A Sustainable Technology Organisation

Ensuring that the skills and knowledge to run your business outlast individuals in a fast-moving employment market.

If you drive past the town of Barrow-in-Furness on the bleakly wild coast of North-West England you will see a huge rectangular building silhouetted against the sea. This is the home of Britain’s submarine industry, where nuclear-powered boats for the Royal Navy are constructed in a vast hall. For the last decade several thousand workers have been employed building the Astute class of submarines, the largest and most capable hunter-killers ever to sail under the white ensign.

By any standards this is a vastly complex engineering project. But it has also been a deeply troubled one. The early years were plagued by delays and problems, and questions were raised about the build quality and performance of the lead boat. The key issue appears to have been that when the programme began it had been 11 years since the completion of Britain’s previous class of submarines, and that the skills to create them had been lost. To get things back on track the manufacturer BAe systems had to enlist help from their US counterpart the General Dynamics Electric Boat Company, whose capabilities are sustained by the insatiable demands of the Pentagon. You may question the wisdom or morality of spending billions on nuclear submarines, but as a case study in business the lessons seemed clear, leading to the publication of a Defence Industrial Strategy with an explicit goal to maintain skills by carefully spacing out the ordering of naval vessels.

For those of us involved in the creation of more workaday and less violent technology the budgets and the timelines maybe vastly smaller, but the problem of maintaining skills and in-house knowledge is a familiar one. The tech employment market is fiercely competitive and many of the most talented developers reject commitment to one employer in favour of the greater flexibility and financial rewards of temporary contracts. We joke grimly about ‘bus factors’, where as an employer you are only a road accident away from losing the only person who remembers how a critical piece of your system works. If your technology is essential to your business then you need to worry about how sustainable it is.

One obvious answer is to reward the loyalty and commitment of full-time staff so that they have more incentive to stick around. I’m all in favour of that, I hugely value and rely upon the knowledge of those team members who’ve built up domain knowledge and networks and who know where the bodies are buried. But I’m also realistic, people don’t owe their employers anything and in a sector teeming with exciting opportunities talented staff will come and go. So here’s a few other thoughts on how to prevent a key piece of your business disappearing under the wheels of the Number 19:

  • Write things down. I’m not talking here about copious technical documentation that will be out of date the minute it is written. I mean simple how-stuff-works-here operational knowledge, like the location and access details for important tools, or who you contact when there’s an issue with X. Make documenting a certain thing part of the acceptance criteria for a task. Have a team member unfamiliar with a system pick up a routine job and see if they can find the information needed to complete it. I find it’s important to pick a documentation tool that people find pleasing and easy to use — at the moment we’re having some success using github repos created solely for their wiki.
  • Avoid personal inboxes. As a product manager I’m a big offender here, I deal with a vast amount of email from people who know me as their go-to guy. But what happens when I’m on holiday? It just piles up, and people don’t get answers. It’s better to encourage pooled team contacts that don’t rely on a particular individual. This could be as simple as an email group or a slack channel, or something more clever like an email address that creates Trello cards or JIRA tickets.
  • Use it or lose it. If a part of your technology stack is actively worked on all the time then people will know how to maintain it. If you’ve a system that sits in a corner and is barely touched then it is vulnerable to atrophy, and may one day have to be declared unmaintainable. Perhaps it should be actively consolidated, outsourced or replaced before that happens.
  • Make intelligent use of contract staff. The contract market is full of brilliant and experienced people, and they are much easier to hire than full-time staff. They’re ideal for delivering a short-term boost to a critical project, but they’re unlikely to be there to keep it running three years later. If you’re going to hire contractors alongside less experienced full-time staff then give them an explicit coaching goal, tell them that part of what you are paying them for is to train up your team and then eventually move on.
  • Hire juniors and succession plan. The competitiveness of the tech employment market is a reflection of a skills shortage. As employers the only way we can really address this is to offer opportunities to new entrants, graduates and alumni of coding schools. They should be hired for their potential and placed in teams alongside more experienced hands, with an explicit plan to develop them and their careers. You may choose to assume that in the first year they will be juniors, in the second journeyman team members, in the third team leads, and in the fourth lost to another opportunity. With luck it will take a bit longer than that. But even on that cycle you can be sustainable if you keep at it, and many successful organisations operate along those lines.
  • And yes, give your loyal staff the best deal you can. Money, but also the opportunity to work on projects that excite them and a way to enjoy the kind of flexibility and career breaks that often attract people into working independently.

Few of us in the tech industry want a job for life. Change is healthy, and working in different places broadens our experience. As an employer it is important to understand this, plan for it, and ensure that your business is sustained collectively, not individually.

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