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Think your organisation isn’t vulnerable to digital skills shortages? Think again

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Established businesses need to learn from the tech sector and change the way they view their engineering functions if they’re going to survive a looming skills crisis.

As we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic, amid changing working from home policies, many organisations have increased the rate of their intelligent transformation. There’s no doubt that digital skills are going to be fundamental to how businesses operate in the future.

Businesses are all too aware of how important digital skills are in order to function effectively. A survey by The Learning and Work Institute revealed that over nine in ten businesses highlight having a basic level of digital skills as important. The pace of demand shows no sign of slowing down – three in five predict their dependence on employees with advanced digital capabilities is set to increase in the next five years.

Despite this growing demand, the reality is that the number of young people studying IT subjects has dropped significantly. At GCSE level the figure has fallen by 40 per cent since 2015 and the last two years have seen the number of students enrolled on further education courses reduce by 18 per cent – highlighting a considerable digital skills gap in the UK.

From a business perspective, low enrolment levels in digital-based courses could be catastrophic. More than three-quarters of employers say their profitability would decrease with a workforce lacking in digital capabilities.

The shortfall in qualified professionals will result in a meagre talent pool, and attracting the best individuals will prove a challenge for businesses. Technology firms, given their culture towards valuing engineers beyond engineering, are best placed to attract such talent. However, the same cannot be said for traditional organisations.

When it comes to IT development and operations, the approach of many traditional organisations is to split responsibilities into siloed groups. First, there are those who develop IT applications and implement changes to systems. Then, there is a second group of engineers that deploy and manage the change as well as handling services such as infrastructure, network and end-user computing.

The separation of these function ensures engineers are not making changes in the same environment used by end customers. Doing so could lead to security breaches and further issues. Such an approach also helps organisations meet compliance and regulatory needs, such as maintaining data privacy (because engineers are unable to see customer data).

However, this structural design is being contested on the grounds that it leads to tensions internally, misaligns incentives and fails to meet business objectives. One side wants to implement change rapidly, while the other side wants reliability. Ultimately, this leads to blame, a lack of collaboration and potentially threatens the business.

Thankfully, many technology firms have developed a new approach. Some are testing a model where engineers have freedom to build, deploy and operate their own services.

For instance, Netflix has designed a culture of ‘freedom and responsibility’, where technologists are empowered to work across the full technology stack. Engineers are skilled across disciplines such as build tools, deployment pipelines, metrics and alerts, and insight tools. They go through rigorous developer bootcamp training and are referred to as a ‘full cycle developer’.

With a looming skills crisis, traditional organisations must view engineering differently. Tech firms believe engineering gives them an edge, one that is harder and harder for traditional organisation to meet and surpass.

First, tech companies value engineering skills beyond simply engineering. At Google, most business and tech functions know coding skills. For example, project managers are required to have a minimum of coding skills to be able understand the implications of engineering on products and work effectively with engineers.

Second, knowledge building goes beyond coding skills. Engineers are encouraged to work in pairs to build knowledge, align on coding processes and help mentor junior engineers. Code reviews are performed on colleagues’ code to converge on a common style and level of quality.

Additionally, engineers are training in skills outside of engineering. Algolia puts engineers through a ten-week boot camp to gain skills in agile, test automation, how to write high-quality production code. Resilience topics such as ‘code smell’ patterns of problematic code are also covered.

Lastly, engineers focus on automating everything, from code reviews to deploying changes to monitoring services. Scalability and resilience can only be achieved via automation, with one of the biggest benefits being quality checks using test automation. Tech firms run on average 10,000 to 50,000 automated tests before changes are deployed and if an issue occurs in production, changes are automatically rolled back.

Attracting the best talent is going to be a challenge for traditional organisations and the gap between digital skills and demand will make it all the more difficult. Engineers will look for companies that take pride in the quality of their software and this is a concept traditional organisation must understand.

Quality comes in many factors - in a market where talent is scare, this change in focus will be a key factor in attracting the best talent. Closing the gap is possible but requires diligent effort.

Norbert Faure is managing director, and Dan Martines is managing director and SRE lead, at BCG Platinion.

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