Growing a Garden of Great Engineers

Eric Hawley, Ph.D, CIO, Utah State University
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Eric Hawley, Ph.D, CIO, Utah State University

A quick headlines search reveals common themes:

“More than 75 percent of businesses face a digital skills shortage.”

“Shortage of digital skills is affecting business productivity and growth.”

“Skill shortage heightens hybrid IT challenges.”

“Five reasons your company can’t hire a cybersecurity professional.”

We’re familiar with the unicorn job description.  It’s that thing we often build by committee and consensus, a veritable wish list of ideal qualifications and experience. Like that pony in  childhood holiday dream, why not ask for it? Maybe we’ll get it! 

Sure, we’d all prefer to be able to hire great skills out of the gate, but in a competitive market with rapidly evolving technology, our approach should invest as much or more in growing talent as we do try to buy it pre-built.

  The right soil, water, and climate in the hands of a patient gardener can make all the difference   

Think produce. Buying a tomato in a supermarket is one strategy, and it works as long as supply and quality are what you expect.  Hey, we might even be ok with a little less quality and flavor in the tomato just because of the convenience. Growing tomatoes, however, is a whole different strategy and requires an entirely different approach.

The right soil, water, and climate in the hands of a patient gardener can make all the difference. If you are an experienced gardener, your outcome metrics and your approaches change over time. You know that what works for full grown plants will wither a seedling. You’ve learned that too soon impatient demands for productivity spoil the harvest.

Successful gardening requires good ingredients and environment, patient process, and an eye for the future.

Seeds That Have the Capacity

Change your job descriptions and hiring questions to identify people with “attitude and aptitude!”  Evaluate for potential.

Leverage interns and students. Nothing like a great lab to identify innate ability to learn.  Iterate quickly.  Move on where it’s not working and nurture where it is.  (But be careful, seed success is as much of a factor of the environment as it is the seed.)

Recognize that good seeds aren’t always just from “new and inexperienced” people. 

Existing staff also have seeds of experience that can be sprouted, grafted, or grown for sustainable change.

Soil with Ready Nutrients to Tap

Prepare to invest time, resource, and energy before productivity in areas of growth.

It’s not uncommon in technology organizations to make training and development opportunities available. It is less common to find those that put priority outcome expectations on it.

Telling staff that you have development opportunity, but then never giving them time, having the patience, or setting outcome expectation on it is a sure recipe to leave those nutrients unused and untapped.

Do we give “seedling” growth opportunity the same or greater priority and level of resources we might give to someone working on a production project or task? How often do we prioritize time to learn a new technology above time to produce? Do we evaluate professional development opportunity and expected outcome with the same level of rigor we would for a production tool or technology?

• Build budgets for career development
• Assign priority in time and resources to complete focused professional and skills development—treat these activities as highly as you would a production task or project
• Metrics early on are what they learn, later, they can shift into how they apply that learning
• Mentoring

Careful Pruning and Direction, a Vision for the End Product

It rarely works to challenge someone to professionally develop if there is no accompanying grand vision for direction.

Help existing staff understand that their value is not primarily in the tool, syntax, or language in which they produce. If a staff member has, over time, linked their professional identity to a product or tool, instead of the attributes that helped them adapt to or learn those tools in the first place, their growth and ultimately, their career, is at risk. (As the tool ages and new technology is on the horizon, they may become defensive and change averse.) Constantly remind them that the attitude and aptitude whereby they created that solution in the first place is where the value is, and that they can tap there again for the next iteration.

Consider working with staff to build a skills evolution map for a particular need. For example, need more of your legacy locally hosted systems administrators to become cloud architects over time? Help them understand why it’s valuable. What’s the vision? What’s the benefit? Then build a specific career ladder for change. Commit to make investments for training. Assign projects that drive future skills challenge instead of assigning only the past known. Don’t wait until skill requirements have evolved and left existing staff in a hole. 

Yes, a homegrown tomato takes time and there is a starting curve to return, but the gardening culture we create can insulate us from market volatility and create something better.

What is helping you grow a garden?  

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