How to identify and plug skills gaps on your development team
7 MINUTE READ
You’ve identified a skills gap on your development team. It needs to be plugged quickly.
So how should you respond? Hire a new member of staff? Or upskill an existing developer?
This is a choice technical leaders face on a regular basis, but they don’t always make the right decision. Before rushing ahead to recruit someone new, your first move should always be to take a step back and gather the information you need to make an informed choice. At startups this can be achieved through staff meetings and one-to-one discussions with team leaders. But for larger companies and enterprises, it’s worth doing a proper skills gaps analysis.
How and when to identify skills gaps
There are two schools of thought when it comes to skills gaps analysis:
1. Identify the skills a role requires and compare them to individual employee skill levels.
2. Look at the company holistically and see if you have the developers with the right expertise to work on a project, or whether you need to look at hiring externally.
If you’re performing the first type of analysis a good time to conduct it is when an employee’s duties change significantly, as part of a poor performance review, or when they’re promoted or placed in charge of a new project. Through the process you may discover a need for training programs, succession planning, or mentoring programs to pair up juniors with more experienced veterans.
For the second kind of analysis above, the right time to do a skills audit is when there are persistent problems in meeting deadlines or business goals, when shifts in strategy need new skills, or when your company adopts new technologies.
When faced with skills shortages on a team or company level, the typical course of action is to hire additional skilled staff. But with great developers becoming increasingly hard to find, you could be better placed introducing concepts such as pair-programming or mentoring schemes to allow less experienced team members to get more hands-on experience with more senior developers.
How to perform a technology skills gap audit
There are external companies who’ll come into your business and conduct an internal skills audit, but often the best way is to do it yourself. By speaking to your developers you can work with them to assess their strengths and weaknesses. But you can also receive their insight into where they feel the entire team may need further training. As a bonus, by involving your staff in the auditing process, you’re also empowering them.
A cursory search online reveals several different skills gap matrix tools that you can use to assess you and your team’s abilities. Most skills matrices have people’s names and a list of the tasks necessary for a particular role on the X and Y axis, respectively.
The issue with these skills matrix ideas is that the scoring system is somewhat arbitrary. If you rate one person at a six out of 10, how is that actually different to a five or a seven out of 10? And how can you ensure that your six out of 10 is the same as your colleague’s understanding of six out of 10?
Although most of the Toyota Production System has now fallen under the Lean methodology, there is still a lot to be learned by its approach to competency assessment. The “ILU” skills matrix remains to this day an excellent way of quickly and consistently identifying your team’s strengths and areas for development.
Along the X and Y axis you plot people’s names against the tasks associated with their job roles—as above—but instead of scoring out of 10, 100, or any numerical scale, you use the ILU chart legend to assign a skill rating to the individual.
- If someone cannot perform the task, you leave the box blank.
- If someone can do the task but needs supervision and guidelines, mark them ‘I.’
- If someone can do the task but with guidelines alone, mark them ‘L.’
- If someone can do the task by themselves, they receive a ‘U.’
- If someone can train others how to do the task, they get a ‘square.’
- And, if someone can write the manual on how to do the task and think strategically about it, they earn a square with a dot in the middle.
Below is an example of an ILU chart. In this instance the skills being assessed relate to automotive production. But you can easily imagine how it could be adjusted to fit a relevant skills set for a development team. It’s very easy to draw up any kind of ILU matrix you want using Excel or Google Sheets.
Using this method results in zero ambiguity about someone’s ability to complete an essential aspect of their job role, and being able to see this information at a glance allows team leaders and managers to understand overall strengths and weaknesses quickly. The ILU skills gap matrix can be adapted to fit any development team, regardless of the technologies, frameworks, and core concepts critical to the success of a project.
Closing the gaps
Once you’ve done your initial assessment, you then need to act on the data you’ve unearthed. This means either securing training to fill in the blanks or hiring to plug the gaps.
Training existing staff is excellent for that employee’s morale as they are gaining valuable upskilling, which could lead to additional opportunities—or even a pay rise—upon completion of the course or certification. This could involve a developer learning a new language or understanding a new framework or plugin.
If the skills gap you identify is too large for training to solve, at this point it’s worth hiring a new member of staff with the skills you need. This might mean hiring someone permanently or hiring a contractor while another member of the team receives further training. Completing a thorough skills assessment of your development team is an incredibly useful process and could save you significant trouble further down the line by identifying potential skills gaps early on.