Breakthrough Insights

How to Hire the Best Engineers to Bring Teams and Products to Life

As part of an ongoing series, we’re looking at insights and trends uncovered within the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design.”

Earlier this decade, a video encouraging kids to learn coding and featuring some of the biggest names in tech — including Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Dorsey — went viral.

Released by the non-profit Code.org, one of the main messages of the video was that if more schools don’t start teaching coding and digital engineering principles, millions of the best tech jobs in America could eventually go unfilled.

These vacancies would be created by the explosive growth of technology across all industries and the finite number of qualified engineers to execute on company visions. Unfortunately, many companies are experiencing this strain now.

For instance, in the recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design,” one quarter of organizations creating smart products identified hiring and training hardware and software engineers as a major challenge.

Since Jama Software has been home to a number of excellent software engineers throughout the years, we wanted to share some of the lessons we’ve learned about what it takes to recruit, train and retain talent.

To do that, we talked with Laura Stepp, who has worked in human resources at several of the world’s top companies, and is now Jama Software’s Vice President of People.

Jama Software: In the recent Harvard Business Review Analytic Services study, companies say hiring and training engineering talent is one of the biggest challenges today. Are you surprised by that?

Laura Stepp: Anyone in high tech would tell you it’s a highly competitive marketplace for the right kind of skilled talent. In the US, we don’t produce enough engineers.

Also, technologies move quickly. For example, consider the idea of a connected product. That concept or word didn’t exist a decade ago. So you have all these people who were trained as engineers, but they were trained for a different world. And right now, the world is changing quite fast, so you need engineers that are comfortable with learning really quickly.

JS: What kind of value does finding the right engineering talent mean to an organization?

LS: There’s the technical skills, which are key, but more people are also realizing that you have to hire an engineer that is interested and willing to work in the way that you do. There is a methodology layer: Do they subscribe to Agile, or do they only know Waterfall?

And then I would say the third area people are probably screening for, certainly in start-up environments, is absolutely cultural fit. So, in addition to the way they engineer, there’s also the question of whether that engineer enjoys the way in which we operate as a company, meaning the values that drive our behavior. Is this an engineer that likes to collaborate or one who likes to work off in their cubby hole? And which way works best for our team?

As in all hiring — it doesn’t matter if it’s engineering or other — the more specific your requirements, the smaller your source pool.  Some of the best talent pipeline successes I have been a part of have been programs open to the entry level engineer with support for developing and grooming them over time.  This is a fantastic way to also improve diversity within the team.

Laura Stepp, Jama’s Vice President of People.

JS: What are some things you think companies can do to improve their standing with prospective engineers? 

LS: Companies need to be committed to establishing and then ensuring they are a workplace defined by integrity and safety. Ethical conduct and practices is good for everybody. And then, of course, you need to have good pay and benefits and strong managers.

When it comes to ethics and safety, if you get a rotten spot or a bad group in an organization, they can really have a large negative impact long-term.

We’ve seen some tech companies get taken down by just this issue, which is they underinvested in good-old-fashioned ethical operation, open-door culture, respectful workplace training and manager expectations. Organizations can pay a very heavy price if they underinvest here.

JS: What about retaining talent?

LS: Finding the right kind of human chemistry on a team is good, but also working with a “no jerks” rule can also be really important — especially if you want to hire millennial and female engineers, in my experience.  And trust me, people will be quite happy to share their horror stories with their friend and online which absolutely impacts a company’s talent brand.

Also, because engineers know how to keep their skills fresh, they learn from each other more than almost anything. So, I’ve found having a mentor who’s the senior engineer that will work well with or teach others is something people are thankful for.

JS: Having solid engineering leadership sounds really important too.

LS: It is. Engineering leaders set the tone and establish practices or expectations. They provide support and time. And while engineering is release driven, if they’re so obsessively release driven that there’s no time for the white space stuff, you can get yourself in a virtuous or demotivating cycle quicker than you think.

It’s those engineering leaders who do think about people stuff, not just technology, who have the more sustainable organizations.

JS: Do you see any trends in the next five years in terms of hiring engineers or hiring in general that people should be aware of?

LS: If products are getting more complex, then we’re either going to have to train in school or grow at work individuals who have more versatile skill sets that cross boundaries and can think in an integrated, holistic way about how the complexities come together.

More and more we’re going to see people who are either architects, systems or integration engineers. Because those are roles that inevitably connect things together.

You’ll have specialists but you’re also going to have people who are orchestrating the ridiculous complexity of producing products and trying to get everything to come out at the right time.

JS: Anything else we’re missing?

LS: There is an interesting theory that the problem with education right now is the jobs we’re training people for today really aren’t going to be the jobs of tomorrow. So how does education have to change?

It feels to me like education needs to build more practical skills and basic professional skills in addition to a learning mentality. Students today will need to learn how to adapt as much as they need to build some specialty capability. I think a lot of schools are trying to do things like internships or collaborative, work-education combinations that create a more useful end product and leave the student with some adaptable skills.

Read more expert analysis on the hiring and training challenges companies designing connected products are facing with the report, “Bridging The Gap In Digital Product Design.” The report also features insights from nearly 300 innovators from a variety of industries, including manufacturing, technology, healthcare, financial services and more.