To maximise existing tech talent, it’s important to facilitate innovation skills

To maximise existing tech talent, it’s important to facilitate innovation skills
Johan is chief technology officer at Mendix, a low-code application development platform vendor. He leads the company's overall technical strategy and research & product development teams. Johan speaks regularly at technology events and is a renowned blogger on a range of topics, including PaaS, Model-Driven Development, Scrum, cloud computing and software engineering. He earned a Master of Science in Computer Science with a specialisation in Information Architecture from the Delft University of Technology.

It’s no secret that IT talent is in short supply. With the ever-increasing number of technological channels, data sources and platforms, the demand for tech-savvy talent is innumerable. Randstad Technologies, a tech jobs specialist company, indicated that they have seen a 104 percent year-over-year increase in demand for skills in technologies such as iOS, Android, HTML5, Angular, Java and JavaScript. Which makes sense as Gartner estimates that, through 2021, business demand for app development will grow at least five times faster than IT’s capacity to deliver it.

To close the gap and help organisations meet their digital goals, it isn’t as easy as enticing more students to simply pursue computer science degrees. Instead, business and IT leaders must create an environment where individuals can develop a well-rounded skill set that includes technical knowledge as well as soft skills, like collaboration, problem solving, and creativity. 

How do you build an innovative team? Embracing innovation and bringing it into an organisation requires consistent action.  This is done by mindfully incorporating innovation into standard business processes by selecting the right tools and effectively engaging with the right people.

It starts with hiring for an innovative mindset

As I’ve scaled the R&D team at Mendix, I’ve learned that there are common qualities and attitudes that are necessary for individuals to be impactful contributors to their team and grow in their career during their tenure with the company.

The two key things I keep in mind are to hire smart people and get out of their way. Smart people are looking for three things in their jobs:

  • Autonomy: they wish to be self-directed
  • Mastery: they have the urge to get better at the projects they are working
  • Purpose: they need to make a contribution.

All three are equally important to getting out of the way.

If teams work well together, their output is much better than the sum of the individuals. In practice this means that I focus hiring the right people who can contribute to a productive team environment. 

More specifically, there are key aspects to evaluate for when a candidate is being interviewed. At Mendix, we have nine criteria to look for, but I’d like to highlight four qualities that I feel best identify individuals who have the most potential to be innovative.

  • Intellectually curious – are they someone who always wants to learn more? Will they actively seek new information by reading, attending events or seeking coursework? Do they consistently ask thoughtful questions to better understand something or someone to uncover or better solve a challenge?
  • Positive “can do” attitude – is this someone that will be an active contributor to a group dynamic? Someone who doesn’t let challenges stand in the way of accomplishing their goals.
  • Direct – is this someone who can be honest and clearly articulate their ideas and opinions?
  • Coachable – are they eager to learn and improve? Do they seek feedback from peers, mentors and managers?

Take time to reflect on the characteristics of employees who thrive and are the most impactful at your organisation. Focusing on those characteristics to evaluate job candidates will help standardise the hiring process and create a smoother path for growing the team with greater potential for being innovative.

Clearly define the business needs and formalise retrospectives

When beginning a project, it’s imperative that the project owner facilitates a meeting with key stakeholders to understand the specific needs the application is intended to address. Having a clear vision that leads to long-term goals for each project team is crucial to creating an autonomous and innovative work environment.

Listening and understanding the end-users needs is the only way to innovate at speed. Otherwise, there is the risk of building applications that the business doesn’t want or use.  As Kimberly Jenkins explains in a 2011 Tedx Talk when she was an early Microsoft employee, her approach to delivering impactful solutions was to “hit the ground listening.”

Before developing a solution, the project owner must understand exactly what needs to be solved. This requires detailed questioning and direct communication between IT and business stakeholders.

To give structure to the discussion, there are four parameters to consider – people, process, platform and portfolio. Identify the people who will be involved in the project and assign their responsibility like project owner, scrum master, business partner, developer and UX designer. Outline the process such as agile methodology and define when and how the team will keep track on project progress. Select a platform that will be used to develop the solution and finally map out the portfolio of applications and in which order the applications will be developed.

As a project progresses, retrospectives are key in creating a culture of continuous improvement in your teams. We currently work in two-week sprints and we do a retrospective at the end of each sprint. In a retrospective, we look back at what went well and what we need to improve. We select one item that we want to improve in the next sprint. Teams share their lessons learned with the other teams so that they can learn from it too. In my experience, retrospectives are instrumental in creating autonomy for teams. They can decide on their own improvements. Problems surface very quickly. And successes are celebrated.                                           

Collaboration sparks innovation

It’s imperative for end-users of a new application to be part of the process of developing the solution. This shared ownership will not only ensure that blockers are diminished but it will also help the team to iterate and deliver on the intended outcome of the project.

There are some seemingly simple things that IT leaders can do to help break down collaboration barriers. The first is to invest in having the team working on the project to spend time together in the same location. When doing so, there is tremendous value in creating a seating chart so that team members don’t have to waste time looking for the right person for a particular question while the project is in progress.  Finally, get agreement and buy-in from the team on the channels for how to communicate – be it slack, asana or other project tracking applications.

Another approach to facilitating collaboration is by having members of the IT team join the business unit teams to break down business unit silos. This helps to promote free flowing ideas, communication to troubleshoot issues, and general collaboration.

Training to a common language

Emerging IT specialists will not be limited to skills pertaining to one language, platform, hardware, or output. Instead, they will have an arsenal of abilities that will help innovate a company’s offerings and services.  For example, the Mendix low-code platform can be used to train individuals from various backgrounds, ranging from experienced developers to savvy business analysts, on how to build applications for their business. The common language of visual development creates a situation where more people can more actively contribute to the development of a project.

An organisation that builds an employee base with the necessary technical knowledge to meet the skills demand, but also brings soft skill elements to the table, will create a culture shift that excels with the continuous evolution of technology. The next generation of business entrepreneurs will lead a different type of IT industry – one that moves in tandem with external tech innovation and internal culture shifts. in hearing industry leaders discuss subjects like this and sharing their use-cases? Attend the co-located IoT Tech Expo, Blockchain Expo, AI & Big Data Expo and Cyber Security & Cloud Expo World Series with upcoming events in Silicon Valley, London and Amsterdam and explore the future of enterprise technology.

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