Tricia Rhodes on Recruiting and Employee Experience (Scaling Tech Podcast Ep11)

Jan 10, 2023 | Developers

Hiring and Retention for tech roles is hard! In this episode, David and Arin speak with Tricia Rhodes, who is the Chief People Officer at SingleStone. We talk about how SingleStone’s team of consultants moved from in-person work to work-from-home due to the pandemic, and how that has changed their hiring practices for software engineers in their IT consulting practice. We share our experiences with recruiting, hiring, retaining, and managing employee experience for software engineers in an IT consulting firm.

Tricia shares how remote work changed their company meetings, how they mentor new engineers, allowing teams to experiment with their own styles for remote work, as well as the different ways that SingleStone still brings people together for in-person gatherings and team building. Tricia shares their philosophy of recruiting for “Attitude, Aptitude, and Skills” and why SingleStone’s remote and hybrid model makes this more important than ever. We also talk about how to communicate your company values to your existing team and with job candidates, and Tricia shares a powerful commitment that SingleStone makes to their engineering hires.

If you manage an IT services organization of any kind, then hiring, recruiting and retention are all key to your success, so be sure to listen to this episode of the Scaling Tech Podcast to hear Tricia, David, and Arin discuss what they’ve all learned from their decades of combined experience.

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Show notes with links to jump ahead are below

