How to attract tech talent? Start with culture redesign
By Karen Tay
A Singaporean in Silicon Valley argues for new work structures, principles and practices, and incentives that will appeal to the top tech talent we want.
I currently work in Silicon Valley where one of my roles is to engage, cultivate and recruit tech talent for opportunities in Singapore. Hardly a day goes by without a Singaporean employer reaching out to me to discuss the tech talent shortage. One gets the sense that the ambition and speed of tech development in Singapore is being held back only by a talent shortage.
To be fair, the shortage of tech talent is a global phenomenon: even hiring managers at Silicon Valley giants like Google and Facebook have complained about talent scarcity! This is also why countries like Canada, Israel, Thailand, Vietnam, New Zealand and many others have come up with strategies to enhance their attractiveness to tech talent.
The rate of technological development and its relevance to all sectors of society is accelerating faster than people can be trained: the talent shortage is here to stay for a while yet.
If you are leading a large, traditional organisation and want to attract technical talent, what can you do?
Answering the Million Dollar Question
In an attempt to answer this question, my team has engaged over a thousand Singaporean tech professionals living in the Silicon Valley. We have software engineers, product managers, data scientists, cybersecurity specialists, cloud architects and hardware engineers, just to name a few common roles. They range from junior engineers to Senior Vice Presidents in top companies like Google, to Chief Technology Officers and founders of start-ups. I feel a sense of pride when I see Singaporeans excelling—Silicon Valley employers I’ve spoken to recognise the Singapore brand.
What are these Singaporeans up to? When and why did they move to Silicon Valley? Would they be open to moving back home at this critical juncture, to take on leadership roles and help build our own tech ecosystem?
My team seeks to understand these issues as we run large events like the Singapore Tech Forum (which drew 850 attendees this year), host domain and expertise-specific engagements, and conduct one-on-one conversations. We have also validated our findings with U.S., Southeast Asian, Chinese, Indian and other global tech talent.
Here, I want to focus on one critical insight that has arisen from our many interactions with tech talent: the importance of engineering culture.
The importance of “engineering culture”
When we speak to overseas Singaporeans about tech in Singapore and Southeast Asia, they are at once surprised at the growth of the tech sector, and sceptical about how hospitable the place will truly be to tech talent in the long run. “What’s the engineering culture like? Has it truly changed?” is a question that dwells beneath the surface of most of our conversations.
Tech talent in their 30s and older remember vividly the Singapore tech scene they left in the 2000s: one where they felt unvalued because less technically skilled managers were telling them what to do (even if unfeasible or sub-optimal), their salary scales would always be lower than managers, and they were at risk of having their work “outsourced” to cheaper vendors.
They contrast this mindset with Silicon Valley employers, who respect engineers as the true engines of the company’s growth. For example, Google is famous for valuing engineers who directly solve problems, eschewing the whole concept of “managers”—until the company grew to a size where appointing management was unavoidable.
How to enable a healthy engineering culture
So, what is a proper engineering culture and how have Silicon Valley companies gone about creating it? My conversations with hundreds of tech talent and Silicon Valley companies suggest that there are four elements to a healthy engineering culture:
1. An ethos of user obsession
In your average Silicon Valley company, software product development teams are empowered to make decisions based on users’ needs, pain-points, and intuitive interactions with the product. They carefully observe how their design and engineering decisions impact the user’s experience, engagement and utility, and then iterate quickly to boost these metrics.
This ethos of user obsession means that regardless of rank and seniority, there are no “super users” who can dictate product decisions from outside the team. Managers give product development teams broad objectives and boundaries: but when it comes to the specifics of what is developed, how it is developed, the features to include and metrics to measure success, managers are regarded as just some of many “users”, whose inputs the team are not obliged to take.
This need not be taken to the extreme. There are some great use cases for centralised, top-down planning: for example, when creating data sharing platforms or common infrastructure that many departments can share.
