Thursday’s blog post by me on how the SEO, PPC and Social Media Marketing training I’ve recieved from Salford University and the SEMPO Institute is influencing my current job-seeking and career building efforts:
A swift post to see how Facebook and Twitter handle being hooked up to WordPress!
My job’s being packed up in a few weeks, but for the time being I’m still “Mr Placements”. What does that mean? Have a video!
In 2008 I was asked to suggest solutions to the skills gap that many web and mobile sector employers were observing both in the North West, and nationally. Reports and comment from NESTA, Manchester Digital, Manchester Digital Development Agency, BIMA, CIDS, Chinwag and more all hit on two things:
- It’s more difficult than it should be to find good, new talent (by which we almost overwhelmingly mean recent graduates)
- Once a business hires new talent that looks to have potential, there’s too much time and resource used before their input equals or exceeds their salary and overheads
Knowing from experience that work-based training was the most reliable answer to the problems, I put together a Project Brief for what then became known as i.studio: I was aiming for 20 6-month long traineeships with companies working in web, mobile, interactive and digital marketing. I mined a lot of research, and then spoke to employers in the region to get a feel for the final format, and went live trying to find digital agencies of assorted types and sizes in the North West who might work well with a bona fide Traineeship.
Finding (and listening to) companies
Never, ever hide behind emails – I did do some mailing out, and a small press release was arranged for the likes of How Do and Manchester Digital, but the real results were from getting on the phone. Rather than pay for data lists, I went over existing partners and contacts, and sought suggestions and recommendations from colleagues. I even went over the last 2-3 years’ worth of Big Chip nominees! Across 2008 and 2009 17 traineeships were secured, but looking at my lists I had varying degrees of contact with a good 40 to 50 businesses.
The big challenge – I wasn’t selling a service, I was seeking out partners. If the partnership could work, everyone was happy – the company would get a ready, willing and able pair of hands in their team, the trainee would find a good development environment, and we’d have a positive outcome. It was a tough sell only overcome by my being able to stress the likely benefits, without underplaying the Ts and Cs and requirements – some MD’s get a little flustered when you’re required to ask for their Health & Safety policy. Companies and individuals varied, so it was always best to meet up, focusing on commercial, creative, technical or skills issues based on what would influence decision makers in each situation. The best result would be an agreed Trainee role, fully fleshed out as a 2-page profile promoting the company, what they’d like a trainee to do, and what the trainee could gain by coming on board.
The digital SME sector isn’t visible to many graduates – especially those coming from schools of computing or faculties of science, where a culture still prevails of guiding students to careers with the traditional tech multinationals and blue-chips (where opportunities are declining). Which is a shame, as strong coding discipline and a proper foundation in object oriented programming are in huge demand within the web, digital and mobile SME sector (where opportunities are still growing).
Many companies I spoke to asssumed I’d have trainees “on our books” – I didn’t, and once they learned that, they were more likely to engage with i.studio. For every traineeship across web, games, broadcast and film I arranged for Vision+Media (easily past 100 by now), I recruited from scratch. Recent graduates and other entry level talent are a transient group to the point that mailing lists and databases would be a waste of time. Instead, I got results in the following places and through the following methods:
- The soft launch: before I had companies committed and roles defined to apply for, individuals were encouraged to send their CVs in to a project-specific email (another way of reinforcing the opportunity’s brand) which gave me the chance to look at their CV to see if they were broadly eligible, and filter out those who really wanted to work in TV, or games, or just didn’t have a baseline of specific skills appropriate to the project.
- The handmade HE (mega) mailing list: I’ve known of organisations and employers that talk of their “University links” which amount to emailing the careers service or jobshop at the Uni in question every now and again and crossing their fingers. FAIL. I mined every potentially relevant faculty, school and department website for Universities in the region for tutor and lecturer email addresses, plus careers services, and just by priming them with updates on the opportunity small but valuable relationships were built: the tutors stood a greater chance of being listened to by their recent students than we would spending money on large-scale marketing. Checking opportunity pages on Google Analytics, direct email links were often the largest source of inbound traffic.
