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Our people, your people... How to build technical teams

The way organisations source and integrate technology talent says a lot about their leadership mindset. Is software truly embedded within their strategy or seen as a cost centre?

As supply chains became more globalised during the 90s, UK organisations began to outsource their IT services to emerging economies. We saw UK banks in particular setting up offshoring arrangements with India, leading to the emergence of companies like Tata and Infosys on the global stage. What did this work look like? The client organisation would write a list of technical requirements for their products, send them to technical teams abroad, and wait for the results.

An obvious advantage of this offshoring process was price. Additionally, it made sense in a technology landscape that evolved relatively slowly, and where technology wasn’t seen as the differentiator that it is today. However, differences in business culture, time, language and modes of communication often meant that the client (and therefore their end user) didn't receive the product they wanted.

Flawed from the start

Of course, this often happened in waterfall projects anyway, but offshoring added one more piece of latency into the mix. In fact, I'd go further and say the starting point of 'we dictate, you build' was flawed from the start. It positioned software as external to an organisation's culture and core purpose, sustained by an executive mindset that saw IT as a cost centre to be shrunk if at all possible.

Fast forward 25 or so years and the landscape has fundamentally shifted. Many organisations have come away from the waterfall style offshoring model, and different relationships have been established in accordance with historical, linguistic and geographic ties.

In the UK, nearshoring arrangements with countries in Eastern Europe have proliferated thanks to a heritage of diverse STEM talent, cheap air travel, improved collaboration tools, minimal time differences and more. Even as salaries in these regions increase, it's still a good compromise to access such an array of technology and data talent.

Actually, I've noticed that technical talent is often more developed (and dare I say it, more reliable) in countries like Bulgaria and Ukraine than the UK. It's difficult to quantify, but where a self classified medium level engineer in London might have two or three years' experience on their CV, someone in an equivalent role in Sofia might have more in the range of ten. Yet UK organisations using this talent still need to integrate and work with it in a modern, blended way.

“Be a software organisation with a deeply embedded product mindset”

As interesting as a history lesson on IT resourcing might be, where am I going with all of this?

The point I want to make is that no matter what talent model organisations choose and wherever in the world that talent might sit, their interpretation of software and what it means for their business is more important. It is this – at board level – which dictates the success of software engineering, and ultimately organisations themselves, as we evolve through the digital economy.

So whether we work with our own in house technical teams, or find talent from a wider external network, these people should be seen as an integral part of the organisation. This means giving engineers a level of involvement in shaping the work they're doing, rather than just blindly giving them an outcome to deliver. It's hardly a radical thing to say these days, but it's worth reiterating that IT should not be viewed as a cost centre, but instead as an investment.

To clarify: I'm not saying that organisations can't or shouldn't outsource talent. In fact, our talent model is built around not only our own staff and those in our wider group, The Panoply, but also a network of expert associates who we call upon according to the project in hand. This is “outsourcing”, in a sense, but of a radically different kind to what we saw in the past.

Sourcing talent at Foundry4

At Foundry4, there are three types of squads that we deploy: full time on site in the UK, part time on site in the UK, and full time remote in the EU (i.e. near shore) with the support of our sister company Questers. We believe that you should look anywhere in the world to work with the best talent. For us, this means carefully constructing our squads with people we trust to deliver outcomes for our clients in a collaborative way.

We've noticed that we don't tend to do well in pitches when the client is overly focused around achieving labour arbitrage with software engineers; this suggests from the start that the technical team in question isn't going to be seen as a fundamental extension of the organisation, with a voice to be heard on strategic decisions. If a client simply wants a technical bodyshop, we will miss each other in terms of our expectations of what can be achieved with technology.

It is our belief that if you achieve some labour arbitrage through remote talent then congratulations - you’ve saved some money - but it shouldn't be the driving force behind where and how you build your teams. It is essential that the engineering teams you work with share your purpose and vision, are involved early on, and often in strategy and planning. To achieve this, you need a management and delivery model that goes well beyond traditional outsourcing. You also need a mindset that embraces remote workers as a fundamental part of the team.

Your software strategy

The UK economy is on its knees thanks to covid, and we are in a significantly worse position than nearly every other developed country. How good organisations are at software is a key enabler of commercial success, and will therefore play a strong part in our economic recovery.

I want to help UK organisations understand that getting the best from software and software engineers requires an entire company approach. For organisations used to the old way of doing things, it also requires a change in mindset. Organisations tend to have a technology strategy (around which cloud provider they might use, for example) but they also need to consider their technology supply chain and talent strategy. Particularly when it can be so difficult to retain in house technical talent.

The pandemic experience has more positive implications for us here too. If the majority of your people haven't been working in the office, but still feel connected to the work they're doing and your organisation's wider purpose, then what's stopping you embracing this with your software teams? How does the fact that you have pulled this off open up your talent possibilities?

I'd argue that data and digital capability are now the key differentiators between successful and poorly performing businesses. As the world moves even further into an AI driven world, this trend is only going to accelerate. In order to make the most of upcoming opportunities, organisations therefore need to embrace their software engineering capabilities.

So when you think about your software needs, I'd encourage you to think about your culture and strategy first, and then open your mind to where you might find the talent to help you achieve your goals.

Author

James Herbert
James Herbert
CEO
Foundry4
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