Summary

M-Team is an IT service provider offering (among other services) custom software solutions since more than 20 years. In a technological environment that is evolving fast, it had to put concrete actions in place to evaluate and improve its developers skills to be able to face the current and futures challenges.

Preliminary

We continue to schedule meetings with key people at companies developing software in order to observe and learn how they currently manage the skills of their developers. Last week, Christophe and I went to M-Team to met the company CEO, Jean-Paul Adans and Human Resources Manager Tristan Geurts. Here are some insights of why skills management matters to M-Team and what they do about it.

M-Team

M-Team is a Belgian IT service provider dedicated to the the IT needs of actors in the health insurance. Producing software since more than twenty years, M-Team counts more than 200 employees including more than 80 developers working in technologies from RPG (III, IV and ILE) to Java (Spring, Hibernate) and web technologies (JavaScript, HTML) on various platforms (iSeries, Windows, Linux).

What are the developers' skills?

Skills can be roughly separated in two main groups:

  • Soft skills: The personality, communication and social skills of the person, in other words, what characterize his relations with other people.
  • Hard skills: Knowledge that the person possesses, in technical or others areas relative to his work.

M-Team recognizes in its developers and their skills one of its core strategic assets - a value that as you may know, we do share. They were also keen to point that this need to go along with a process allowing those skills to focus. It is only when both of those elements are present that the company can produce business value for its customers.

Even if we were mostly talking about hard skills, they noted that the capacity and willingness of the person to share them (in itself a soft skill) can make them much more valuable for the company than their simple application on a project.

Knowledge exchange strategies

We discussed in a previous post different strategies that can be used in knowledge exchange. Of those, several are applied in M-Team in various forms.

Competencies centers does exists in the form of teams with expert in one of the two big technologies used at M-Team (Java and IBM RPG).

A sort of loosely coupled teams strategy is used, but more at the team level: as the applications developed are rather complex, specific modules are assigned to teams, making them the local experts on the subject (that can be technical or more a business domain) and the natural contact point for any problem or request on those.

Finally, while more informal, M-Team recognizes the roles of human hubs in the day to day interactions between developers.

Skills management initiatives

In addition to those strategies, M-Team put effort in both hard skills and soft skills programs. Both categories of skills are valued, even for technical functions, based on the assumption that no work can conducted with hard skills only. As such the outcome of all projects are linked to both kinds of skill. Two different programs were launched to assess and improve the skills at M-Team.

Regarding soft skills, feedback was collected in the whole company on the required soft skills for each function and seniority, with the help of HR experts. The outcome was a matrix with the expected level of each soft skill (e.g. leadership, active listening) for each function.

Recently, an equivalent program was launched regarding hard skills. To make the results as objective as possible, the people were asked to evaluate themselves on hard skills relevant to their area of work, and the same evaluation was done afterward by their team leader.

Objectives

Those initiative serve multiple objectives:

  • Assess the actual level of knowledge in the company, to identify its strengths and capacity to face current and future needs.
  • Identify what people actually know - they may have skills that no one is aware of.
  • Proactive skills management: based on this information, being able to focus on learning programs dedicated to the most needed hard skills.
  • Identifying “SPoFs” (single points of failure):  skills known by only one or two persons in the company.
  • A general objective to make skills recognized by different actors:
    • the developers themselves, for their personal development, and
    • the customers, as it helps to position M-Team as a reliable and competent provider.

Results

This process has allowed M-Team to develop its own skill map, tailored to the needs of their customers. In comparison with standards such as SFIA,  this map is much more precise, going from the language knowledge to very specific skills relative to a technical domain or the usage of a specific library or tool. Competency levels are joined to this map to express a person capability in a specific skill.

This map is used by project managers to match the project and developers skills, and also by the Project Management Office, which is responsible for collecting all projects submissions and match them against M-Team capacity for the next 3, 6 or even 18 months. A true capacity is exactly what it means: the capability to deliver the project in the required period with the expected quality. This is no longer only a question of headcounts (“we need 36 man months before the 31th December on this project”), the required and available skills have to be taken into account. As skills improvement programs takes time, the long term view only become more important.

Next challenges

While M-Team management is satisfied with the work accomplished, there is areas of improvements notably in the efficiency (this process requires double check, and the activity of a competency manager to collect and assemble all the results) and objectivity (being able to crosscheck the results of the evaluation with real project outcome, for example).

We would like to thanks Jean-Paul and Tristan for their interests and insights on skills management.