Aaron Shapiro.

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Tips for Attracting Dynamo Talent

Originally published in Notes on Digital, September 7, 2010

There’s demand beyond supply for developers and designers who have the know-how to conceptualize and produce new, breakthrough digital products. As The New York Times explained on Labor Day, the technology sector isn’t hiring as quickly as might be expected because of increased automation, growth of skilled labor overseas and a lack of job candidates in the U.S. who have “the cutting-edge skills coveted by tech firms.” Silicon Valley start-ups, giants like Google and Yahoo, Wall Street firms, publishers and ad agencies are all competing for this type of hard-to-find talent. This is an expansive fight for sustenance. Only the companies that come out near the top will remain relevant; those who don’t will fall behind.

I’m in the trenches with the rest of them, and I’ve learned a few things from the battles I’ve won and the friends I’ve made.

First of all, an open, collaborative environment that offers talent the opportunity to evolve the status quo and advance their careers is vital. Digital talent is curious, eager to share ideas and discoveries, and aspires to contribute to a purpose larger than that of pleasing their immediate supervisors. They want to help change the world through the web. If employers don’t offer this, the talent can easily choose to have a lucrative, self-structured and gratifying freelance career.

This digital-friendly environment is quite different from that in a traditional corporate atmosphere. Most companies that aren’t inherently digital are cold, impersonal places with insular silos, a restrictive checkerboard of cubical walls, and command-and-control structure. This, however, doesn’t work for digital talent and is misaligned with the ethos and speed intrinsic to the web. Changes online happen fast. The winners have to keep up.

So what exactly creates the environment that attracts digital talent?

  • The company must have a culture that wholeheartedly promotes doing the absolutely the greatest work possible. Quality must trump quantity; new ideas must trump process; speed must trump bureaucracy.
  • Digital talent needs to be empowered to make decisions. If management doesn’t know much about the interactive space, as is commonly the case, this means letting the experts lead the way.
  • Career advancement must be based on merit, not age or superficial temporal designations. A lot of digital talent tends to be younger. And there’s no reason they would choose to work in a bureaucratic, process-driven environment where it’s structured to take a lifetime to get to the top. If you don’t offer a meritocratic environment, they’ll easily be able to go someplace that does.
  • Digital talent must believe they have the opportunity to grow beyond the digital department. If there’s not already a digital expert in a top general managerial role, management must at least say and show that they embrace digital company-wide. To do this, management must empower the interactive employees with leadership roles, clear opportunity for growth and healthy budget. The tech-minded have spent decades marginalized. The stereotypical basement office in the British comedy the IT Crowd says it all. To assuage these reasonable concerns, management must genuinely prioritize the digital agenda.
  • The physical design of the digital department should foster innovation and collaboration. As I said before, interactive talent wants to share ideas and discoveries; they want to talk with each other and build new things together. This translates in the office setting to open spaces for conversation and leisure, desks and offices without restrictive walls, and a permeating sense of transparency.

If this is far removed from the office you sit in everyday, fear not. There are ways to make your company an attractive place for digital talent without uprooting existing cost structures and systems.

Take Johnson & Johnson. Their main headquarters looks like you’d imagine. It’s a giant, traditional office complex. But in New York City’s downtown, they have built a digital-friendly space. The physical environment and culture feels very open, collaborative and creative. The employees who work there are tasked with keeping J&J up to speed in the digital world.

All of this being said, digital talent is valuable, but also quite susceptible to depreciation. Not even a digital prodigy can be a know-it-all for long. The industry changes too fast. Digital talent must be offered opportunities to further their education and participate in a community of their peers. This means financing trips to conferences and even facilitating events like Meetups. After all, you want to protect your investment don’t you?