Hiring, developing and retaining IT talent for the long term – An expert interview.
Finding qualified developers is hard enough. But contracts are of little use if companies do not succeed in retaining talent. What is important to ensure that tech specialists are motivated to contribute their knowledge and creativity and do not think about leaving with every lucrative offer? In this expert conversation, Felix Oechsler, CTO of Nitrado, and Janet Klin, Director of HR and Talent Management at FLEX Capital, share their experiences.
In your eyes, what is the most useful way to set up tech teams?
Felix: To build a successful tech team, it’s important to understand the company structure and culture in detail. In matrix organizations, you have to build teams in a different way than in classic structures.
What you can basically say: It is important to identify the existing disciplines in the tech department, such as frontend, backend, network and so on. Then each discipline should be assigned a clear area of competence. Having a large tech team where everyone is allowed, able and expected to do everything is not efficient in my experience. You should always ask yourself who you can most use where.
And of course, as a further step, it is important to appoint leaders who will ensure that the teams are built sustainably. You need experienced managers who are there for employees, who build trust, are transparent, have an authentic demeanor, and can motivate and develop employees – with the goal of strengthening employees’ sense of belonging to the company. This is an essential part for me. In our fast-paced digital tech world, it’s very difficult to build sustainably successful teams without strong leaders who work together for several years, becoming more efficient and better.
Janet: I agree. What I’ve also noticed: When you have larger projects to manage or a product consists of several subproducts, it makes sense to split teams into squads. You work with small teams of frontend and backend engineers per subproduct, led by a squad lead. These squads usually work with one product manager each. This way you can get to your goal quickly and effectively.
Felix: Exactly, that’s how we handle it. The team composition is temporary. When we have a project that runs over a month, we put three, four people together from different teams. We are very successful with this at Nitrado.
Are topics addressed sequentially in the individual teams or does a lot happen in parallel?
Felix: There are IT teams that are responsible for operating the infrastructure. It is common for a lot of ad hoc work to be done and tasks to be processed in parallel. Then you have to look: Which employee is good at switching quickly between contexts? There are employees who don’t like to do it or just aren’t good at it. Here you should be careful to use the different characters and skills correctly.
In the classic project business, certain work has to be done in parallel. We can’t do one project at a time. Then we would be much too slow. But that requires a certain team strength. Companies with only two or three developers cannot manage several large projects in parallel. At Nitrado, we are in the fortunate position of being able to work on projects in parallel, partly because we have a fast operations team that takes care of the day-to-day business.
Janet: If you want to move quickly, parallel casting is always the better choice. Of course, as Felix said, it depends on using the Engineers according to their different strengths.
“I give my leads a lot of responsibility. I model that so they pass it on to their employees.”
How involved are developers in decision-making? What role does ownership play in daily work?
Felix: I am someone who likes to trust because I have learned that people are significantly more motivated and perform better when you trust them. I give my leads a lot of responsibility. I model that so they pass it on to their employees. We involve employees in project planning and design because we have great, motivated people who are super good at what they do. Only by listening to their ideas and assessments can we arrive at a realistic cost estimate. And also during the project there are many meetings where we discuss topics with the employees and everyone is heard.
Janet: Engineers are creative. You want to design something. It would be wrong to tell them, “This is how we decided it in management, this is how you have to do it now.” The more you let developers work proactively on the product, the better the result will be and the more fun and motivated they will be at work.
Felix: Absolutely right. In my experience, it’s important to give engineers creative freedom, even if, from a project management perspective, you might be afraid that deadlines will be jeopardized. If you constrain creative people too much with a hard schedule, it leads to frustration. Of course, work isn’t always fun, but it should be part of the process for employees to think outside the box and consider, “What could we do better? What new thing could we establish?” When employees can’t develop, it kills any innovation.
“Engineers are creative. You want to design something. It would be wrong to tell them, “This is how we decided it in management, this is how you have to do it now.”
From your experience, what are issues that are important to developers in their jobs?
Felix: When we look at the hiring process, engineers pay a lot of attention to the tech stack. You are tired of working with old systems. It is important to them that companies use new technologies and tools – this has increased significantly in recent years. They take it as an indicator of how innovative a company is and what makes management tick.
Corporate culture is the second important criterion. How do you work together? How is the transparency? What are your values? These questions come up much more frequently than they did eight or nine years ago.
Flexibility or remote working has come to the forefront in the last year or two. And money, from my experience, is important for engineers, but for many it is not the only decision criterion. Other aspects have a much higher priority.
Janet: I agree with Felix on the order of criteria. The tech stack is hugely important. Another thing I’ve noticed over the last few years is that many engineers are taking private online courses or attending universities to learn new programming languages and are constantly on the ball themselves. In my initial conversations with engineers, we usually already talk about the tech stack – the more modern it is, the more you seem to pique the engineers’ interest. It also helps to talk about future updates in your own tech stack.
Flexibility is also very important. I have often witnessed engineers having their own productive phases. There’s no point in forcing them into the office at 8 a.m. if they’re not even in the flow then. If someone says they prefer to start later and work longer in return, then they should also be given this freedom.
What role does continuing education play for teams?
Felix: Currently, we offer every employee the opportunity to book their own courses via Udemy, i.e. they can choose for themselves the topics in which they would like to receive further training. In addition, we always have a time on Fridays when individuals or teams meet on a pre-determined topic. Then a new technology is presented, a procedure is analyzed, or simply a technical brainstorming session is held. In addition, every employee is of course free to approach management for individual training.
Janet: For Engineers who are promoted to Team Leads, it makes sense to provide leadership training. I have had good experience with this in the past. In the teams themselves, the exchange among each other can also be effective: Individuals present new tools to their colleagues or show how they have solved certain practical problems. What we also really enjoyed were hackathons that were either organized in-house or offered by other tech companies. Talks with engineers from other successful tech companies were also well received.