However, managers seeking to enable a healthy engineering culture should be very deliberate about: (a) balancing topdown plans with space for ground-up initiatives which respond to user needs, (b) remembering that they are not “super users” in the product development process, and (c) empowering the team to say “no” to them.
2. Technical expertise is respected and rewarded
A healthy engineering culture recognises and respects technical expertise. Coding, design, cryptography—these are disciplines that demand mastery. Some talented tech workers do not want to give up on their path of mastery in order to become managers.
In Silicon Valley companies, it is possible for individual contributors to be compensated as much as C-suite executives as long as they drive big, complex, technical projects with their skills. Some individual contributors are highly esteemed for designing the architecture of the company’s systems or platforms, or developing algorithms to optimise matching of supply and demand in a marketplace.
It is not that they are lone wolves or have no social skills—many of them are happy to provide technical advice, mentorship, and even coordinate technical projects. But they do not want to be a “reporting officer”. Good HR and compensation design rewards technical expertise well relative to managers.
Most Silicon Valley companies have parallel tracks in their engineering organisations for engineering managers and individual contributors. Their pay bands are equivalent, level-for-level, with the same pinnacle points. Most individual contributors I spoke to acknowledged that they might not rise up the compensation ladder as fast as managers—it’s difficult for one person’s impact to match the scope of a ten-person team. However, they felt it was important to have that possibility clearly defined.
Pay is only one way that deep technical expertise is rewarded and recognised. Softer elements can also convey respect for technical expertise. Whose opinions are sought and valued in key company decisions? Whose profiles, projects and stories are mentioned in the company’s newsletters and all-hands meetings? These are subtle signals of what types of expertise and experience are valued, and traditional organisations would do well to pay close attention to them. A culture is built on thousands of such micro-decisions every day.
3. Respected engineering leadership supported by new HR capabilities
When tech talent considers working in a traditional organisation without a “tech” brand, they often base their decisions on the strength of the tech leadership team. They cannot be sure that the organisation has a good engineering culture, no matter what senior management or tech recruiters tell them. The best proxy is whether the organisation has strong engineering leaders whom they can trust to champion a good (and constantly improving) engineering culture.
Hence, a traditional organisation seeking to attract good technical talent has to first focus on recruiting its top tech leadership. Ideally, some of these leaders should be from companies recognised for their brand and culture. They must be given the mandate to optimise for a vibrant engineering culture, which includes (but is not limited to) deviating from organisational rules about the tools they use, their office spaces, dress codes, work-from-home guidelines, and even the procurement process.
Since talent begets talent, these tech leaders must be the face of recruitment. Senior tech leaders in Silicon Valley unicorns have told me that they spend more than 50% of their time recruiting: reaching out to candidates; cultivating them; negotiating attractive packages and job scopes.
In some cases, tech leaders have been allowed to hire their own talent partners separate from the existing HR machinery, giving them maximal flexibility in process, pay bands and titling when building the founding team. Of course, this is not to be done lightly: companies that tried this have also expressed some regrets. Proper metrics are still needed to ensure accountability.
Finally, an oft-overlooked but critical factor to attracting top talent: building new capabilities in your corporate functions. For example, tech talent has told us that actions and attitudes of HR professionals during the talent cultivation and recruitment process implicitly communicate an organisation’s engineering culture. Are they committed to long-term cultivation of talent, or are they transactional? Are they empowered to be flexible and quick in the recruitment process, or are they bogged down by bureaucracy? Are they transparent and willing to explain the process and considerations, or are they elusive? If you are a potential job candidate, do they make you feel that they are acting in your best interests? Or—as one candidate interviewing with a traditional organisation recounted—does it feel like “they are trying to squeeze every last drop of blood out of you”?
If you are serious about bringing in tech talent, you need People Operations and HR leaders who see this as a fierce competition for scarce resources: people who cultivate longer-term relationships with talent, are willing to push the boundaries on what the organisation can offer talent, and have the ability to drive new workflows between tech leaders, HR, and senior management to drive results and make risky calls. This is a stark contrast to process-driven recruitment which is more commonplace in HR functions today.
