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Cultivating a Culture for Engineers with Agile

Today’s digital age is buzzing with “transformations” and “accelerations” that are driving organizations to new levels of competition and increasing their reliance on IT. Information technology is no longer a secondary, supporting resource; IT has become a primary business USP. In turn, the increasing demand for capable, seasoned engineers has sparked a virtual “war for talent.” The only way to attract and retain the best of the best is to cultivate a culture specifically designed for engineers. Agile can help you do that.

This article is published in AGILE NXT. Agile NXT is a new magazine full of inspiration for professionals on the emerging Agile journey. It challenges you to think differently and improve yourself, your team, and company a little more each day. 

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Digital Drivers 
There are four critical ramifications of today’s digital age fueling the war for talent and the increasing demand for engineers: 

1.  Product digitization - In today’s digital age, all products
are either digital or have a digital component. Non-physical products, such as insurance or bank accounts, are expected to have a complete information and transactional experience through a phone app or other digital channel. Even very physical businesses like do-it-yourself (DIY) chains need to create an online presence. Customers today research online before they purchase offline (ROPO), and the DIY store that offers the best online experience wins the customer.

2.  Mass customization - The ability to tailor all client
interactions uniquely to that client in a one-on-one conversation has become the expected norm. It’s not a unique selling point anymore; it has become a basic requirement. Features like recommendations, direct chat windows and personalization are commonplace.

3.  Immediate customer feedback - A logical extension of mass customization and the culture of social media is that organizations need to make their customers feel truly heard and understood. Responding to feedback must be done quickly and effectively. There are many examples where a phone app gets very high ratings only because the people behind it rapidly implement changes based on user feedback. This is not a new phenomenon. Listening to customers and doing something about their complaints has always been a good thing, but the rate of change and the amount of feedback has increased across all digital channels.

4. Reduced cost of entry (the fast fish eats the big fish)
The cost of entry and scaling up has become so much lower, large and established organizations can no longer rely on their current market and scale dominance. There is too much focus on the archetypal disruptors like Uber and Airbnb. They make for nice stories of heroic success, but there will always be new competitors in a market. The real problem is the large and established organizations that can’t keep up with the rate of change.

The War for IT Talent
The digital age has shifted information technology from a secondary supporting resource to a primary business USP. While at one time some organizations could get away with a less than optimal or even bad engineering culture and ecosystem, they can’t afford this oversight anymore.

Organizations that already leaned heavily on IT are making it even more central to their business. This is perhaps best illustrated by a quote from Ralph Hamers, CEO of ING Bank, who, during a video interview with Brian Caplen of “The Banker” in August 2017 said, “We want to be a tech company with a banking license.”

Then there are the organizations that never had their own IT engineering capability in-house because it wasn’t part of their primary business processes or they had no digital products or presence. These organizations now need to build the fundamental infrastructure for an engineering ecosystem from the ground up.

As IT consultants, we’ve experienced this trend more and more and are often the first in-house IT project for an organization. We help them acquire and retain talent. Many of the requests we receive are for maintenance contracts, not because the organization wants to outsource, but simply because they are not successful in getting the necessary people on board. Although this can be a good solution in some cases, it does not get at the root cause we need to address. The “war for talent” can be won with a good engineering culture and eco­system.

An Engineering Culture and Ecosystem for the Digital Age
To attract and retain top IT engineering talent we need to understand the engineering mindset. To an engineer, money is not the primary motivator. For them, it’s about challenge, safety, clarity, staying relevant, making a difference and being in an environment that doesn’t impede. However, we see many organizations that have trouble hiring engineers, and even then there is a high chance that these new hires will leave within a year or even a month. Often, that’s because those organizations don’t provide the right environment - they don’t understand the engineer’s mindset.

Engineers are professionals like any other, but they have some specific qualities and characteristics that are best served by a particular kind of culture. For example: 

1.  Engineers create products - Their career is defined by creating or changing a product. A product can be interpreted broadly. It can be software, a physical object, but also an improved team or company culture. This is literally a creative job: engineers create things.

2.  Engineers are the ones who must care about how well a product is built - They share responsibility with other roles for aspects like ensuring economic feasibility and fit for use, but they are the primary role that deals with product quality, performance, and other technical requirements.

3.  Engineers live in a meritocracy - As knowledge workers, engineers’ bragging rights are based on what they know and how well engineered their products have proven to be. In a field where state of the art is moving forward quickly, an engineer must also stay ahead in the knowledge rat race or see their career
fall behind.

Agile Attracts Engineers
Agile addresses the needs of an engineering mindset. Engineers today choose to work for Agile organizations because they have better engineering cultures. In fact, many organizations started doing Agile for the sole purpose of attracting and retaining engineering talent.

In non-Agile organizations, it was quite common that an engineer would only be responsible for a task or a step in a larger project, but not involved in the end-to-end lifecycle of a product. This meant that the engineer would have to identify themselves with that step, but not feel pride in the creation of a product. Agile addresses this directly because the identity, autonomy, and planning of a team are all around a product. Engineers in an Agile team create products.

The empirical feedback cycle built into Agile results in direct, critical feedback on a product’s technical quality. Faced with the facts, everyone can see what is helping or hindering the team in its ability to deliver a well-functioning increment. This transparency can motivate management to confront any “organizational insanities” holding the team back, which takes (emotional) pressure off the team. Engineers in an empirical cycle can get the people in their environment onboard to help them create a well-built product. 

Agile leads to a better chance of delivering a working product as well as a direct connection between the engineer and the product. So, engineers can clearly point to a product and claim its success as their own. Engineers in an Agile team can undoubtedly claim their place in a meritocracy.

In today’s digital age, organizations need to create an appropriate engineering culture to win the war for talent. Agile plays a critical role in creating that culture by addressing qualities and characteristics that are particular to engineers. Creativity, craftsmanship, and merit must be prioritized, nurtured and rewarded to attract, engage, and retain top engineering talent.

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