How to Attract Agile Development Talent

The agile framework for software development brings speed, flexibility and efficiency to IT-focused organizations.

Identifying, attracting and hiring software developers is tough enough in a booming IT job market, but finding the unique set of soft skills that classify developers as agile talent above and beyond their technical expertise - adds another layer of difficulty.

The Agile Manifesto lays out four principles for better software development that places value on the following:

The Agile Manifesto lays out four principles for better software development that places value on the following:

Modern Approach to Agile Development

The agile approach is a major shift away from the traditional "waterfall" approach to software development that relies on a strict, command-and-control mindset and therefore requires a different set of skills. Finding agile talent requires recruiters and hiring managers to change their own mindset, says Eric Winquist, CEO, JAMA Software.

Instead of banking solely on technical expertise and specialized knowledge, Winquist says companies that want to adopt an agile approach or beef up their existing agile framework must look for and attract developers whose work style, experience and attitude reflect the tenets of the agile manifesto.

[Related: 7 Hot Tools for Agile Development]

"The tricky part isn't necessarily about where to find developers, it's about how to identify the agile 'mindset,'" says Winquist. "There are some technical skills that are necessary how to run a scrum, for instance but for the most part, we're looking for a personality profile; people who are curious, problem-solvers, very collaborative. Those soft skills along with great communication skills are what we want," Winquist says.

"The old notion of a software developer as a 'lone wolf' who holes up in a room and works for hours to finish a project solo that's not the way it works anymore; that's not preferable," Winquist says.

The agile framework addresses the need to adapt development strategies and techniques to an application-driven software market, as well as take into account modern-day business development practices, mitigate risk, lessen the chance of project failure and achieve greater speed, efficiency and, well, agility, says John Parker, CEO and founder of Enfocus Solutions.

"Agile takes out a lot of risk from the software development and delivery process," says Parker. "There's a lot more interaction between IT, the development teams, and their customers; with typical two-week intervals sprints between releases, it's much faster to develop and deliver a minimum viable product (MVP) and then, based on customer feedback, to adapt and rework, rather than wait to deliver a huge project in a 'big bang' scenario only to find it doesn't work, or isn't right for the business needs," Parker says.

If You Get Agile, They Will Come

But what if your current IT organization isn't anywhere near agile? That doesn't necessarily mean you can't take steps to make it more so, says JAMA's Winquist. But beware paying lip service to the agile methodology without fully understanding the benefits, or using agile as a buzzword solely to increase candidate response agilists can smell a rat.

[Related: Agile Project Management Lessons Learned From Texas Hold'em]

"Within most larger organizations, agile has become the standard," says Winquist. "Most innovative, market-leading companies are built on agile. But you can't just use agile as a 'silver bullet' to solve larger business problems when you aren't using that mindset to improve operations in the rest of the business," he says. If there are only a few dedicated "agilists" and the rest of the company's not on board, it's clear to savvy engineers and developers, he says.

"Many companies claim they have this culture of innovation, collaboration, but without the entire organization buying into the mentality, it won't take long to be 'found out,' he says. Engineers can sniff out whether or not this is actually true from the moment they set foot in the office because part of an Agile mindset does involve physical, workspace geography, he says.

"Office space is very important. Engineers work a lot differently than, say, sales teams. They need quiet space, like offices, in which to work, but they also need larger spaces where they can quickly pull together large groups for their stand-ups. So the environment also has to physically be able to support agile thinking," he explains.

Planting the Seeds of Workplace Culture Change

While it might be uncomfortable at first, changing the mindset of the overall corporate culture is critical to moving toward an agile approach and to attracting, hiring and retaining elite talent, says Winquist.

"We know that part of the issue is the general, standard corporate culture of 'command and control.' To many businesses, the idea of having this flattened hierarchy isn't exactly second nature," Winquist says. "But you don't have to necessarily have ping-pong tables or beer in the afternoons, but you do have to make some concessions if you want to attract and retain elite talent," he says.

[Related: Has Agile Software Development Gone Mainstream?]

Seeding your IT and software development teams with agilists can be a great first step to shifting the mindset of your entire organization, says Winquist.

"Often times organizations move toward a more agile, more flexible structure because they've hired people who have seen this approach work in other places; then it becomes a groundswell and grows organically albeit slowly - from the bottom up," Winquist says.

"It's a great way to start, because these folks start questioning the 'traditional' way things are done and proving that these practices are effective and transformative," Winquist says.

By starting small, Winquist says, you can give your organization a look at how this 'new way of working,' and new management philosophy can bring efficiency and increased innovation, he says.

"Start with something as simple as introducing collaboration tools, or even pair programming, and see how quickly that spreads to other departments," Winquist says. "What we see is that many times, the C-suite recognizes quickly, 'Hey, I have this incredibly productive, flexible, successful engineering team what are they doing differently? How can we extrapolate their methods to the rest of the organization?' and it spreads to other departments," he says.

Find Hidden Gems on Your Dev Team

It's also important to not discount the talent you already have, says Enfocus's Parker. You could have some diamonds in the rough already in your shop, it's just a matter of identifying them and helping them develop both the soft skills and the technical skills they need to thrive, he says.

"What a lot of recruiters and hiring managers miss is the number of willing, able and available people in your company already. Start there and put some energy into transforming your existing people over to an Agile framework," Parker says.

"Sure, that takes time, but you've already hired these folks for their technical skills and knowledge, so you can introduce and 'train' some of the softer skills and techniques," Parker says.

[Related: How to Use Agile Development to Avoid Project Failures]

"Instead of just handing your software teams a list of tasks, you need to start clearly articulating business problems and outline who's affected, the benefits of solving the problem, and let them see how their work impacts that how their code fits into the product, how it's used, how it solves problems," says JAMA's Winquist. "Then, teams start to see that they are delivering not just a product, but delivering value, quickly, and building relationships and having conversations," he says.

Where to Find Agile Talent

If you are hiring from outside the company, though, it's helpful to start from a familiar place of strength. In other words, look for the technical skills first and then move on to identifying the traits that fit within Agile, says Enfocus's Parker, especially if your human resources department's undergoing a culture shift of its own and feeling unsure.

"When it comes to HR and the hiring and interviewing process, sometimes that can stall if an agilist determines the company relies too heavily on the older 'waterfall' approach, or isn't as focused on the soft skills," Parker says. "So, focus on the requisite technical skills and also look for evidence in a person's resume and portfolio that can demonstrate how well they interacted with teams, their communication skills, and whether they have experience helping develop an agile environment," he says.

Winquist says two other factors to emphasize in the recruiting and hiring process are customer collaboration and a candidate's ability to respond positively to change.

"These two factors can determine how successfully candidates fit with the principles of agile: Are they collaborative? How often and how positively have they interacted with the customer? Can they show real-world examples of these? It has to go above and beyond their ability to write code," Winquist says.

"You can always train for the technical skills it's so hard to get someone to learn curiosity, critical thinking and have a collaborative attitude," Winquist says. But most importantly, a willingness to accept and embrace change, even at an organization that's just starting to move to an Agile framework, says Enfocus's Parker.

"Even if you're still working toward an agile framework, you have to know that an engineer can feel comfortable at your organization from the moment they walk through the door," he says.

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