Audio: Interview with Themba Chakela, DimensionData: Why HR Best Practices Don’t Work in Tech

Interview with Themba Chakela, DimensionData: Why HR Best Practices Don’t Work in Tech

By Jomiro Eming

Best practices are useful ways to get to a solution faster, but when it comes to HR and tech, some wisdoms don’t always apply so neatly. Themba Chakela, Human Resources Executive for Dimension Data Systems Integration, has been in the HR and tech industries long enough to know where they don’t stack together well. In order to work around the pitfalls of conventional HR wisdom in the tech space, he uses a questioning mindset, which aligns HR models to the organisation and, thus, puts people before ‘standard procedures.’

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Themba has been working in the tech space for roughly 15 years, and has worked at the IT services company Dimension Data (DD) for the last decade. There, he oversees everything HR, for their system integration (SI) brand. Throughout his career in the ‘people space’ and in tech, he has come to understand how ‘best practice’ in normal HR falters when generically applied to tech:

“From an HR perspective and in the tech space, specifically,” Themba explains, “I’ve found that conventional wisdom around how you recruit, or how you retain, and even grow talent, sometimes falls short.”

Some general principles in this conventional HR wisdom include:

  • “You start a junior, work towards a senior role, and then move into management”
  • “Always try hire permanent employees, as opposed to contractors or contingent workers”
  • “Specific roles are driven by similar targets; What works for one person in a role will work for another in the same role”

Where Themba’s approach carefully overlays the organisational context and that of his clients onto leading or common practice, as opposed to being led by leading practice or letting it define HR delivery. For example, Themba says that a ‘standard’ performance management process based on iterative one-on-one meetings for on-site meetings with team leads may not for engineers who work remotely in his environment. It doesn’t make sense to bring them in just to have in-person team lead meetings:

“We needed to find a way to have those discussions either happen remotely,” he explains, “or leverage technology to enable managers to actively interact with their direct reports regardless of where they “sit”.

In order to get that right, Themba focuses on the context he’s in by adopting a questioning mindset that puts the client and the intended outcome at the centre.

The “Questioning Mindset”

Although Themba still thinks that conventional wisdom has its place, he says it’s important to apply it with careful consideration for your specific context. To do this, he suggests developing a questioning mindset.

This kind of mindset prioritises people and results, over systems and ‘standard procedures’: “It really is about, ‘How do we make things happen?’ as opposed to, ‘How do we hold up leading practice, or policy and procedure as the solution to everything?’” It requires asking different questions, and being intentional about whether your business is falling in line with conventional wisdom, or whether conventional wisdom is falling in line with your business – the latter of which should be true!

“Don’t try and fit the business to the HR model: Rather, align the HR model to the business so that it amplifies what you’re trying to do. Take the foundational principles of the discipline, and overlay them with the context within which you work: Understand the clients that you serve, the environment in which you work, and the context in which work is done.”

A questioning mindset prioritises people and results, over systems and procedures.

In practice, here are some scenarios where Themba has used a questioning mindset, and what it looked like in each. These scenarios are:

  • Non-linear career progression
  • Balancing contractors and contingent workers with permanent employees
  • Understanding what drives tech talent (current and future)

Non-linear career progression

Standard HR practice: “You start a junior, work towards a senior role, and then move into management.”

In tech, though, a managerial position isn’t necessarily what people aspire to.

Themba says that career progression works differently with his technical talent: “Somebody that has a deep domain specialisation in, let’s say, software-defined networks, might have no interest in managing or leading people. How do you craft a career for that individual in an organisation that says, ‘As you move up the ladder, your career and earning capacity is defined by your span of control in terms of direct reports?”

Themba’s team has been exploring specialist tracks. These tracks look at each individual ‘specialist’, and periodically review the value they add to their team and the company. For instance, he might ask: “How does that specialist continue to add value and impact, equal to that of a manager who maybe has a squad of five or six people reporting to them?” This way, he can understand what career goals his engineers want to work towards, and help them get there.

