Tuesday, 28th January 2020

Full STEAM ahead

There’s a well-documented skills gap in the UK and the tech sector is not immune, with 800,000 unfilled digital vacancies predicted by 2020, according to The Coalition for a Digital Economy.[1] By Amarjit Singh, Head of Delivery, Thomsons Online Benefits.

I see this gap in my role as Head of Delivery, working daily with tech teams in the UK and across the rest of the world. The sector also has an unfortunate reputation for lacking diversity and much media discussion has focused on the need to move away from tech’s predominantly white, male make-up.

It’s clear we need more tech skills coming through and focusing attention on the younger generation is vital. But for me, this only part of the answer.

When I’m hiring for my team, I want candidates to show me they’re not just a tech whizz but have the softer skills that are so key to digital development in the modern world. I really value STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Maths) skills and believe the ‘A’ is key. Arts experience, whether that be music, drama, sculpture and painting or even creating writing, helps foster and support creativity, which in turn encourages greater innovation. What’s more, strong communication skills are essential to being successful in an increasingly collaborative and global tech space.

Soft skills bring competitive advantage

Software development used to be a fairly solitary activity, with developers rarely required to work with other specialist teams. This isn’t the case anymore.

UX designers, Business Analysts and DevOps engineers, among others, are a necessary part of a team beyond the usual software engineers and product owners. They also often work from different time zones across the globe and must work together to deliver the best experience, share their expertise and promote healthy discussion and debate. This requires strong communication and negotiation skills, something that I see as essential in my team. It’s also something that Thomsons invests in both across its tech team and the wider business.

It’s also important for me that my team is adaptable. Technology changes so fast that we all must learn quickly, be able to branch out of our comfort zone and ask for support if needed. We have to be able to adapt to a rapidly changing environment to keep our competitive edge in the benefits software space.

Formal education isn’t always the answer

I understand why employers can be concerned about the specific qualifications of their candidates. But in an industry like ours, it shouldn’t be essential.

People are increasingly learning online and can gain skills without going through the formal education system. Being able to create a tech blog, podcast, or upload apps and code to GitHub is far more valuable and often tells me more than a traditional qualification can. My team includes a number of self-taught people without degrees. We’re also made up of people with varied creative backgrounds too, including music and even stand-up comedy. This kind of experience in our team really helps us to think creatively and approach problems in new ways.

I believe that to fully address the skills gap, companies should broaden their search radius beyond the traditional candidate profiles as there really is a wealth of talent out there.

Consistent upskilling

When you have the right candidates in place, it’s important that their skills keep pace with industry development if you want to remain competitive. This means looking for people who are willing to accept they are always learning, who are not bogged down by self-importance or ego and can learn from others around them.

At Thomsons, innovation is embedded in everything we do. We take time out of daily tasks to work on new ideas – whether that’s watching relevant videos online or trying out a completely new software idea. DevOps, for example, has been a key driver of our innovation time over the past twelve months. By their nature these projects require cross-team co-operation and have resulted in the automation of our technical release notes; a dashboard driving transparency of our quality gates and a visual tool for monitoring the production and readiness of our deployment templates. It’s activity like this that helps us to remain one of the leading software providers in the benefits space and has given rise to collaborative, workable ideas which would never otherwise have seen the light of day.

We also invite speakers from other tech companies to talk to our teams, and likewise some of our tech leads have shared their knowledge with other companies. It’s a great way to trade ideas and be inspired by how others are using technology to innovate within their business domains.

Time for change

Ultimately, employers need to change their mindset when recruiting. They should think of the wider requirements of the business, the demands of their own tech teams and the product they’re offering.

STEM skills are hugely important and will remain so. But we need a greater diversity that goes beyond gender and ethnicity. We must consider arts and humanities along with the ‘softer’ people skills and emotional intelligence which are integral to modern working. Doing so will lead to a more effective output, which is clearly to the benefit of businesses.

It will also naturally lead to a more diverse workforce, and with that will come a broader range of creativity and innovation.

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