As we get deeper into a design driven product world the single biggest reason why complex design projects will fail is talent. Specifically the lack thereof. The low supply of great web product designers both now and in the near future is going to drive a lot of projects to inevitable failure. For the startups with the resources to do it, they don’t even bother trying to hire, they just acquire. Square’s recent acquisition of New York based 80/20 and the acquisition of Performable by HubSpot last year punctuate this ongoing story. The Performable acquisition may have been explained to journalists as a product grab but the fact that UX rock stars Josh Porter and Dave Cancel were on the executive team certainly didn’t hurt. Having a great design team is a non-negotiable part of software product success. Combining the lack of talent with the fluidity that design talent is moving from opportunity to opportunity and you’ve got a big problem. You need design talent but where do you find it?
But what if you don’t have $30M to drop on a studio acquisition? The answer is so simple its escaping most product companies: build it.
Why are companies missing this obvious opportunity? Because on the surface it seems easier and faster to acquire the talent or bribe them away from their current jobs. The irony is that these shortcuts can be more expensive, take longer and yield poorer results. Put a little more bluntly, you can’t buy loyalty. If you hire someone away from one job by dangling a big signing bonus you can be pretty sure they’ll be opening every recruiter email with similar offers. When this happens we’re unwittingly training these talented designers to expect the promise of greener pastures as each new year rolls around. Developing a sustained talent pipeline is low on the priority list for most software businesses. As the product backlog piles up, most product leaders are panicking they’ll miss deadlines. This forces them into expensive hiring decisions. Unfortunately there are very few available designers out there so the task is made near impossible. It’s economics 101; low supply and high demand leads to soaring designer salaries. Instead of paying more and more why aren’t we talking about talent development?
Developing brilliant designers requires a time commitment from the leadership. A long-term and sustained commitment. We’ve been successful in creating talent in our firm because we decided to give a shit about the long-term relationship we have with the people we work with. From an economic perspective we noticed that time invested in talent development lead to lower staff turnover, deeper commitment to projects and reduced costs in hiring. For example, a new UX/UI role can take 2-5 months to find and hire. Add that opportunity cost to the 20% recruitment fee from a $100K salary (~$20K) and you’re behind the eight-ball. On the contrary, if you spend $5,000 over 90-days on developing a junior employee you can get the same outcome in the same time and get 10x the reward. The current model used by big design agencies and startups is to hire like crazy only when they get a big project or have a funding event. The flip side is that they are just as quick to lay off those people when cash flow subsides. The message is, “you’re a resource that appears in our ledger – not a person with a life”. The real cost is the quality of the work. Strategically important projects are being run by under qualified people with no more loyalty to the company than retail shopper on Black Monday.
This attitude is something that rubs us the wrong way . We’ve taken a road less traveled with rewarding results. The informal way we did it for many years recently became a structured program that we’ve used to build the AUX (Apprentice in User Experience) program. We combined our own empirical evidence with dozens of studies that have proven that investments of time and training in existing employees leads to deeper loyalty and longer term engagements. Our perspective was that its better to have a handful of highly trained, committed team members than an army of transitory foot soldiers. It might have restricted our growth a little but we’ve also never had to pay recruiters, take outside funding, use lines of credit or have to lay off anyone. An undeniable advantage.
The UX/UI talent development model we use is simple and can be replicated anywhere. In invite you to read and follow our AUX blog as the apprentices themselves document their weekly activities. Although the AUX program is specifically for taking great designers to the level of awesome, it can be applied to all technical levels and to either existing team members or apprentice level hires. There are three components of the program; Mentorship; Real-World Client Projects and Challenges. Over the 90-day program these components cover the main disciplines of software design – UX, UI and front-end development. We modeled the components of the program around successful team training techniques used by the Navy SEALS and Google’s APM management training. There is no screaming Master Chief or crawling through mud while getting shot at but we do intentionally give the designers/developers way more responsibility than they can handle to test their limits. Expecting more from our apprentices challenges them in a positive way. As Dan Pink pointed out in his popular TED Talk on motivation, most employees are motivated by intrinsic rewards like recognition and mentally challenging tasks then by money alone. The most challenging aspects of the program are the initial 2-week Bootcamp and the weekly Challenges.
Like high functioning military and sports teams, our Apprentices are deliberately setup to fall into intellectual and social booby-traps. These exercises test their abilities to work together as a team. Unlike the individual focused portfolio work lauded by the traditional design schools we teach them that design is a team sport. If one apprentice fails at a project, they all fail. Just like in the real world. If you have a weak link on your team, the entire product or company falls behind. This team training further enforces the concepts of loyalty and professional grade communications. Building a software product is a high stakes game for most companies and the ultimate success is how the team works through problems together without declining into the well known blame game. We know first-hand that designers and developers don’t always have the best communication or social skills. Our goal is to teach them unquestionable technical skills and then make them indispensable by layering on the ability to provide thoughtful discussion around all design and dev related work.
It’s important to point out that we’ve had more success with paid apprentices than with interns straight out of school. Internships have less training associated with them and tend to be more focused on assisting others with their projects. In those cases there is a lack of ownership for the outcomes; another key component of motivation. However, money isn’t to be ignored. I’ll also concede that we pay our apprentices so that it doesn’t feel like school. We ‘ve noticed that when you pay someone to be at work everyday they miss fewer days and are noticeably more committed to the process. If they are paying you to be trained, like at college, they are in the driver’s seat and tend to have the perspective that “well, I’m using my own money so I’ll do the work when I feel like it”.
It’s time that software product leaders help high-potential talent by supporting them in amplifying their professional and community life. Building a team from the inside makes sense. All Star teams rarely work. Leaders should know this by now. They need to focus on building positive team culture and provide more challenging jobs with well-defined career paths for existing hires. And why not? Leaving their positions is more difficult when team members have lots of good reasons to stay.