4. Flexibility to experiment, pivot, and even stagnate
A healthy engineering culture is built on a good understanding of tech talents’ aspirations. As a group, tech talent is less interested in climbing career ladders in a single organisation. A study we did found that the average time overseas Singaporean tech talent stayed in a job was only three years. A combination of their user obsession and their desire for mastery and growth drives them towards the next most impactful and interesting problem to solve, or a role where they can optimise for learning.
What does this mean for traditional organisations seeking to attract tech talent? Don’t assume that traditional career progression incentives are attractive. Instead, continually seek new incentives and structures that appeal to their needs and motivations.
One important perk is the flexibility to experiment, pivot, or even stagnate within the organisation. One of the value propositions of smaller Silicon Valley companies vis-à-vis tech giants (where roles are much more specialised) is the flexibility they can give people to experiment and pivot across different roles and fields.
For example, some allow tech talent to experiment with different proportions of management versus individual work (50-50? 80-20?). They also provide opportunities to pick up new skills within the organisation. An employee may move from pre-sales engineering to product management, while picking up software engineering skills along the way. As one interviewee from a Series C start-up puts it: “I don’t want to be pigeonholed right now, I want to learn.”
Offering the flexibility to stagnate— temporarily or permanently—can be a surprising benefit. Googlers talk about a “respectable Level 5”, the point in a Googler’s career where they can choose to tap out of further promotion and not run the risk of being let go (Google’s scale runs from about 3 to 11 for engineers).
For one employee, a mother of two in her 30s, this was a relief as she could still make a good base salary and potentially a large bonus for good performance at a scope she was comfortable with. It’s a win-win for the organisation, as she is still doing good work for them. Traditional organisations should think about how to change their “up or out” culture, especially when it comes to tech talent.
In light of global tech talent shortages, it is clear that organisations must step up their game to compete for the tech talent they need to deliver impactful digital products, services and platforms. However, attracting tech talent is not a simple recruitment game. The goal cannot just be to bring top tech talent in, only have them leave because of “organ rejection”— a costly and ineffective path.
Attracting and retaining top tech talent demands that organisations take a hard look at their inherited cultures and start to redesign them to better suit the attitudes, needs and aspirations of talented tech workers. Organisational design, reward structures, the quality of tech leadership and HR, and how management sees their role vis-àvis product development teams are all factors that contribute to culture redesign. The good news, I believe, is that most talented people—not just those in tech—find these principles and guidelines attractive, and organisations that can implement them become more attractive cultures overall.
While building a healthy engineering culture is an important start, the end point of cultural transformation is not yet clear. There is a messy in-between, which is the phase most organisations are in right now. Some split up or form separate entities with different cultures; others stay as a single organisation with bi- or even tri-modal cultures. Change takes time, and perhaps it is too early in the journey to determine what is the “right” end-point—we have to keep experimenting, learning, and embracing the uncertainty.
While challenges remain, I am optimistic about Singapore’s ability to attract tech talent and transform our nation with technology. I have witnessed in so many Singaporean organisations—including GovTech—the ability and willingness to adapt and experiment, make difficult decisions, and collaborate such that we are more than the sum of our parts. I believe this is the same spirit that brought Singapore to where we are today. With it, we can build the culture we need to carry us into the future.
If you work in tech and are looking for your next challenge, consider one of the fastest growing tech ecosystems in the world — Singapore and the broader Southeast Asia: get in touch with the author, Karen Tay.
Tay works in Silicon Valley for the Smart Nation and Digital Government Group as well as the Singapore Global Network Department in the Economic Development Board. She is building an international tech talent attraction strategy and machinery for Singapore, among other roles.
Republished with permission from Karen Tay and the Civil Service College, Singapore. First published in ETHOS Issue 21, July 2019, p.64 to p.73.