Felix: Yes, that’s right. Organizing Meetups is on our roadmap. It’s a great format for networking, getting input from other companies on specific technologies or approaches, and building a community.
“For example, when issues arise in our IT infrastructure, a group of experts always quickly comes together in Slack and then organizes a Google Meet to talk about how to solve the problem. So chat and video calls are our main channels.”
How do you communicate internally within the team?
Felix: We mainly communicate via Slack for quick chat communication. We have many channels where we discuss specific topics. For video calls, we use Google Meet. For example, when problems arise in our IT infrastructure, a group of experts always quickly comes together in Slack and then organizes a Google Meet to talk about how to solve the problem. So chat and video calls are our main channels.
How do you convey a sense of purpose within the company?
Felix: The teams meet in monthly meetings where high-level discussions take place. Following the waterfall principle, topics are brought to the leads and to the individual teams. Once a quarter, we have a Company Meeting where we focus precisely on communicating our vision for the company. Who do we want to be? What is our overall goal? That being said, our leads have it in their blood to always question, “Does what we’re doing right now fit with our vision?” To reinforce company culture and build trust, team events always work well.
Janet: I have worked in the past for companies with very international tech teams. At that time, it was important to us that the international developers not only feel welcome in the company, but also in Germany. We have therefore endeavored to support them in their initial dealings with the authorities and administrative steps. On the subject of team building: in addition to large events such as summer and Christmas events, it is also possible to organize small events in larger companies. This can be a visit to the Christmas market in cross-team groups or something like Lunch Roulette, where a draw is made in advance to determine which members spend their break together.
What are typical interview questions in the hiring process?
Felix: It is important to me that the human level is right and that the candidate fits into the team. I want to hear from him what his motivation has been in the past and will be in the future. I don’t have typical questions for these conversations.
Janet: I don’t have typical questions either. Since I cannot evaluate technical expertise in depth, I always focus on the cultural fit for the company.
“Once a quarter, we have a Company Meeting, which is exactly where we aim to communicate our vision for the company. Who do we want to be? What is our overall goal?”
Do you hire more experienced people or do inexperienced candidates have a chance?
Felix: It depends on the situation. On a new team or a team that is very stretched thin, I wouldn’t just bring in Juniors. So it makes sense to fill positions with candidates who have several years of professional experience in a similar work environment. If these people are already on the team, I have no problem hiring inexperienced candidates coming out of training or from college. I have already had great experiences with this. We have recruited some motivated characters who have developed incredibly well over the years.
Janet: I know situations like that too. The larger the team, the easier it is to train employees. What I have noticed in the past, however, is that a CV is sometimes not meaningful. There are engineers who have only one year of professional experience on paper, but have been coding since they were eleven. This experience should be taken into account.
How do you manage the workload of the teams?
Felix: Again, you have to distinguish between teams in day-to-day business and teams that take care of planned work. But in the end, it’s always about prioritization. We have a certain number of employees and hours available, but a thousand ideas and projects that we want to implement. So we need to prioritize and focus on what’s most important. In the conception phase, questions also play a role such as: How long do we need for a task? Do we have all the skills or do we have to buy some? Depending on how the answers turn out, this will affect utilization.
Felix: From my point of view, it depends on the level of responsibility and the character of the employee. You have to decide it situationally. I have a meeting with my leads every week. In the Engineers area, however, my experience has been that there are employees who do not find a weekly meeting useful. They are very good at what they do even without this feedback and share problems on their own. Then you don’t have to force the conversation. Others would like to have a weekly meeting.
However, a 1on1 conversation should take place once a month in any case. And feedback meetings, where you do a performance review, I would do at least once a year and also address how an employee sees their role in the team. This can unearth exciting insights.
Janet: Feedback should be given immediately if something positive has happened or if something needs improvement. That’s how you learn the most. The optimal frequency of 1on1s is individual, I agree with Felix. When it comes to performance reviews, I think it’s important to brief employees in advance: Why are we doing this? So that every employee understands: We mean you no harm. The interview is for the betterment of the company and the satisfaction of you as an employee. I also think it’s important to find out in discussions where the strengths of individual employees lie. Because there is not only one way to the top. Especially with Engineers, there are many career paths and not everyone necessarily wants to lead a team. Many also want to become experts in a certain field. You have to know that to be able to support them in that.
“Once a month should be a 1on1 conversation in any case. And feedback meetings, where you do a performance review, I would do at least once a year and also address how an employee sees their role in the team. This can unearth exciting insights.”
10 golden rules for sustainable tech teams
1. tech team organization chart:
Everyone is deployed sensibly according to their strengths. Team leaders are fit in employee management.
2. give confidence:
Leads are given a lot of responsibility and give it to their team members.
3. involve employees:
Developers are involved in project planning and design. Each team member is encouraged to contribute their ideas and assessments.
4. allow creative freedom:
Developers are given time to think outside the box and find their own solutions.
5. modern tech stack:
Teams work with the latest technologies and thus remain attractive for new employees.
6. corporate culture:
Communication within the team is transparent and solution-oriented, in direct contact as well as via chat and video calls. Team events and tech-related events strengthen cohesion.
7. flexible work organization:
Employees can adjust their working hours to their biological performance curve. Anyone can arrange home office and remote work.
8. continuing education culture:
Various in-house offerings promote the transfer of knowledge. Team Leads support anyone who wants to develop their skills via external seminars. Managers receive leadership training.
9. feedback discussions:
Regular 1on1 feedback meetings and performance reviews are held. The frequency takes into account the preferences of the employees.
10. shared sense of purpose:
Leaders remind people of the company’s vision and values in regular meetings. Teams Leads use them to help make decisions.