Try before you buy, hedgehogs and word bingo

I attended a new type of BCS event last week, and it covered a very important subject - bang in line with BCS’s stated aim of making IT good for society.

The first regional IT recruitment ‘thinkshop’ took place in Guildford on 28 October, in a nice upstairs room, in a nice coffee shop, with nice coffee. Too nice?

Jos Creese, the BCS President, set the scene with his comment that it is most important for BCS to find a new way of interacting with members. Events can be formal: a presentation, a sandwich and so. ‘That’s fine, but we can do it differently,’ he said.

Really getting member opinions is vital to making IT good for society. Our job, said Jos, is to make sure IT pros have a real say in the ethical considerations of tech. In the case of the subject under discussion at this event – IT recruitment and capability – that includes such issues ae the skills gap, underrepresentation from women, the need for techies with both a design and application view and so on.

Tables fed back on questions that had been put together in a ‘meeting in a box’ style in advance. Participants had already seen a scene-setting video.

Firstly each group was asked to discuss their experience with IT recruitment.

As is to be expected there were differing perspectives. It was felt that the graduate market focused on core capabilities because they have no previous experience based on personal qualities and traits. In general IT recruitment was felt to controlled by agencies, but the quality of those doing the filtering to find good candidates for roles was considered suspect. They have the vocab, but not the understanding.

‘Desperately broken!’ was one comment on the IT recruitment process from agencies. It was mentioned that jobs ads attracted a handful of applicants in the past, but now it was in hundreds - is that reasonable? In all roles it was felt that IT skills are required to be married to domain knowledge, and often people could be familiar with one but not the other...

There is a mismatch of expectations. The time that it takes to effectively recruit is a problem. Some agencies are just database searchers, but with the number of CVs a good agency can really help. And a CV is only the first part of story; recruitment people need to understand across technologies and disciplines.

The second question was around which aspects of IT recruitment are broken and who is responsible for fixing it.

Specifying job roles could be improved. Some felt this was a case of ‘word bingo’, but want agencies who could really understand an organisation’s need (a recurring theme as you’ve no doubt realised).

Job ads themselves are important. Do other pros change their CV for every job? IT pros tend to. It was suggested a kitemark would be useful, clearly defined around accreditations - a potential BCS role.

Permanent employees are more difficult to get in IT. There is often a mismatch between job seeker salary requirements and what the employer is offering, so people tend towards contracting. A suggestion made was getting in contractor to test them first, then making the best of them permanent - try before you buy.

Flexible working needs to be offered and modern ways of working need to be taken into account.

Because there is such a high volume of those with university degrees, interview skills become a key aspect. Even to get there is long process. If application forms were used the questions could be phrased to get the answers you need - could there even be a role for AI in that sorting process (a better version of database filtering…?)?

One table simply asked their own question: What would we like the job market to be? Is academic expectation actually too high? They used the example of a 15 year old who sold his software for £1.5 m - no process of recruitment, or even a degree - involved.

Maybe university courses should be more specific areas of IT? On the other hand, another participant suggested, we should look at the general abilities a degree gives you, and how you can apply what you learn, rather than a specialised area. To find rounded individuals, not being looked at for ability alone.

The third question queried how IT recruitment can be improved.

Companies should train on an ongoing basis. We (BCS, I think) should promote the value of computer science outside of those who want to work in the area. The principles behind cobol, iOS, android etc are fundamental, so understanding those is a good start (new curriculum anyone?).

Junior schools should show elements of IT outside of coding and programming. BCS could run work experience programmes.

The job application process was discussed here. Adverts are not specific enough. Candidates find it difficult to demonstrate how they could fit into a job. CITP is not for this as it’s a one-off, it needs a verifiable level of where people are from BCS.

Simple recruitment process may not work in IT. Try before you buy would work better. Some felt that people needed to move around, and some even needed to leave for a team to 'find its voice.' The standards of recruitment in other industries may not be applicable, IT may need a novel solution. And accept we are different as an industry.

The way the IT industry teaches people to be is to aim for management grades to become well paid, so specialist skills are not as valued as they could be. That also means people not suited to management can land in those positions.

The final two comments were interesting: Eric Schmidt from Google recently commented on how prominent people of the past often needed a grounding in the classics and economics. But now they need to truly grasp the opportunities of technology.

And, should we aim to ‘be a hedgehog’? Do one thing and do it really well...?

The informal atmosphere and working in small groups then feeding back to the group really seemed to work. Everyone got involved. And, of course, we need as many members involved as we can to truly get them engaged with the overall BCS philosophy and really serve their needs.

The coffee shop was a Harris and Hoole. Other coffee shops are available.

About the author

Brian is Head of Content at BCS and blogs about the Institute’s role in making IT good for society, historical developments in computing, the implications of CS research and more.

See all posts by Brian Runciman
March 2018

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