by Steve Trautman

When you can’t hire the engineers you need, make them

Nov 26, 2018
IT LeadershipStaff Management

Use knowledge transfer to replicate your most valued engineers and build a team that can really deliver. rn

CIOs are in serious trouble. They’re making promises to leadership, boards, and shareholders but often can’t hire enough quality engineers to staff their strategy and deliver on those promises. As the global talent shortage reaches a 12-year high, CIOs can’t rely solely on recruiters to find engineers and skilled technicians — the most difficult roles to fill today, according to a recent ManpowerGroup survey. It’s time to go beyond hiring and start building your own top employees from the inside.

When should you make knowledge transfer a foundation of your staffing strategy? I’ve seen knowledge transfer work for CIOs in dozens of scenarios, but these three stand out when you can’t hire your way to success.

Shotgun departures 

In addition to rampant talent poaching by your competition, more than 10,000 Boomers retire in America every day. Still, IT teams routinely push aside mentoring and documentation in favor of project work. Then there are unexpected departures from key staff hat throw entire departments into panic. Everyone knows recruiting, hiring, and onboarding a replacement in fewer than 30 days is a pipe dream. Right? 

That’s where Emergency Knowledge Transfer comes in. When a senior engineer surprises you with their notice, immediately begin deconstructing all the work they do. List every task, every meeting they lead, every relationship they manage, and every problem they troubleshoot. This exercise paints a clear picture of exactly what knowledge and which tasks need to be transferred before their goodbye party. 

With a complete list of tasks in hand, I’ve seen a senior software architect transfer highly complex, technical knowledge to colleagues in two weeks. Using emergency knowledge transfer protocol, it is possible to transfer (the carefully selected, most valuable parts of) 30 years of knowledge in 30 days. 

Shifting corporate culture 

Corporate culture change is keeping leadership up at night. Gartner says a productive corporate culture is key to DevOps success. Whether the desire for better culture is triggered by employees jumping ship, by an aggressive M&A strategy, or by a shift to agile methodology, most CIOs don’t know they can use knowledge transfer to grow healthy corporate culture from in the inside out. 

On its surface, culture seems more abstract than programming in Python, but it’s actually very tangible. It’s “the way we do things around here.”  

You can start making culture change by identifying employees who personify healthy culture at your organization. Now, take a close look at what they do that makes them appear to be representatives of the culture you want. How do they present their ideas? How do they listen to and respond to others? How do they make decisions? How do they confront problems with peers? How to they talk to and about customers? You get the idea. 

Now that you’ve identified your culture experts and which of their skills you want to transfer, you’re well on your way to replicating those beloved behaviors in the heads and hands of the rest of your team and organization. 

One-to-many succession planning 

Most companies have engineers in critical roles who seem irreplaceable. Aaron was a rock star senior engineer at a global printer company. Everyone worried about him leaving, especially the CIO who routinely sweetened Aaron’s employment package so that he would stay and the CIO wouldn’t be faced with the impossible task of having to find another Aaron to hire. Knowing that tactic wouldn’t work forever, the CIO put a plan in place to get Aaron’s “secret sauce” into the heads of various potential successors already working with Aaron. 

Using knowledge transfer, the team identified areas where Aaron brought unique knowledge, skills, and finesse to his work. Aaron was then given tools and training to transfer his knowledge of those skills to his cadre of successors. He used a structured skill development plan that specified which tasks would be taught and lined them up in hour-long mentoring sessions. This allowed the CIO to stop desperately trying to hang on to his star employee because he replicated what made him unique across his entire team. 

When the inevitable happened and Aaron was lured away to an opportunity he couldn’t pass up, the CIO promoted two engineers to fill his position. These successors fully understood what made Aaron unique and had already learned to deliver those skills during their apprenticeships.