Here at BZ Media, we’re in the process of migrating off our current database platform into a cloud-based solution, and we find ourselves needing to learn a new system, with new interfaces, new processes and a new taxonomy.
We’re doing this with the folks we already have on staff, but we’re also bringing in an “IT guy” who is an expert on the platform.
(Related: How to build a DevOps A-Team)
That got me to thinking about what other organizations do when they need to fill particular roles: Do they reach outside to find an expert, or do they look for people who are excited to learn new things, who are already invested in the company and so are vested in its success?
This led me to James Kenigsberg, CTO of 2U, a company founded in 2008 that provides online learning systems for universities. He explained that 2U partners with such institutions as Georgetown University, the University of North Carolina and the University of Southern California, taking specific programs online. “We work with them on content. The professors explain to us how they teach, the nature of how they teach, and we help them digitize that content and make it great online,” he said.
Kenigsberg said 2U provides the technology platform underlying the “online campus,” or learning-management platform. “We do anything from working with universities in reaching Big Data with some of their older systems—PeopleSoft and such—all the way to developing progressive and impressive mobile applications,” he explained. This requires multiple technologies, whether Python, PHP or Java, HTML, MySQL, or “whatever technology is right” for the task, he said.
So, how does 2U find the right people for the right task? Kenigsberg provided a look into the company’s hiring practices. “Because our practice is so wide, there are a lot of specialized, knowledgeable people who work here,” he said. “We understand that we need to hire people who are good at a very specific language or very specific type of development, whether it’s a data warehouse or an initiative for our cloud-based IT infrastructure.
“They are absolute experts at what they do. We provide them a platform where they are the ones who make the decisions. Then we break up our team into areas that are very much aligned with business. For example, we have a group that’s called the ‘Learning Systems’ group, and there are project managers, developers—back end and front end—as well as QA, IT and designers. They are responsible for our learning tools. They are concerned with the business needs, as well as who’s on their team, what they’re working on and how it’s going.
“We feel that by letting people do what they do best, and creating an environment for them where they make decisions, by hiring passionate people, we feel like we’ve created the platform that we very much need to raise extremely, extremely great employees.” #!Of course, Kenigsberg acknowledged there are roles that are so important that experience is crucial, such as an IT operations role. But his approach is to hire someone right out of school to pair with that person “so we can raise another rock star alongside someone who’s been doing it for years.”
Kenigsberg gave the example of AngularJS, which his company has been using for nearly two years. To hire someone with three years’ experience with the technology is impossible, as it hasn’t even been around that long. But, he said, you can find passionate people who “have a drive to learn new things, with a passion to be part of a team like ours, and we have enough people and resources here to help them become really good at it.”
He then provided three tips for assembling a quality workforce:
First, align your technology to the business. “They don’t build technology; they build frameworks and tools for people to use to achieve greatness in whatever business you’re in,” said Kenigsberg. “We’re creating the world’s best education. As long as you align them to that mission, and have them understand how important they are as a nucleus of that area, we see a lot of passion and drive. Tell them it’s possible and they can make it happen. And they don’t stop. Each person contributes to the bigger cause.”
Second, don’t make workers feel like clerks. “We have a process that’s clearly defined and clearly documented, but it’s not specific. If you give specific steps—first do A, then do B—you’re turning great creative people into clerks,” said Kenigsberg. “We don’t believe in doing that. Letting them make great decisions—and stand behind their decisions—and having the more experienced folks feel like they own their area, I think achieves that goal for us of each person feeling like they’re contributing to the bigger purpose, which they are.”
Finally, have people work in teams. “This creates camaraderie around projects. Effective developers are not always great at communication. This places an importance on communication,” said Kenigsberg.
David Rubinstein is editor-in-chief of SD Times.