By Achini Lankage

 

It’s a fact – you can’t survive an information technology career without consistently updating your skills.

During the pandemic in Sri Lanka, necessity was undoubtedly the mother of invention. Especially in Colombo, we experienced two multi-week curfews. Nobody wants to go to jail for picking up milk, so we experienced much technological innovation in all industries, ranging from financial services to commerce.

So naturally, a global surge in demand for developers, coupled with a local workforce investing in their personal growth and price inflation at over 6%, means a scorching local talent market.

When I joined the Nimi team in an engineering leadership role, I imagined spending most of my time on software architecture, product innovation or business strategy. The reality was quite different – I’ve spent more than 60% of my time focused on hiring and engineering team culture in the past few months!

I am lucky that Nimi has several things going for this company, making my job much more manageable. Notably:

  • We have a crisp mission that is well defined and achievable
  • Key early hires who are making our customers successful,
  • A fantastic family-first employee culture.
  • Clarity and rigour around our hiring process.

Summary – New Engineering Leader Checklist

Despite the Nimi team being very prepared, it was still quite hard to get the recruiting machine up and running. So, as a new engineering leader, here’s a checklist for you to look at when you are thinking of making your early engineer hires.

  1. While skill is essential, ATTITUDE beats talent every time.
  2. Consistency in branding across the website and social media matters, as candidates evaluate you based on this.
  3. Candidates expect short job descriptions with callouts to the technology and framework requirements.
  4. Simplify your company goal into a 5-minute elevator pitch that you can use to kick off an interview.
  5. A commitment to providing training and transition to modern technologies.
  6. A flexible work schedule and equipment are table stakes.

Not a Startup?

Our founder Dilip moved to Sri Lanka to start Nimi, and he had a 15+ year career that included a long stint in Silicon Valley. Back there, everyone wants to work on the next hot startup. So Dilip was taken aback to realize that Sri Lankans are pretty risk-averse. We found that developers were uninterested in taking a bet on a new company.

So strangely, in Sri Lanka, “startup” became a word we started to avoid in our vocabulary when pitching the company.

We found that candidates compensated for this by citing “job security” and demanding higher salaries despite not proving their ability to us. Over time we started to understand the signal. When candidates focused only on salary and benefits, over learning new technologies or building transformational products – we knew they wouldn’t be able to find themselves at home at Nimi.

Finding Gems

Nimi’s culture expects to work with various types of people, different mindsets, and skills. Therefore, while collaborating with teams, we get to know the areas we need to improve; it can be professional behaviours, communication gaps, or teamwork. Hence, as a management team, we should understand by having close relationships and communications with the team.

Great. So we know what our culture is. And we take that to our network to find great candidates. Once we exhaust our networks, the hiring process needs to be super smart. Here’s the checklist for finding gems:

  1. Well articulated company culture on the website.
  2. SHOW your company culture through social media.
  3. Ask the video to be turned on during interviews so you can engage with each other.
  4. Take-home case study or live assessment to assess technical competence.
  5. Official and 3rd party reference checks.
  6. Complete the entire process within a few days to a week.

Finally, I believe the “Emotional Intelligence” of the interview panel plays a vital role in selecting the best fit. Based on the candidate interviews from the last five months, we can categorize three types of candidates in the industry.

Type I: Great looking profiles and ability to answer questions at a high level. But they are completely stumped when provided real-world problems to solve.

Type II: Shy, seemingly not predisposed to collaboration, but deliver when provided challenging problems.

Type III: Balanced confidence, honest, and takes much ownership (the right attitude).

We want to avoid Type I at all costs.

Work from Home in Sri Lanka

When you’re starting a company in the middle of a curfew, employees will need to be working remotely; this can be a fantastic opportunity for those who can integrate their work and life.

We found candidates who just struggled with this transition during our early hiring. So as a member of the management team in a young company, I needed to identify candidates who could work productively without negatively impacting their personal lives.

Here’s another checklist for this:

  1. A solid fibre or 4G internet signal.
  2. Remediation plan for backup power and outages.
  3. Flexibility to work on a schedule that works for family and Nimi.
  4. Ability to enjoy and thrive in our interview process.

 

Challenges we’ve faced

Because our expectations are high, and our mission is to extend the opportunity to every Sri Lankan, by default, we need to talk to a large volume of candidates. So over the past few months, we’ve spoken with over 300 candidates across just a handful of roles.

We’ve noticed a common trend in Sri Lanka where developers interview startups and cite a dream to learn and grow. Still, in reality, they were looking to upgrade their existing compensation by sharing an offer letter with their current company. And when one candidate does this and is successful, the news spreads like wildfire. At one point, so many CGI employees were applying to roles at Nimi with this intention. Once we caught wind of this, we instructed recruiting to ignore these profiles.

Another issue surfaced when candidates made it through our rigorous interview process and reneged a few days before the start date. This is undoubtedly very rare, and we had to block these two candidates with our recruiters and Slasscom.

Constant evolution

I hope this article serves as a good guide for reducing the stress you might be facing as a member of the management team at a startup in Sri Lanka. Over time, as the business gets credible and stable, things will get better.

My advice to other leaders is to hang in there. The work we are doing is significant.

The work we are doing will lift the Sri Lankan IT sector to make a positive generational change to the livelihoods of the Sri Lankan people.