How tech leaders can navigate the skills crisis

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The then-president of Argentina and host of the G20, Mauricio Macro, once said: “The future of work will be a race between education and technology”. Five years later, amid a global skills shortage that is already costing businesses trillions in lost employee productivity, it certainly seems like technology is winning.

Organizations are empowered and constrained by the skills of the people they employ. When the economy is prosperous and companies are growing fast, they hire new people to fill the skills gaps that emerge. But in a downturn, hiring budgets are frozen, vacancies remain unfilled, and leaders are asked to do more with what they already have.

Looking inward

Without the ability to hire, decision makers are turning their attention to making their existing people more capable. They’re trying to increase productivity by measuring performance metrics, encouraging better collaboration between team members, and setting goals that stretch employees just that little bit further.

In technology, we’re already seeing leaders creating teams that focus more on full stack and API development in an attempt to boost speed and minimize handover time. Others are placing more emphasis on skills like Python and data science and analysis. Leaders are striving to encourage their teams to streamline wasteful tasks, predict project end dates more accurately, and launch better applications with a shorter time to value.

What often isn’t considered is learning and development. Traditionally, mid-career professional development hasn’t been a major component of a linear technology career. Where it does happen, it’s often generic and piecemeal. Budgets are handed out and employees are encouraged to watch videos to learn whatever skill they choose. It might happen outside of work hours. Left to their own devices, developers’ skills develop slowly and inconsistently. And the company’s overall technology ambitions are held back.

Another approach commonly used is pair programming, where a junior engineer shadows someone more experienced. It’s expensive, slow, and only really benefits the more junior team members. Plus it usually focuses on a specific work complication without the context to apply it to other scenarios, and relies on the fact that your senior developers are good teachers. That’s not always the case.

Hywel Carver

Hywel Carver is the co-founder and CEO of Skiller Whale.

Live team coaching is different

As a sector, we need to revolutionize the way we think about adding skills to our teams. Hiring is slow, expensive and risky – even more so during a global talent shortage. And the current opportunities for professional development aren’t targeted enough to advance the capabilities of the wider organization. If your technical strategy depends on having highly skilled people, you can’t leave reskilling and upskilling to chance.

It’s a need that will only escalate in years to come, driven by the rapid adoption of automation and AI. McKinsey estimates up to 375 million people will need to switch occupation categories by 2030, and up to 50 million new technology jobs will be created. If countries cannot rise to that challenge, it will cost their economies trillions. Accenture analyzed the predicted performance of 14 G20 countries over the next decade and found they could miss out on as much as $11.5 trillion of cumulative growth promised by intelligent technologies if they can’t meet the future skills demand.

Instead of purely technical tasks such as writing code, the computer scientists, engineers and software developers of the future are likely to play more of a supervisory role, reviewing code, monitoring performance, debugging features, and managing company stakeholders. Those skills are already required today but they will increasingly become the main focus of the work, rather than a small part of the job performed alongside the writing of code.

With live team coaching, the focus is on the development of capabilities that contribute to a company’s strategic goals. Leaders map the skill profile of their teams so they can prioritise the areas that an organisation will benefit from. Sessions are short, conducted in small groups, and involve hands-on exercises with individualised feedback provided by a technical expert in real time. They focus on knowledge that is just beyond a developer’s comfort zone so they’re able to adopt a deep understanding of a new skill in weeks rather than years.

Done right, it aligns the acceleration of an entire team. And everyone starts to pull in the same direction.

Planning for the future

Beyond improved performance, it’s also a window into the way we, as tech leaders, will need to shape our teams for the demands of the future. Adding to headcount won’t always be a realistic possibility. We need to proactively grow the skillsets of our current people according to the strategic needs of the business itself.

The first step is to consider your team as it stands now. What do you want it to look like – in six months, a year, or two years’ time? What skills would help you achieve your goals? Is it more full stack? Or people who are better at a particular technology?

The good news is developers love learning. But tech leaders need to get better at helping them learn in the right direction. We can’t leave our teams free to choose their own adventure.

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Hywel Carver is the co-founder and CEO of Skiller Whale, a live team coaching platform for engineering teams that targets individual skill gaps to achieve a team-level strategic outcome.