How to hire for diversity in technology – why wouldn’t you? A practical experiment




Top tips


  • De-mystify job descriptions and job ads.

  • Avoid calling them apprenticeships because you want to attract young and old.

  • Speak to as many applicants as possible.

  • If you get quick learners into your organisation you can free up others in the organisation to move up. You’ll have a more resilient workforce and knowledge transfer can be achieved fast.

  • Don’t narrow down the applicants using criteria like Russell universities only or only 2.1 degrees or above (Or in fact a degree at all) . IT people don’t have to have IT degrees e.g. Geographers can make excellent big data people.


There is a huge range of jobs in technology – something for everyone.


Taking this approach costs nothing and makes a difference.


Here’s what we did


We seized an opportunity that cropped up in our organisation to do a small experiment on how to recruit for diversity in technology. At the time I worked in local government in London and we have historically had a problem recruiting to a wide range of posts from business analysts, business partners, project managers, network engineers , developers and agile project managers et cetera – largely because we can’t pay high enough salaries to compete successfully for talent with corporates in London.


Lots of existing staff were also unable to move around and try new things because they had no-one to transfer their knowledge to. If they were working on a legacy system or technology – they were basically stuck with it for life.


So we had a large number and variety of vacancies we couldn’t fill at the same time as facing major budget cuts. I convinced my peers that we should try an experiment – something different – to see if we could find new talent out there – people who we hadn’t previously considered. I had a great innovative ally in HR.


Firstly we changed the job descriptions and focused on entry level posts “IT entrants” and on recruiting for mindset rather than just skill set. One generic post with lots of different options for working on different teams. Instead of our shopping list of technical qualifications – we had just five key attributes that we were looking for.


These were:


  • An interest in technology

  • Resourceful problem solving - open mindedness

  • Good customer care and communication skills - respect and humility

  • Fast inquisitive learners – and able to transfer their skills - show and tell

  • Good team workers – speaking up and actively listening


The idea was to demystify the profession.


The pay (London) was set at £22k.


Newcomers to the industry can be put off if the pay on offer is too high. Many people want to get into technology but have no way of getting hands-on experience and more than anything that’s what we wanted to offer through these IT entrant jobs. Once they have a year’s experience they can rise rapidly. We wanted to get them doing real work straightaway and for staff across the IT department to coach them up.


Personally I wanted to learn from and experience / walk through every step of the process so that it could be refined going forward. We didn’t go through agencies. We stressed the modern workplace, wide range of business areas and technologies to work with , our social and ethical context, flexible working hours and working from home. We got 160 applicants for 13 vacant posts and at the same time intended to put a waiting list together for applicants that reached the benchmark for appointability.


Next – we trained up a diverse range of middle managers to help with screening and interviewing the applicants - with a woman on every panel.


We kept it as wide as possible – first reading all the applications for evidence of an interest in technology (qualification / voluntary work etc). This narrowed it down by 15%. Then we telephoned all the remaining applicants to ask 3 questions – and from their communication skills we picked them for face to face interviews. We interviewed about 60 out of the 160 original applicants.


Based on their experiences – we tailored the panels for the applicants. E.g. One applicant had experience working in Carphone Warehouse – we thought he could maybe transition to our agile / mobile working team so included a manager from that team on the panel.


I held a briefing with all the recruitment panels members and then sat on the first panels with every one of them to pick up any issues while we were interviewing. We needed to make sure we were scoring answers to questions in the same way and using the full range of scores 0 – 5 to be able to differentiate the candidates fairly at the end. The main difference in interviewing style was to prioritise being supportive / encouraging and getting the most out of interviewees rather than being challenging. We were welcoming, open and friendly.


The interview questions were behavioural plus some basic technical questions.


Interesting / Surprising findings:


It worked first time – all vacancies were filled and we were eventually able to place every person on the reserve list into jobs.


The whole approach cost nothing except middle managers’ staff recruitment time – that they would have used on rounds and rounds of unsuccessful recruitment.


Most young people have retail experience and excellent customer care skills. They know how to resolve conflict. One sucessful candidate worked at the Nike flagship store in Westfield, for example. He could teach us a lot.


A lot of the applicants had IT degrees but were working in other fields: A Ghanaian guy with a network engineering degree from a top university currently working at Tesco as a management trainee - supporting a family - but realising it was a career wrong turn. Another applicant working in customer service at Carphone Warehouse, an Asian woman working in a bank as a personal advisor.


The person who got the highest score in the technical tests was another Asian woman in her 40s who had never worked in IT. She had worked in a legal firm doing user support for their complex document management system. If she came across any other IT problems she made it her business to find out how to fix them by asking the IT team. She is one of those people who won’t leave a stone unturned. She is now a Sharepoint solution designer.


Disappointingly, even with the new style advertising, we still only got 10% women applicants. On a positive note, 20% of the candidates appointed were women so they were twice as successful.


I asked some of the applicants (men and women) what is putting them off going into development coding jobs and they said: The languages in vogue change too quickly so your skills rapidly go out of date. There is a reluctance to see that programmers can change from one coding language to another.


My favourite question from an applicant to a panel member was – ‘how do you get your arm muscles so big?’ (Not mine!). It was the most fun recruitment round I have ever done.


Outcomes


So we had an injection of diversity and enthusiasm – 13 new people - new blood – we saved £400k per year on contractor costs and skilled up a new intake of IT people for future careers either in local government or elsewhere. They now work in IT security, solutions architecture, machine learning - every field. They have been very loyal because we gave them a break into the industry. The positivity of these 13 has been a huge inspiration to me personally.


All of them have been good – most excellent. Some have literally been up for anything. They work at 10x my pace. I’ve had to speed up. For goodness sake don’t make them slow down.


Lets take the approach that – ‘everyone’s welcome’ – plus a relentless focus on skilling up new and existing staff to solve the skills shortage in technology.


What needs to happen with your existing workforce?


We need to have a workforce that is much more flexible / resilient / always learning and adapting.


This isn’t the whole answer for every job – for us it was a great start.