Let’s Talk About Human Sustainability in Tech

Human capital is undeniably the most important driver of success in the software industry. Great ideas cannot be implemented without great talent. It’s no wonder you see companies competing for the top talent and do their best to keep them from walking out the door; it is one of the top things keeping a tech CEO up at night. What if I told you that by thinking about talent a little differently, you could build a sustainable talent engine—and sleep better at night knowing that your talent pool is self-replenishing?

Commodity vs. Renewable Resource

Since we’re talking about sustainability, let’s stick with the environmental analogies: our industry treats talent as a commodity. The cost of talent goes up and down relative to the available pool of people that meet a given criteria (e.g., skillset, experience, etc.). We assume that talent arrives at our doorstep having learned everything they need to know outside of the workplace setting (e.g., academia, YouTube, etc.). We use terms normally attributed to inventory like “turnover” to describe the career lifecycle of team members. In short, if talent were trees, we as an industry, are clear cutting our way through the world’s forests.

What if we took a page out of the sustainable forestry playbook? If organizations focus on acquiring more junior talent and investing heavily in their development and growth, it would create a self-sustaining supply of talent that directly supports the organization’s needs.

Coaching vs. Training

The one big pushback I hear whenever I talk about this concept with tech leaders is “what about the cost of training all these juniors?”. This is the wrong question to ask.

If you talk to your best engineers or managers about the work experiences that impacted them the most, the answer is never “this course I took five years ago”. The answer is almost always a variation of “I had this great mentor” or “I had this terrible project”.

Developing the top talent is not about spending money on training. It’s about intentionally creating an environment whereby coaching, mentorship, and experiential learning is ongoing.

Turnover vs. Lifecycle

In the early days of Foci Solutions, we were obsessed with keeping our turnover rate as low as possible. We would take voluntary staff departures hard and saw it as a failure to make Foci an enticing place to work. Many founders and leaders feel the same way. It’s why the key performance indicators for turnover have such prominence in Human Resources and culture discussions.

We need to stop looking at turnover and start looking at each individual team member’s time with our organization as their own journey through the career lifecycle. Organizations, especially ones in the tech sector, are constantly changing, along with people’s career aspirations, priorities, and lives. Instead of trying to control turnover, instead, lean into it. Accept that people leaving your organization is a normal and healthy process. Build your talent strategy around the basic assumption that each team member has their own career lifecycle and build processes to support each stage of that lifecycle.

Sustainability vs. Succession Planning

Isn’t all this just succession planning, you may ask? The short answer is no. Succession planning focuses on building job-specific skills and training to line up individuals to replace others when they leave the company. Tech organizations are dynamic by nature—the number of roles are constantly changing as are the responsibilities associated with those roles. Instead of focusing on succession planning, we should focus on foundational soft skills that make our team more adaptable and capable regardless of the role. Instead of developing two intermediate-level developers into potential team leads, we should be instilling the principles and behaviours of leadership into everyone so everyone has the opportunity to become leads in the future.

If we worry only about hiring that next great senior engineer or keeping a critical resource from being poached, we’ll never stop worrying. To break the cycle, we must shift our focus to building talent from within so that there are always people able to step up and into new roles. This will not only reduce the stress of someone leaving your company, but you’ll also have helped them grow and progress in their career and their life—and that certainly helps me sleep at night.