The tech industry is facing a serious challenge in not only finding people to fill technical roles but also people who are creative, t-shaped thinkers to fill these roles.
T-shaped people are ambidextrous thinkers. Typically, they are highly skilled in a specialist area but they also have a bit of knowledge or expertise in many areas. And that’s what we want. There are many misconceptions around the role of software developers, particularly that the only skill required of them is to be highly skilled at coding and therefore it doesn’t really matter if they are highly introverted because they work alone. However, modern software development is actually a highly collaborative role so we also value people who are not only going to be able to talk to a colleague, partner, or customer but enjoy it, understand the wider business context and be encouraging and motivating towards their peers. At Xero, we want people with all levels of social skill and interests, working together to get the best result.
There’s almost a tendency in the industry to accept i-shaped thinkers (highly skilled in one particular area) with the assumption that that’s how you get good engineering work done. Whereas actually really good engineering work is achieved when you have a team with a combination of t-shaped thinkers with different kinds of expertise. It’s when all team members value the fact that they have different approaches and perspectives, giving diversity of thought, that the magic truly happens.
Unfortunately, there is a trend where men and women who are these t-shaped thinkers can feel isolated rather than valued for their differences and move away from these hands-on technical roles. I’ve actually seen this firsthand where a young woman said to me “the other guys seem like they’ve gotten so far ahead, they always seem to know about things and I don’t know about them”. What she didn’t realise in that scenario was that she was in a team with young men who were effectively competing with one another as to who was the most knowledgeable. They were spending every hour of every day trying to keep up with all sorts of different kinds of technology in an effort to outshine each other and she wasn’t necessarily motivated to do that.
From a straight up output perspective and role in a team – you don’t need a whole team of marvelous technologists to create a productive team of people creating a software product. So that feeling of falling behind is actually really counter productive for the industry as a whole, because what ends up happening is people who could be happy and productive doing hands-on technical work are shying away from it because they feel like they have to behave in a certain way in order to do that kind of work.
From a Xero perspective these skills are becoming more and more in demand. Recently I had two senior technical leaders approach me for some help to find a front-end developer. Interestingly, being highly technically skilled was not the primary requirement, rather they felt that more important was finding someone who could inspire, motivate, establish a team culture, and be an ambassador for that culture inside and outside the organisation. I thought it was fairly significant that they’d looked around their team and thought “we’ve got all these people doing hands on technical work but we’d actually like is someone who does hands on technical work but can also play a much bigger broader role in the team”.
It is clear that the industry desires more of these t-shaped thinkers to enrich teams and ultimately products. However, in order to encourage and empower them into technical roles we need to be proactive and create change through hiring decisions, flexible work arrangements and placing more value on positive impacts on the team outside raw technical output as an individual contributor.
Firstly hiring decisions need to be determined around the bigger picture and what comprises a high-performing team. Instead of just looking for someone with a specific skill set, it is critical to consider how this person can help motivate, inspire, support, and enable the team in every possible way.
Additionally creating flexible working arrangements to accommodate a wider spectrum of people is essential in cultivating a t-shaped thinking group of people. Instead of subscribing to narrow traditional office hours and working weeks, we can offer flexible arrangements such as sabbaticals, working from home, and working part-time. This opens the field up to people with diverse interests and lifestyles. T-shaped thinkers often have broad interests such as side businesses, voluntary work, or involvement in events across the industry and society. Being able to support them and ensure they can continue to be involved in these is important in maintaining the diversity of thought that they bring to a growing, innovative organisation.
The software industry isn’t going transform itself, we all have a responsibility to change the playing field and enable the massive growth that we know is just around the corner!