HR for tech companies: Advice from Polar Mobile, Rocket Watcher, and the Information and the Communications Technology Council
It takes technical power to make great software, but it takes people power to turn great software into a viable business.
“When most tech companies start out, IT gets the resources, but from a growth perspective, an HR strategy is critical,” says Sandra Saric, director of talent initiatives for the Information and Communications Technology Council, an organization that offers technology businesses resources to enhance workforce management practices.
An ICTC report, released in March last year, indicated that Canadian employers will need to hire about 106,000 technology workers between 2011 and 2016. But, the report says, they will face this need during recurring and systemic shortage of skilled ICT professionals.
This is largely because demand by the growing number of companies embracing new technologies is increasing beyond the capacity to adequately train people for this field.
In such a difficult labour market, says Saric, HR expertise can make the difference between a company that scrapes by, or one with a rich workplace culture and a productive and engaged staff.
“HR professionals are skilled at building strong workplace cultures, whether through social events or other means; creating opportunities for career growth, and ensuring an appropriate balance between work and life,” Saric says.
When it comes to developing an HR strategy, entrepreneurs should consider in what ways — and at what pace — they want their company to grow, what kind of talent they want to attract, and what kinds of labour issues they may currently have, Saric adds.
Aside from traditional experience and skills, tech companies should also look for HR candidates who understand the unique culture and labour issues of the sector, and have a proven track record in helping small businesses — and ideally tech companies — grow.
“They need to understand how entrepreneurs think and operate — decisions or actions may happen without a full plan, so they have to be able to be flexible,” she says.
If it’s unaffordable to hire an HR manager, owners can consider using the services of an HR consultant or agency on a temporary or as-needed basis, Saric says. But as companies grow, human resources will consume more time and money — that’s when it may be more practical to recruit an HR executive on a part- or full-time basis.
And a tech startup’s HR strategy need not be limited to software developers. It’s also useful in attracting and retaining sales and marketing professionals — the people who ultimately transform bright ideas into revenue.
“HR experts could be beneficial in helping to determine what kinds of qualities to look for when making a marketing hire,” says April Dunford, head of Rocket Watcher, which specializes in project-based marketing consulting for expanding tech start-ups.
Dunford admits the majority of companies she works with have no HR staff or strategy. But she says finding sales and marketing employees is an incredibly involved process — one that usually isn’t familiar to tech entrepreneurs, especially those with backgrounds in development. She says they rarely know the best way to find this kind talent, assess their qualifications, or make the best use of their skills.
“Almost every company I’ve worked with has made a series of disastrous marketing hires,” says Dunford. “There could be a massive benefit to having HR expertise on board as a tech company is growing.”
Effectively managing its growth was a top priority for Polar Mobile last December, when the Toronto-based company hired its first full-time human resources manager. The company has grown fast since launching five years ago — it built more than 1,200 apps for nearly 400 customers worldwide.
Founder Kunal Gupta says it was essential to bring in HR expertise to manage both the company’s workload, and its 45 staff.
“The competition is very harsh,” he says. “We needed a strategy to fine-tune our recruitment process and bring a corporate structure and documentation to it so we could plan for the future.”
He posted a job ad on the Human Resources Professional Association website, which attracted many high-calibre applicants. The company eventually found someone with both technical and corporate recruitment experience, and a Certified Human Resources Professional designation — the most recognized HR credential.
Nancy Virgilio, the woman who filled that position, has now introduced and/or manages a variety of initiatives to make Polar a better place to work. The company offers Hack Days, where programmers can demo personal projects. At monthly Town Hall meetings, company leaders share progress and plans. Improvements have been made to the way performance appraisals are completed, and to compensation and benefits schemes. Staff were involved in expanding the kitchen, which then turned into the office’s social hub. And everyone gets “Polar Days”—extra holiday days to tack onto three-day weekends.
“Knowing that the company has invested in someone to focus on and support the employees is powerful,” Gupta says. “It helps us develop our team and be successful.”