Ask any entrepreneur what the most important element is to their survival and success and the answer almost always will be ‘talent’.
Hiring the right team is crucial, not only to build the products and services, but to build the business too. Commonly among tech-led startups, it is the technology itself that is the product and so hiring the right software engineers to build the technology is essential.
But software engineers are scarce in many parts of the region. A recent report published by The Institution of Engineering and Technology highlighted the lack of engineers in the UAE, while the quality of new recruits is also lacking, with 58 per cent of large companies saying they are struggling to find applicants with the right technical skills.
Most startups based in the GCC turn to Egypt, Jordan, Eastern Europe or Asia to recruit software engineers, but hiring remotely carries with it its own set of challenges and risks.
This dearth of talent encouraged Ameer Jawad and Lijeesh Majeed to co-found Talpods in January 2021 at a time when investment in the region’s startups was on the rise.
“We noticed the shortage in high quality tech talent became more of a problem during the height of the pandemic. The right way to solve a supply shortage problem is to introduce new supply so we invest in young engineers and make them immediately effective,” says Jawad.
Talpods initially started as an online bootcamp which lasted three months, targeting young graduates with a strong foundation in data structures and algorithms.
"What we are doing is finding those rough diamonds, carefully polishing them and then hand-holding them into tech roles with VC-backed startups in the region. With intense mentoring and support, we are able to turn these young people into highly productive engineers.”
While demand for such talent has always been high, Jawad claims that the need is now “exploding” given the rapid growth of the region’s startup sector over the past couple of years. It can take months to recruit a software engineer, with good talent commonly poached by startups with larger pockets.
"’People’ is the fuel of startups, yet our tech scene is growing faster than the availability of talent,” he explains. "We're betting our money on the young and creative minds and we're nurturing them in order to continue fueling that exciting growth".
Talpods developed its model from a bootcamp to one that includes a mentorship scheme, pairing a full time junior engineer who has undergone the three-month training, with a “Talpod lead”, an experienced engineer with a minimum of eight years experience. This phase of the Talpod journey lasts 12-18 months, which enhances the execution of the junior engineer to mid and senior level standards.
"These mentors are senior and lead engineers who are experts in their tech stack, and they also have a passion for nurturing the next generation of world class engineers," says Jawad. "They roll up their sleeves and show them the ropes, indulging in pair programming and code reviews, helping them to navigate complex problems and execute with speed and quality, and they mentor them through office-place challenges like dealing with pressure and stakeholder management."
To date, Talpods has worked with several startups in the region, who pay a monthly fee to host these junior engineers. Among its clients is Kuwait-based online flowers and gifting platform Floward, whose chief technology officer, Diyaa Hamza, claims the service saves both time and effort when it comes to training new engineers.
"One of our main challenges was hiring and investing in junior engineers because that will require a lot of time and dedication from our senior engineers to help guide them, which will lead to a major slowdown in our roadmap execution. Something we can’t afford to do,” says Hamza.
Startups, particularly those in the growth stages, require tech talent with the ability to keep up with the pace of change.
"Startups, because of their fast growth nature, usually come with complex legacy code, probably with little to no documentation, all the while still moving at an incredible pace. That level of speed and engineering is a tough environment for inexperienced talent to work in without substantial support, and they will struggle to cope with the pressure or make an impact without weighing the team down," says Jawad.
Another challenge facing the majority of startups, particularly those based in the GCC, is the cost of tech talent. The salary of a good engineer with three to five years experience will on average be Dh25,000 in the UAE, whereas an engineer with the same level of experience and talent in North Africa will cost Dh10-15,000 per month. Talpods typically trains engineers in Egypt and Lebanon, providing the startups who hire them well-trained and vetted talent.
"It’s a sustainable social impact model where everyone wins. Right now we're creating prosperous tech careers for talent in Egypt and Lebanon, and we want to propagate this opportunity across other developing communities. They pay nothing to enter the programme because we want to make it totally accessible for them, and once they're placed they earn at the top bracket of what they expect in their home country."
Talpods-trained engineers are typically paid a $750 monthly salary during their mentorship phase. After completing their training, their salary could double according to Jawad.
"Our vision is for our region to be a self-sufficient tech hub, one with its own pool of high quality talent who are home-grown and a stronger fit culturally than traditional outsourcing routes in foreign tech hubs. Our young population here offers us an abundant source of ambitious talent who have the potential to fill that gap, and we’re playing the role of turning that potential into a reality," he adds.
What makes a successful engineer?
Good engineers have a strong technical foundation alongside soft skills, but according to Jawad, exceptional engineers embrace the following principles:
1 - Growth mindset - it’s a certain kind of talent who are hungry for challenges and persevere in the face of hardship. Their success is the result of learning from many failures, and they embrace feedback and criticism as an opportunity for learning and growth.
2 - Ownership - great engineers own the role they take on - they take ownership not only of their individual role, but they are mission-aligned and take accountability in the collective goal that their organisation wants to achieve.
3 - Agile thinking - a firm belief in industry values and best practices such as Design Thinking and Extreme Programming that result in the more efficient mode of delivery, maximising productivity and minimising errors."