Facing the twin challenges of rapid growth and an industry-wide skills shortage, this month’s teambuilder has bolstered its team by looking overseas for talent
When software testing company Planit first started in Australia in 1997 as a subsidiary of a UK company, the payroll consisted of just two people: managing director Chris Carter, and a general manager. By the end of 2007 this had expanded to 175, with offices in Sydney and Melbourne. Planit is now the largest independent testing company in Australia.
During the last decade of growth, Carter has understandably had to dabble in all areas of the business, including taking on the HR function and sourcing new team members – a job he says has only become harder over time (despite hiring a dedicated HR manager in 2005).
“The key problem we’ve always had is finding the right people. We’re always hearing about the skills shortage and we are acutely aware of that. The truth is, if I had another 30-40 staff available right now then they’d be working here,” he says.
Challenges of rapid growth To sustain continued growth of the company, Carter has had to come up with some innovative recruitment strategies. The first is what he classifies as a Boot Camp, which is almost like a graduate recruitment program. It puts candidates through an intensive five-day software testing program, including an exam at the end of it. If the applicant passes the exam they are offered employment with Planit. Carter elaborates: “We advertise for people with little or no experience in software testing. It’s great if they’ve had experience but it’s not vital because we’ve got a training division. It’s a fairly rigorous selection process by which we get 170 applications down to a dozen.”
Although Planit has run 12 Boot Camp programs over the last three years, Carter admits that juggling the demands of finding good people and matching the ever evolving needs of the company is a balancing act: they are desperate for talent, but at the same time they don’t want to take just anyone who comes along. “If we were to take anyone and start compromising the quality, instead of the numbers going up the numbers would very quickly be going down,” he says.
Induction No matter how people join the company, everyone is given an HR presentation which covers every aspect of the company. New recruits also have a one-on-one meeting with a senior member of the consulting staff or the GM who is looking after that client. Then there are regular catch ups with an account manager once a month. Junior levels testers and test analysts are provided with another induction service – regular tester forums which are run after hours. The senior that runs the forum acts almost like a group mentor, Carter explains. “If there are new techniques coming out, or if someone is working on a particular client site and they’ve encountered a problem in the testing space, this is where that knowledge is passed on. It’s not just technical aspects of work. We also go into the behavioural side of things – for example, how to deal with conflict or with difficult clients. We’re constantly trying to impart the experiences of more senior staff to juniors so when they encounter those issues they are well equipped to deal with them.”
UK recruitment drive
With Planit’s close ties to the UK, it’s hardly surprising that the company is looking overseas for talent. Later this year Carter will be heading to UK regional centres on a dedicated recruitment drive. He’s optimistic but realistic about his chances of encouraging people to come to Australia.
“The advice from people in the UK is that if you want to sell the merits of Sydney over London you’d be hard pressed because London is a global hub and the [pay] rates are extremely high. But if you move out into the smaller cities and regional centres – Dublin, Manchester, Bristol, Birmingham – we’re hopeful that the allure of Sydney or Melbourne will spark interest. We’ve already advertised online and there’s an organised trade fair in Manchester that we are participating in with a number of other Australian organisations. It’s not all about software testing, it’s ‘come and live and work in Australia’,” he says.
Carter himself enjoyed the experience enough to become an Australian citizen, and he firmly believes the UK is a good source of high quality candidates. “We’re not going to the UK because we want UK people; we’re going because there are people in the UK who will come over here. If we could find them locally we would,” he says.
Building and retaining teams
There are unique challenges for any company with teams spread out on multiple client sites, and Planit is no exception. Planit’s mobile teams range in size from two to 25 and necessitate people working closely and harmoniously, while still retaining ties to the head office. To combat thoughts of dislocation and isolation, Carter ensures there are regular social and professional gatherings. At the social functions the group may undertake bowling or skirmish. “The idea of all functions is to network with colleagues because you never know who you’ll be working with next; we don’t want people to be introducing themselves at the client site – we want them to know each other before they arrive,” Carter explains.
Carter is well aware that his company competes with tier one service providers like IBM who have a software testing component, as well as many mid-size firms that exclusively offer testing consultancy practices just like Planit. Retaining talented employees is vital. “It’s a key thing for us because we’re training our staff as well. We’re investing a lot in their learning and development through internal training courses, and also offer technical training and managerial training,” he says.
In terms of reward and recognition, Planit offers a profit share scheme, performance-related bonuses for senior staff, job rotation, length of service awards, and promotion based on merit. Bi-annual employee satisfaction surveys and senior conferences are also important in making people feel they own the business, and can contribute to the future direction. “Along with all the social events, these initiatives make people feel good about the business. We’re competitive with the salary we offer, but money alone is not enough to keep people. You need to provide a good working environment and an opportunity to contribute to the business,” he notes.
Carter remains passionate and dedicated to his company, and takes part in as many of the social activities as he can – “At skirmish everyone likes to aim for the MD,” he jokes. “It’s a work hard, play hard environment but we do get together quite often and once you walk out of the office you’d be hard pressed to work out who the executives or managers are and who the testers are – it’s very egalitarian and that’s part of the appeal of Planit,” he concludes.