Show Notes from Episode 11 – Tricia Rhodes on Recruiting and Employee Experience
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  • 00:00 Arin and David intro Tricia Rhodes, and start by talking about how human talent is so precious right now in global technology recruiting. This is one of the topics we discuss with Tricia, as well as how they transitioned to being a remote workforce during the pandemic. David noted how interesting it is how companies navigated that transition, and learned to accept the new work reality.
  • 03:08 The episode begins with Tricia Rhodes, Chief People Officer at SingleStone in Glen Allen, Virginia.
  • 04:00 Tricia tells us more about SingleStone, which is a 25 year old IT services and consulting firm in Virginia. Their work is focused on cloud, data and software applications. The company has been growing for a number of years.
  • 04:45 Tricia talks about how the pandemic affected their work model. It was an overnight shift like most companies, and fortunately they had the technology infrastructure already to support remote work. However, the ‘water cooler’ social aspects of work were harder to replace and it’s been a large culture shift. It also created opportunities though in hiring, since in the past they only recruited in Central Virginia, but now they can recruit talent across the US and that has been very exciting for their culture.
  • 07:05 Tricia talks about the changes on their client base. They were already working with clients outside of Central Virginia prior to the pandemic, but they were a team that did not travel much in the past. Prior to the pandemic, they were just starting to shift to traveling more for client work, and then that came to a halt during the pandemic. Collaboration with clients remotely has been a challenge, and she doesn’t think anyone will truly solve that, but a journey they are continuing on. They are now a remote-first model, though dipping their toes in hybrid work.
  • 08:45 They are allowing teams to experiment with their own ways of work, with their own “office hours,” and other practices. They know that requiring people to come back to the office would be a huge step backwards, and would hurt hiring and retention. But they are trying to bring back some things to help teams be more effective.
  • 10:35 Arin and David talk about how remote work has changed for them at AgilityFeat. Originally all of our team was in Costa Rica, and when David first started recruiting a more remote workforce outside of our one location. Tricia agrees that when they first started recruiting remotely it was very scary. After a few months of the pandemic, they realized it was not going back to normal and they started to shift how they thought as a company.
  • 12:00 One of these shifts was around company meetings. Their team is client facing, and having monthly meetings is a lot of time commitment when they were in person prior to the pandemic. So previously they only had quarterly company meetings and that was fine when they worked in the same office. After starting remote, they realized that was too long to wait to talk internally with a remote workforce. They started hosting what they called “Firm Fridays” where they hosted weekly sessions on a variety of topics. These were initially led by the CEO since there were lots of updates to provide during that critical time early in the pandemic, but now it’s become a wider range of dialogue. They talk about promotions, demo client work, or address specific topics the team is interested in. This has been very successful and the team has continually said they like the weekly updates.
  • 13:53 David asks if they have a set of favorite tools that helped them with this shift. Tricia notes there’s not a particular tool, but they definitely learned they were not initially cognizant of people joining a meeting remotely and so they felt left out. Now they are better at taking a time out to be sure to engage remote participants, and sending out materials in advance.
  • 15:42 David asks about Tricia’s advice for those new to remote work. How do you address the fear of how to ‘control’ people when you don’t see them every day – how do you know they are working for example? Tricia notes that because they have a very high bar for their engineering talent and they are a small company, they have high confidence in their consulting and communication abilities. The less experienced developers tend to have the most challenges, since they don’t have the same foundation of knowledge and so will need more support when working remotely. Where they have seen a few people not pull their weight, it was because they were less experienced and not being able to keep up. That’s harder to manage when someone is remote and you can’t see they are struggling. David agrees with Tricia’s experience, and the importance of finding someone with the right personality to work well remotely and take care of their own mental health when working remotely. Looking for that responsibility and self management skill while recruiting is important.
  • 19:50 Tricia notes that their recruiting philosophy for 25 years has been about Attitude, Aptitude, and Skills. It’s most important to focus on the Attitude and Aptitude because those are harder to teach than the skills. You can train up someone’s skills, even remotely, through pairing with more experienced engineers. Doing that sort of pairing is a financial burden for smaller consulting firms, but is essential. Arin agrees, and talks about how it’s important when mentoring a younger developer to ensure that they are working on the right thing, and not getting lost in a rabbit hole. He also talks about how we started a training and mentoring program at WebRTC.ventures since new hires have to learn a very specific technical skillset. After initial training, they work on an internal project where we look for their technical skills as well as did they communicate their work well. We look for that communication assessment via writing a blog post or recording a demo video of their work, to ensure that an engineer can communicate their work to their clients and meet fixed deadlines. If someone misses their deadline and does not communicate that well to you in advance, or show their incremental progress, that’s a guaranteed bad fit in a consulting firm and will not stay with the team long.
  • 25:40 David talks about the importance of knowing your values, and communicating them in an interview. These can be communicated by asking for examples of someone demonstrating their values, and reiterated through company meetings. Tricia talks about looking for people who embody their values of Learning, Excellence and Service. Are they constantly learning and showing curiosity? Do they want to go above and beyond for clients? They set this expectation in hiring, and so it’s easier to call them out if they are not performing. For those who are performing, they often get shout outs and cash rewards during company meetings.
