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Attracting and Retaining Talent

Attracting and retaining talent in the highly competitive world of software development is an art

13 January 2016

Ryan Lockard

Attracting and retaining talent in the highly competitive world of software development is an art. There are more jobs than candidates in many of the key Agile team member domains. Retaining talent must be an integrated aspect of the leadership culture within your team or organization, to maintain team cohesion and reach high-performing levels. Leveraging good leadership principles, understanding people's "why," and using the Truly Human Leadership approach increase your team's odds of holding onto team members with high value.

Managing is hard. Leading is even more difficult. In January 2015, there was a 5:1 ratio of job vacancies to unemployed workers in technology and math1. The technology space is very clearly in a buyer's market. Yet in software development, we look to leaders to attract top talent, then maintain their interest in staying with our teams. Such a tall order to fill, yet some teams manage to pull it off. How?

The most critical aspect of building and curating high-performing teams is gaining an understanding of organizational development and criticality of team dynamics in Scrum. These principles are foundational to building any sustainable team momentum. Having buy-in on why you are looking to structure your organization in an Agile fashion before placing your first person is a time investment that has substantial return as you traverse the leadership journey. How the team is structured must evolve and change as time passes, but the why must be steadfast. You must form and sell it to your organizational thought leaders, then use the negotiated outcome as your guiding principle as future decisions are needed.

Attracting talent

Once there is a clear picture of why you are looking to build your teams geared for high performance, you must be methodical about how you invite new people to audition for your team. I have recently hired a few software developers on a product that has a SQL backend and C#.Net as the service layer. I can say with high confidence that nearly every resume submitted for your role (assuming you have technical requirements in the posting) will satisfy enough of the quantitative aspects that hiring would seem simple. But in product development today, we are building some of the most complex, sophisticated, and user-friendly systems ever in world history. Gone are the days of pulling a lever and pressing a button to stamp out technology on an assembly line. We need craftspeople, artisans, and creative people, and that does not translate easily to a CV. The more qualitative aspects of a candidate must be uncovered in the very human process of interviewing. My interview process employs three levels of screening:
  1. Resume review (quantitative). Does the candidate have the requisite skills on paper to do the job?
  2. Technical screening (quantitative with a leaning on qualitative). Does the candidate on the other end of the phone match the resume? How does this person communicate verbally things that are technical in nature? How does the conversational rhythm flow with the technical lead from my team?
  3. Team interview (qualitative with a leaning on quantitative). How does the candidate work with our current team? How does our team flow with the candidate?
This process is imperfect, but the same is true of all interview processes. A hiring decision is a calculated guess that is mitigated by leveraging a process and the people that are active participants. We do not offer a position on our team if the interview team is not unanimously in agreement. A "maybe" is a "no." If you don't believe in the person in your trenches, you will form cracks in the trust. Because of the various factors, our hiring window is longer than that of some companies, but our turnover is much lower than the industry standard as well. As your team grows, inviting new members on board is a great responsibility for the existing team members, which is taken very seriously. When you build something beautiful over time, allowing someone to come in late in the game is an honor to be given, and the team is hyperaware of this fact.

Retaining talent

When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute. — Simon Sinek
Once your team is performing, maintaining their interest and engagement is critical. It is reported in 2014, more than 68% of employees were disengaged in the workplace2. What's worse, the effort spent attracting the candidates to fill out your team is lost if we cannot get them the work they seek to stay interested. If we do not build teams and backlogs of meaningful, fulfilling work, we will enter the "leaking bucket" paradigm of employee attrition.

As leaders, coaches, and team members, we have one charter to keep our members engaged at the highest level: Make them feel safe. We should vigilantly work to resolve personal danger by speaking regularly with the team members. Within the team context, we need to respect impediments reported in the Daily Scrums as well as those identified in the sprint retrospectives.

To keep an employee engaged, you need to also understand what factors drive that person. And the only way to understand the "why" in each team member is for leaders to invest in that team member. Regular one-on-ones, friendly conversation, and trust-based relationships are the only means by which to learn what motivates that team member. Engagement is not the output of a universally applied checklist; it requires personalization and tuning with each team member individually. The approaches need to be taken with care and intentional optimism toward a positive outcome. Identifying the motivating factors for each team member allows leaders to develop unique reward plans for each of them.

Team happiness and engagement is equally important to individual engagement. One could easily argue that losing the engagement of a team is directly more impactful to delivering business value than any other singular issue. Teams should vocalize early indicators of disengagement in Scrums and retrospectives. As leaders, ignoring these issues enables team disengagement and fosters organizational anti-patterns. By removing the impediments, there is a compacting return to the team that the blockage is cleared, and there is a residually based trust relationship with the team and the organization. It is an obvious choice to clear team impediments whenever possible, as quickly as possible. And when it is not possible to clear an impediment, clearly communicate back to the reporting team why it cannot be addressed at this time to foster transparency.

Too often, teams strive to meet a sprint or release goal and lose site of the compounding goal of an engaged team. Establishing transparent communication, trust-based feedback cycles with individuals and teams, and being actively involved in clearing reported impediments are simple steps that should be taken to maximize team engagement.



Opinions represent those of the author and not of Scrum Alliance. The sharing of member-contributed content on this site does not imply endorsement of specific Scrum methods or practices beyond those taught by Scrum Alliance Certified Trainers and Coaches.

Article Rating

Current rating: 4.6 (5 ratings)


Meghan Robinson, CSM,CSPO, 3/9/2016 5:35:44 PM
Hi Ryan,

Would you be okay with us highlighting this article on our new AgileCareers Blog?

You can check it out here:
Ryan Lockard, CSP,CSM,CSPO, 9/14/2016 4:12:58 PM
Sorry for the delay Meghan. Sure :-)

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