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At the JAFAC conference in Auckland, New Zealand, Snapper CEO Miki Szikszai gave a talk about how the company overcome some of the challenges of growing their technical team in an environment of perceived skills shortage. Their approach of employing teams of graduates and giving them real customer facing work to do rather than interspersing them into existing teams has resulted in better retention, higher quality work and higher engagement among the graduates and has enabled the more experienced people to become coaches and mentors where they share their knowledge freely to the benefit of the company and the teams.
Snapper is a ticketing technology company based in Wellington, New Zealand, selling their products and services around the world. He started by giving an overview of who Snapper are and where their technology is in use.
He explained that the company had been growing steadily and was struggling to find people with the requisite skillsets. They were looking for people with a specific set of skills, which he called a unicorn hunt. They wanted people with skills in:
- Smart cards
- Backend systems
- Mobile development
They rapidly discovered that this combination of skills was very rare globally and not available in New Zealand. They then decided that an alternate approach to employing some unicorns would be to grow their own by taking on graduates. They opened up a few graduate roles and put them into the teams, to learn through osmosis. This was an abject failure – the company was under pressure to deliver product to the market so the senior people were reluctant to take time to teach as it’s quicker just to do it myself. This resulted in the seniors seeing the graduates as incompetent and only giving them menial tasks to do, and the graduates were resentful that the promised opportunities to work on new technologies were not coming to fruition. The graduate program ended unhappily.
They continued looking but were generally struggling to find the people they needed, which reinforced the belief that there was a significant skills shortage in New Zealand.
In 2014, CTO Norman Comerford was invited to teach some classes in Agile Development at Victoria University of Wellington and he came back astounded at the way the teams in the class were collaborating and working together. He identified that the real skills they needed were not the technology competencies rather they were:
- Teamwork and collaboration
- Problem solving
Everything else can be taught. Norman saw these skills being evidenced by the teams at the university. This prompted them to change the approach and relook at a graduate program, not taking on individuals and interspersing them into existing teams, rather they took on a whole team of graduates, gave them meaningful, customer facing work, and paid them well. They expected and encouraged a high standard of work and gave the senior developers the role of coach for the team.
The results were impressive – the team needed to learn some of the tech skills, but had strong problem solving and collaboration skills and were eager to learn the needed technologies. The senior people who provided coaching felt empowered and were encouraged by guiding and growing the competencies of the graduate.
They have now made the program a permanent fixture of the Snapper way of working. Each summer they take on one or two teams of students who are going into their final year of university , these interns spend the summer working full-time in the company, and continue working part time while studying in their final year. After they graduate some of the former students come into a three-year graduate employee programme where the goal is to accelerate their career progression, where they should be able to walk into a high quality intermediate role at Snapper or elsewhere. They are aiming to generate a pipeline of people who come in, grow their skills while contributing to the company and then can move on to roles in other organisations, thus spreading the skills and extending their knowledge.
He said that a benefit of the programme has been a significant increase in diversity as these graduates come from very varied backgrounds. He is explicit that:
We are not looking for the best coders, we’re looking for the best team workers
Since starting the program Snapper has doubled their team size and see the growth potential as being truly limitless, and they are putting experienced people into the wider New Zealand technical workforce.