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How to Hire and Train Agile Software Developers

How to Hire and Train Agile Software Developers

By: John Rossheim

Agile software development has been around for many years.  Yet thousands of organizations -- large and small -- lack the right mix of skills on hand to effect a transformation to agile.

What are those companies missing out on?  Agile software development breaks out larger-scale software development into modular stages with incremental deliverables.  Thus it enables organizations to succeed with projects by avoiding unnecessary complexity and constant change orders. The result can help accelerate go-to-market cycles and create competitive advantage. 

A key prerequisite to such a transformation is recruiting or training IT talent that’s a fit for the agile mindset. 

Yet good developers who are well-versed in agile can be difficult to identify and even harder to attract. To successfully recruit them, “You have to demonstrate your commitment to agile conversion,” says Dave West, CEO of Scrum.org, a training and certification provider.

Here are some key insights from industry insiders on how to hire technology talent -- and train them -- workers who will be key to your organization's transformation to agile. 

Hire techies for soft skills. For developers working in an agile environment, soft skills are essential to success. “We don’t have a lot of developers who are more comfortable talking to computers than to people,” says Wenhold, says Timothy Wenhold, CIO of Power Home Remodeling.

Screen for agile temperament. It’s not easy to predict which candidates will be open to the waves of change that they’ll experience working in an agile framework, but it’s critically important. So screen out personality types who lack a strong record of adapting to change and are motivated primarily by the desire to avoid difficulties, says Patric Palm, CEO of agile tools makers Hansoft and Favro.

Seek out candidates who are customer-oriented. Does it come naturally to a candidate to talk about meeting customer needs, not just solving technical problems? That’s especially important in an agile shop. “Look for people with a passion for product rather than technology,” says Palm.

Screening for technical ability is still important. Assess technical competence early in the recruitment process. “Require candidates to take open assessments that are free and accessible,” says West. “If they don’t want to take assessments, they’re probably not right for scrum.”

Luckily, testing candidates’ coding and software-design chops isn’t as difficult as it once was. “We use Hacker Rank and Ruby on Rails tests,” says Wenhold. “But technical ability counts for only about 20 percent technical. The rest is people skills.” 

Invest time with finalists. Try to bring in the top contenders for at least half a day in your office. “You have to spend more than an hour with people,” says West. “I know a company that gets candidates together, gives them an exercise and observes how they work and interact.”

Ask references specifically about the candidate’s agile performance. When you speak with candidates’ references, get granular about their performance in an agile environment. “Get references and talk to people about how the candidate worked, how they dealt with typical scrum challenges like planning, conflict and surprises,” says West.
 
Apply agile hiring criteria to more than just developers. “Agile change initiatives go wrong by putting the whole thing behind the curtain of software development,” says West. “It isn’t just the software development team, it’s about testing, operations, the whole delivery chain. It involves a lot of people who ultimately are not directly on scrum teams.”

Familiarize HR and recruiters with the world of agile. Your HR managers and recruiters will have much better intuitions for what qualifies a candidate for agile if they see the method in action. “Our recruiters come to some of our scrum meetings,” says Wenhold.

Dedicate training time to agile. Don’t expect IT people to learn agile purely by osmosis. “As part of onboarding new hires, for the first week we have them read a book on the scrum process and learn how our departments are set up,” says Wenhold. “For their second week, they shadow a scrum team and become a team member. We’re teaching them how the agile framework works.”

Use the scrum framework to train developers on agile. Look for an agile training program that’s structured according to an agile framework. “You get the whole training in a safe and complete way in 5 or 6 sprints,” says West.  “You encounter questions like, ‘What does done mean?’ in relation to a specific project goal. ”

Provide support for continuous learning about agile. Especially in the early stages of a transformation to an agile framework, key aspects of this way of working can be distorted by office politics, organizational culture, or mission drift. That makes employee training crucial. So hire or designate an internal agile coach, or an external coach who comes in for long-term gig, to keep your shop on track, Palm advises.