Hire mindset over skill set

My career is rooted in the tech industry, but the lessons learned there are universally applicable across all sectors. Tech has always been synonymous with a frantic pace of change; the industry conjures up images of engineers working at breakneck speed to deploy new version after new version, with stagnation being a dirty word.

AI is spreading this speed of innovation further and accelerating the workplace cadence across all sectors. As company founders, this allows us to look closely at the trends and strategies within the tech industry and use these insights to predict what will happen everywhere, shaping our hiring approaches for the next few years.

CTOs (chief technology officers), often responsible for the hiring and firing of talent in tech, are the canaries in the coal mine when it comes to future-proof recruitment. They have been operating in a high-speed moving environment for longer than most. As the pace of change accelerates for all of us, they’ve uniquely positioned to identify emerging trends and shifts, particularly in skills and roles that are gaining or losing relevance. Their decisions and insights, therefore, provide valuable foresight into the new demands of the tech industry.

In a recent survey I conducted with leading CTOs, a consensus emerged in hiring for longevity rather than immediacy, not prioritizing traditional skills but instead placing emphasis on adaptability and problem-solving acumen. I know this firsthand, having dropped out of university twice due to its rigid structure. Only later in life did I understand the key to success, and it’s not about formal qualifications but rather a willingness to learn and adapt. In engineering teams, it’s not just conventional technical skills, such as coding in the case of tech, but rather the aptitude for learning, teamwork, and proactive problem-solving.

Only later in life did I understand the key to success, and it’s not about formal qualifications but rather a willingness to learn and adapt.

Generative AI making more inroads into workflows, as seen recently in companies like Duolingo, is a timely reminder that the need to adapt is now here. The company cut its contractor workforce by 10%, using AI to fulfill some of its duties, hinting that imminent change is here. This move signals a broader trend: The ability to adapt swiftly and proficiently utilize new technological tools is becoming indispensable.

The shift toward AI-driven changes in the workforce underlines the importance of upskilling. More importance should be placed on upskilling existing employees rather than recycling workforces. Telecom giant AT&T is an excellent example; after conducting a skill gap analysis, they found that almost half of their employees needed more adaptable skills for the company’s future needs. Instead of extensive recruitment, AT&T focused on upskilling and reskilling initiatives, particularly in areas like AI. In 2022, the company spent $135 million on employee learning and development, providing online education platforms for convenient learning opportunities.

What does this mean for startups? Upskilling, especially in fields like AI, is more than just a remedy for skill shortages. It is a strategic long-term investment and will help cultivate a dynamic, adaptable workforce, which is crucial for driving innovation and growth in your business.

This approach holds particular significance for startup founders. They must adopt hiring practices that prioritize technical skills and emphasize a growth mindset. Consider how many diverse resources you’ve tapped into to get where you are today. Below is some feedback from my network of CTOs and key takeaways to consider when refining recruitment approaches.

Team fit goes beyond culture — it needs to include collaboration

Software development is a team sport. The difference between the most effective teams I’ve managed and the average teams has been team dynamics, not individual skills. Good dynamics allow the team to learn as a group and improve rapidly over time. Adding someone with great skills but the wrong dynamics has always been a net loss. —Jeffrey Fredrick, CTO coach and VP of Engineering at ION Analytics

Jeffrey Fredrick’s comment encapsulates the essence of modern software development. With years of experience leading high-performance teams, he firmly believes that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In technology, collective problem-solving accelerates innovation, and nurturing a culture that values group learning and adaptability is paramount. When hiring for one role, remember to zoom out and look beyond what’s on a résumé; a single hire with exceptional skills but misaligned team dynamics is a cog that doesn’t fit into the larger machine, hindering progress.

I’ve seen firsthand how individual brilliance can be overshadowed by the inability to integrate into a team, once hiring a highly skilled developer, only to realize that their inability to collaborate effectively became a barrier to our collective progress.

Pragmatism is as important as productivity

Pragmatism. Having strong convictions on how software should be built and delivered, but also having the wisdom to flex them and the skill to communicate the trade-offs being made to the business. —Chris Greening, former CTO of MRM and Stampede

Chris Greening underscores a vital attribute in the tech sphere: pragmatism. He speaks to the necessity of having strong convictions about software development, coupled with the ability to adapt these principles to the evolving needs of the business.

When hiring, consider every stakeholder in the business and identify what this potential hire means for them. Be pragmatic, understand and accept that there will be trade-offs across the business, and communicate this to your team. CTOs need to master this.

Hire yourself some skilled sailors

While basic programming ability remains “table stakes” in hiring software developers, it has become clear that an ability to work as part of a team, learning and solving problems together is even more valuable. The programming skills of a team are rarely the determinant of a product’s success; the ability to rapidly respond to changing business conditions and pivot smoothly often is. —Rory Gibson, CTO of startups and scale-ups

Excuse the cliché, but a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. With years of experience working with some of the world’s fastest-growing companies, Rory knows that no one can afford to sit still and that it’s rare — if not impossible — for things to always go to plan. I’ve been there myself; at Mindstone, I recall a project where the entire strategy had to be ripped up and replanned. The adaptability and collective problem-solving skills of the team helped us navigate the challenge successfully. While coding skills are a prerequisite, they’re just the beginning. The real test of a developer’s value is their ability to respond to the unpredictable nature of business today with agility and grace and work as an effective, reactive team.

In the next three or four years, leaders in tech will no longer be waging a war for the most skilled coders; they are vying for professionals who can thrive in a culture of continuous learning and adaptation. The emphasis on soft skills — teamwork, communication, problem-solving — reflects a broader shift in what defines excellence in the digital age. As startups and scale-ups seek to survive an environment where the only constant is change, your hiring blueprint must evolve. Adopting this mindset isn’t just the prerogative of CTOs; it’s a call to all sectors grappling with digital transformation.

When staring at the identical 10 résumés showcasing the same 10 skills, consider this: Don’t just hire the candidate who can do the job now. Hire the one who can grow with the job, the company, and the inevitable technological advancements of tomorrow.