By interrogating the way in which his organisation considers career progression, he ensures that he understands his technical talent. With differentiated and focused career pather, they’re less likely to leave because of ‘no career growth or prospects’.

Balancing contractors and contingent workers with permanent employees

Standard HR practice: “Always try hire permanent employees, as opposed to contractors.”

In tech, though, contracting is common as companies to hire the knowledge they need, as and when they need it. By doing this, they can keep core competencies in-house, and not have the financial constraints of hiring more ad hoc competencies that wouldn’t be needed all the time in the long-run.

In this sense, it takes a more dynamic understanding of tech, and tech skills specifically, in order to see what made business sense: Here, some competencies needed to be full-time, but others could be added on a more temporary, ad hoc basis. Hoarding skills would have created a bigger organisational burden, and bottle-necked tech teams in their development and delivery.

Challenging standard HR thinking around contracting and permanent work means that you have to take into account a few new considerations, in order to ensure he wasn’t causing more ‘bad’ than ‘good’. In this example, a questioning mindset meant asking some of the following things:

  • Do you extend your benefits to your contractors?
  • Do contingent workers get leave?
  • Should non-permanent employees have a variable portion to their pay?
  • Seeing that contractors contribute directly to our success, how do we reward them in such a way that they stay on with us?
  • How do we compete for contractor skills in the market when competition are using the same workforce to deliver solutions?

Themba says that understanding his organisation’s limits from a skills perspective allows them to flex their resources more effectively, and more efficiently: “We had to admit that there is no way we know everything about the technologies and solutions we provide. We recognised early that we need to pull in and rely on contractors: We could call on a skill as and when we needed it, and it didn’t sit on our payroll or encumber us financially.”

Understanding what drives tech talent (current and future)

Standard HR practice:Specific roles are driven by similar targets; What works for one person in a role will work for another in the same role.”

In tech, though, the challenge that Themba sees a lot of companies face is that what a cyber security expert looks for, for example, is very different to what a CX specialist wants in their career.

When it comes to recruitment in tech, the ‘one-size fits all’ approach doesn’t work as well as it might for sales teams or investment bankers, for example. Themba says that HR needs to better understand what drives tech talent in order to engage with them on a truly personal level.

In sales, it’s quite normal for people to be ‘target driven’: In tech, however, there isn’t a one-to-one equivalent, and so HR has to understand the person, specific skill set and segment more than the industry at large: “I absolutely have to have a real understanding of a day in the life of the developer, a day in the life of a systems architect, and a day in the life of an engineer who needs to go off-site and make sure that our infrastructure is up and running.”

Knowing this means that he can engage on an HR level with his tech talent more authentically, and speak to what those engineers and developers value: “Understanding what drives technical talent is an emerging conversation within HR, tailoring an employee value proposition that speaks to technical talent… We’re not just putting up adverts on a website, or offering somebody a mission and vision in terms of our company. We’re actually speaking to the person, and their purpose.”

Without this, HR risks setting goals that don’t drive tech teams or the intended outcome, and the technical talent will either stay and work sub-optimally, or move on to an organisation where they feel recognised and believe they can excel.

For recruiting, this approach starts with meeting the talent that you want to hire where they are: Instead of posting job ads and sending LinkedIn InMails, Dimension Data recruitment teams are visible at gaming conventions, university campuses and industry forums. This is all in an effort to build partnerships in order to engage more personally with the ‘next generation’ tech talent.

Approaching these best practices in this way forces Themba to see a scenario from more than just one perspective, not apply ‘best practice’ blindly, and look at a situation through the lens of its specific context. The results of which, he says, make the extra caution and complexity worth the effort:

“To quote an old Maasai saying, ‘The person that thinks he knows everything, knows nothing at all’. I have been humbled enough times to realise that my perspective is largely based on where I sit. If I put myself into somebody else’s shoes, or into somebody else’s context, it results in a different – and often better, or more complete – perspective.”


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