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The State Of Agile Recruitment

19 July 2016

by: Gez Smith, Lead Agile Coach at HSBC

It’s been an interesting 15 years since the Agile Alliance met in Snowbird, Utah to write the Agile Manifesto. Agile, and its frameworks like Scrum, have gone from being the niche interest of a few software development teams to the highly sought tool of the business mainstream.


All over the world, companies use Agile to respond to change, build collaboration, drive up quality, and create happier employees. Many more companies are beginning to realize that their market environment is changing so rapidly that they need to find a new Agile way of working in order to keep up.



However, one element of the working world hasn’t kept pace — the realm of hiring and recruitment. When it comes to Agile, recruiters often just don’t know what’s involved in the roles they’re hiring for. That’s a shame, as the more they know about the roles they’re hiring for, the better they can find the right candidates for those roles. It’s not unusual, though, as it’s hard to be a specialist in every department or type of work. 



There is another aspect of Agile recruitment that is more troubling. Agile is a whole new way of working, a whole new way of seeing the world of work. What if you just can’t recruit into Agile roles the same way you would for more traditional working environments?



Earlier this year, I noticed that recruitment consultants in the UK really didn’t understand Agile and its frameworks. They’d write “AGILE” instead of Agile, or “SCRUM” instead of Scrum, as if these words were acronyms like that other project delivery stalwart, PRINCE2. Moreover, they didn’t know what the different Agile certifications meant, or didn’t bat an eyelid at hiring a Scrum Master for a Scrum team of 15+ people.



I thought I’d see if anyone else was noticing these problems, and set up a simple website with two online surveys: one for recruiters, and one for Agile practitioners. The surveys asked the following questions:


  1. Whether people thought there was a problem in this area;

  2. Whether Agile practitioners were happy with the current state of Agile recruitment; and

  3. What recruiters needed to learn to make things better.



The results were emphatic, as 90 percent of Agile practitioners said a lack of understanding of Agile and its frameworks amongst recruiters and HR professionals was a problem. On top of this, nearly two-thirds of the practitioners said they had been dissatisfied or very dissatisfied with their experience of using a recruiter to find a job in Agile.



Interestingly, 29 percent of recruiters said their Agile knowledge was good or excellent, while only 3 percent of practitioners rated their recruiters’ knowledge as good, and none of the practitioners who responded rated it as excellent. At the other end of the scale, only 10 percent of recruiters said they had no Agile knowledge, while 41 percent of practitioners said their recruiter had no knowledge. Perhaps recruiters just don’t know what they don’t know?



On the other hand, perhaps this problem has its roots in the fact that recruiters don’t specialize in Agile hiring alone, making them generalists rather than specialists? Only 12 percent of recruiters who responded said they only hire into Agile roles, and 83 percent said they hire for both Agile and non-Agile roles. How can they be expected to understand Agile in depth when it’s only a part of their daily hiring work?



However, these are just statistics. What problems do these stats actually cause? Practitioners were free to write openly in response to the survey about the problems and knowledge gaps amongst recruiters, and they didn’t hold back. Some felt that the roles being advertised would never work if someone was hired into them. One practitioner noted that “[t]here are a lot of Agile project manager roles I see advertised. [S]ome of these are Scrum Master roles, some are Project Manager roles, some are weird hybrids which make no sense at all.”



More fundamentally, practitioners felt that a lack of Agile knowledge amongst recruiters made it difficult for them to assess the different candidates’ skills and experience. As one practitioner put it, “They don't understand the skills required in a good Agile coach. They look for years of experience regardless of Agile knowledge.” Another practitioner observed: “Just because someone has a ScrumMaster certification, it doesn’t make them a coach.”



It also doesn’t help that it is hard to show certain aspects of Agile on a resume. For example, Agile needs servant leadership, but how do you demonstrate servant leadership when resumes are about what you have delivered, not what you have helped others to deliver by acting as their servant.


Some acknowledge that these problems happen further up the line with the person who has the vacancy to fill, but as one practitioner explained, “Their clients often don't understand, so recruiters compound the problem instead of fixing it.”



Context and environment is hugely important in Agile, and one practitioner felt this was often missing from the recruitment process: “Agile is seen as a thing people do rather than a cultural mindset...so many ScrumMaster job descriptions are cut-and-paste jobs, where the nuances of what is required in that specific context are not mentioned.”



Other practitioners backed up my original hypothesis: that hiring for Agile roles may need to be very different from the way hiring has traditionally been run, writing that “Recruiters think Agile is a process like any other SDLC process, which [it] is not, and that is the problem,” and that “[Agile] is more cultural and human than a functional process. Finding cultural fit and empathetic individuals is important. You can't recruit for these roles in the same way as you would (for example) in traditional project management.”



So what are the problems with all of this? Practitioners noted many, but the most worrying issue concerned recruiters putting the wrong people into roles. This role mismatch leads to the failure of Agile transformations and alienates the best candidates. One practitioner even admitted that they like it when some recruiters write “SCRUM” and “AGILE,” as it’s a clear sign they don't know what they’re talking about, warning the practitioner to avoid applying for that role. Fundamentally, a recruiter’s lack of Agile knowledge will harm the company’s bottom line.



So, I’ve taken all of this feedback and data, and used it to create a potential solution to the problem. Recruiters clearly need training in Agile, but they stated clearly that they work in a fast-paced, pressurized industry with little spare time, and that they didn’t want to share their knowledge gaps with potential competitors.


I’ve put together a comprehensive online training course that offers a solid grounding in Agile — one that’s been tailored specifically for recruiters and hiring managers.


To learn more and get started, visit www.agileforrecruiters.com


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