throughout the day. They’re never completely isolated at home.”

“Integrating new employees remotely into an already established culture remains challenging for us. I'm sceptical about allowing fully remote working from anywhere in the country. I don’t think that people can integrate themselves, or be integrated successfully, into established teams or organisational cultures in that way.”

“It’s not healthy for people to be working for a company hundreds of miles away, five days a week, fully remote, and with the odd interaction. It might work for a very few people. But staff retention and trying to get the recruitment right and finding the right person the first time is difficult, so we’ve often got no other choice than to hire a remote worker.”

“The younger generation expects to be able to work from home all of the time. I learned so much early in my career simply from being around experienced staff in an office. Young people will miss out if they insist on being home-based. But even if it’s a detriment to their careers, they are usually more attracted to 100% homeworking opportunities.”

“We’re trying to encourage experienced members of the team back into the office to support our junior staff, but it’s difficult. The attitude tends to be, “Why should I?” I would hate to be graduating nowadays ­– coming into the world of work, getting a laptop through the post and told to just get on with it. That’s a pretty terrifying prospect, in my view.”

“We’re struggling to persuade certain employees to come back to the office, and when they do, their productivity nosedives. I guess for some roles if they’re delivering at home and refusing to come back into the office, even if it’s only occasionally, then from a commercial perspective, they may as well remain working from home full-time.”