  • 29:10 When someone is promoted, managers write up a “bio” for the new promotee that tells a story of all the things they do which are connected to the values and vision of the firm and why there are a good candidate for this new role. This is shared in the team. They also incorporate quarterly surveys and team retrospectives as well as peer reviews. Some questions are related to your craft, but most are about someone’s teamwork abilities and values.
  • 31:30 David talks about how a company needs two sales pitches: one for clients and one for job candidates. This helps candidates to evaluate if this is a place they want to work. David asks how their sales pitch has changed after the pandemic. Tricia notes the biggest change is that in the past they talked more about the energy of the company, and invited candidates into the office to see that team energy. This has been something hard to duplicate after the pandemic. Good engineers want to work with good engineers, they want to see who they will work with. This is an area that they still want to grow in.
  • 34:40 David talks about the importance of the recruiter being an ambassador for the company. Because it’s harder for candidates to come into an office and easily meet the team, this recruiter has to have a solid message and presentation that represents the company well to candidates. David frequently says things like “it’s an honor to be in front an intelligent person like you, who is considering spending years of your life working with us.” We can’t just say “we’re going to pay a lot” like we sometimes did in the past.
  • 36:40 Tricia talked about a promise her colleague and CTO Ryan Shriver makes to candidates: “Our Commitment to you is that you’re going to leave here a better engineer than when you arrived.” That is a strong framing to use with job candidates that shows your values and that you mean what you say in the interviewing process. This is also a way to make a connection with what the engineer is looking for.
  • 38:00 Tricia talks more about the stories they write when someone is promoted. This practice in their team predates the pandemic, and is something they started doing because it’s often a mystery why someone is promoted. Writing and sharing these stories helps people to see the company values and what someone did that merited that promotion. This is very effective in communicating the company’s career path and what you need to do in order to progress on your own path. This is even more important in a remote environment because people don’t always know their peers as well and see the evidence of their promotion. Employees also tend to really like this gesture, and gives them a very good feeling to read the peer review that led to that promotion.
  • 41:00 Arin talks about how in our video group WebRTC.ventures, our COO Mariana Lopez will list out the company values and tie the shout outs to specific company values. So we have a company value of “being drivers not passengers”, and when we give a shout out to someone, we can show how that great thing they did exhibited that company value. Tricia notes they have a separate shout-out channel on their Slack which ties into their HR system and will tie those shout-outs to the employee record in the HR system. This is a nice way for remote teams to have a voice in speaking of their colleagues, even if they are not of the personality type that is going to be comfortable bringing up a shout-out during a company meeting.
  • 43:40 David asks for Tricia’s predictions, and notes how we are in a complicated transitional time. So many companies need software talent, it’s growing exponentially, even though the supply of developers is only growing linearly. David asks what Tricia predicts about this talent crisis that we are in and may only get worse. Tricia notes how in the past, they required that job candidates had specific college degrees. Now they don’t require a computer science degree or engineering degree. The growth of software development boot camps makes it possible for people of a wider background to learn what they need to become a software developer. This apprentice concept has been very successful for SingleStone, and Tricia sees this sort of application pool expansion to be a key to managing the talent crisis.
  • 46:38 Tricia also predicts that hybrid work won’t stay the same way. In some form, in person collaboration has to come back, even though it’s not going to be 5 days a week. Teams need to come together at least quarterly and she sees on-sites becoming very important to remote teams. Their “SingleStone Week” is held three times a year, and is not mandatory, but allows for seeing your team face to face, meeting your manager, and having some events together. Tricia believes this buys them 6 months of retention every time they host one of these.
  • 48:49 Arin notes how in 2022 our team has started to travel to clients again. In the past, AgilityFeat has offered to clients that they can meet with us in Panama or Costa Rica and have a fun team event. This always led to a significant increase in team bonding and collaboration. We are starting to see those events come back.
  • 50:00 Arin also makes a prediction about company specific trade schools. This was inspired by a Freakonomics podcast episode talking about Nike funding a bootcamp on shoe design that they run with design universities. This allowed them to teach a very specific process and then hired the best candidates out of that. Arin sees this trend developing in software also, and talks about the very specific video game design programs his soon is looking at. Learning will be less about general technical skills perhaps, and more about very specific programs related to a particular company. Will there be an AgilityFeat University or SingleStone University in the future, even as smaller companies?
  • 53:15 David shares his takeaways from this conversation. He notes how hard it has been to adapt to the new normal for everyone. It was less horrible than companies feared, but still hard. Arin’s takeaways include the Attitude, Aptitude, Skills conversation, and making that more explicit in our own recruiting process. Tricia’s takeaways include how David talked about the honor of someone wanting to work at your company, and the discussion at the end about training programs specific to a company. She is inspired by those ideas to help further live out SingleStone’s promise to make an engineer better than when they started with the company.
  • 56:30 For more information about SingleStone, visit them at: www.SingleStoneConsulting.com In particular, Tricia recommended that you check out the Career page and About Us pages, for video and bios about their team and the people you can work with.

Links from Episode 11 – Tricia Rhodes on Recruiting and Employee Experience