The prisoner's dilemma of training your employees

Hiring for Tech
September 7, 2020

A chessboard with some pieces on it

Training your employees doesn’t have to be a game of chess. Photo by Charlie Solorzano on Unsplash

A common trope in hiring is the lack of experienced candidates. This is certainly thought to be true for the entire tech industry, but it’s especially compounded for minority candidates: “it’s a pipeline problem”. On the flip side, the question inexperienced developers face is how they can gain experience without having prior experience.

No matter what type of experienced candidate you’re trying to hire, your company needs to invest in its junior employees. That means provide them with mentorship, formal training, and the opportunity to work on meaningful projects. But, there are some common objections:

It sounds like you’re better off asking developers to level up on their own time.

However, like many hard problems, the root cause is systemic. If every company invested in their industries, there would be a large pool of experienced candidates moving from employer to employer. This is, fundamentally, the only way to end up with experienced candidates in the system.

The prisoner’s dilemma

The problem is a prisoner’s dilemma: it’s best for all the employers to work together, training their employees. In return, they all get access to the trained candidates who move around in the future. But, like in the prisoner’s dilemma, one company doesn’t know what the other companies will do, so the best strategy seems to not reward other companies with trained candidates.

Luckily, there’s a silver lining here. It still makes sense to invest in your employees for two reasons.

Most importantly, your employees will be happier! You’ll still have to compete on pay, of course, but if someone is being treated well, wouldn’t they want to stay around for at least a little longer?

Besides, you’re not alone, even today. The big tech companies, like Google and Facebook, are absolutely investing in their employees. These companies have extensive formal training programs, structured mentorship and a wide variety of interesting problems for engineers to solve. In fact, investing in your employees may be another plus for those looking to jump out of the big tech companies.

Basically, if you’re not investing in your employees, you’re already falling behind.

Effective investment

Finally, there’s the question of how: how do you build up your employees into experienced engineers. I’ve already talked about a few ways, but let’s get into some more detail.

First, provide formal training programs, including mentorship. This means giving developers access to the experienced engineers in your company, and giving the experience engineers guidance on how to mentor others. But, it also means classes and educational material employees can take advantage of. Think paid classes to learn a new skill, the way I learned mobile development.

Next, send engineers to conferences, or better yet, coach them to speak at conferences and other industry events. Engineers need access to resources outside your company too. As a side effect, the company ends up with representation within these industry events, which can help with recruitment down the line.

Finally, let developers stretch themselves on harder projects. With the right guardrails and mentorship, this is exactly how engineers gain experience.

Investing in your employees is key to creating an industry with a healthy level of experienced engineers to draw from. Along the way, the investment results in happier employees and more recruitment opportunities. And despite the fact it seems less than ideal to do this investment alone, you’re not actually alone: the most coveted companies are already ahead of the game here.

This post was sent out on the September 7, 2020 edition of the Hiring For Tech newsletter. Subscribe to get future editions sent to you by email, once a week.

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