- Free, but invaluable, jobs portals: Prospects Net, a national HEFCE-funded network proved to be invaluable in backfilling the space between academics and careers jobshops, and their online recruitment portal included statistics on which universitites had approved your posting – providing the chance to nag them on the phone! – and spot trends. Liverpool University, for example, was doing a good job in keeping third year students and recent graduates up to date, and I met some strong candidates who were wise enough to take advantage of optional units in iPhone / Mac app development, which were tougher to take on than other units open to them. On the grassroots level, GeekUp, a developer community with its own free jobs portal, and Google group, also proved valuable, and encouraged me over time to use Twitter as another resource – although this time around it was an add-on, I’d want to be using social networks more strategically in the future.
In Three Parts
I’ve glossed over the detail of doing this: I sat through hours of panel interviews, drove and rode the train all over the region, and have lever arch folders a-plenty, and learned a lot about marketing for talent, however the biggest thoughts I came away with are:
- Students are largely ignorant of the digital SME landscape, and the huge opportunities it can represent. It’s not necessarily their fault, nor an indicator of their talent or intelligence: cultures on campus don’t encourage them to seek out or talk to those businesses, and the milk round (a revenue stream for universities, remember) seems like the only type of contact available.
- The skills gap is more complicated than a perceived decline in the quality of web design / development degrees. Digital sector SMEs, when you grill them about it, don’t necessarily know how to recruit for good, new talent, in a way that isn’t resource-intensive. It only costs time to attend degree shows, or to give talks to relevant groups of Year 2 students, but I was surprised by the number of companies happy to criticise HE without doing any of these things – they would just sit back and expect the speculatively submitted CVs and portfolios to represent the cream of the crop. While I may have been stupid to have said it so straightforwardly when I worked on a similar project with them, the BBC aren’t necessarily attractive as an employer brand to new talent in digital and tech, and may not be getting the top tier of talent they think they are – certainly an issue as their Future Media & Technology department will have a large presence at MediaCityUK in Salford.
- Universities are a key resource – but you’ve got to know how to work with them. Businesses just need to think in terms of getting access to the students, imparting guidance; building their brand to attract talent to them. Track down the lecturers, respond to the ones who find you, and get out there. One good starting point? Pro Dev Day is a free event for web, mobile and digital marketing businesses and students to attend, run by Manchester Metropolitan University every November. I manned a stand for Vision+Media in 2008 and 2009 and on each event spoke to in excess of 200 students and recent graduates.
Word of Vision+Media’s fortunes have spread widely enough for me to feel comfortable to post something not about it, but related:
How-Do ran a story in December on the departure of our CEO, Alice, and my favourite thing about How-Do is of course the comments. Thread ping-pong ensues, and some commenters took the opportunity to criticise the company’s form in securing jobs for the freelance TV and film crew in the region – in particular on the recent Captain America location shoots in Manchester and Liverpool. What I got from it was that some wished guaranteed jobs for regional crew were part of the deal whenever productions made use of locations. Which is about the time I facepalmed.
The production came up fully crewed from Pinewood, and in the big scheme of things it’s actually good that anything of that scale continues to be produced in the UK at all. We don’t have anything on the scale of Pinewood in the region. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect productions to come in to locations already crewed up, and pretty unreasonable to demand guaranteed hires for in-region freelances in that context. It’s not great, but the alternative -being overlooked as a filming location completely – is even worse.
Warning: a bit of a whine/rant. Buckle up!
I’m note really sure how annoyed I should be: in short, I’d pitched to project manage a careers and entrepreneurship day to be held during an animation and games festival in Stoke-on-Trent. It fitted in quite well with the 4-day week I’m currently on, and was well within my comfort zone knowledge and skills-wise. Moreover, I’m keen to see a high calibre of event take place in my back yard, an area often overlooked by national and regional bodies.
Instead, it transpires that Skillset, the sector skills council for the creative and digital industries, offered to do a careers day for free. After I’d put in my pitch. Bit of a no-brainer there from the Council’s point of view. However it takes 2 weeks to find this out. I ask my contact at the council if they can tell me who they’ve spoken to at Skillset – perhaps I can offer my services. It takes a further 2 weeks of pestering to find out that no, they can’t, because the council employee who spoke to them is on holiday, and didn’t pass on any details.
So I ring Skillset myself and finally track them down: they weren’t interested in any help. They have been asked to do an animation careers day as far as they’re concerned (not what’s required – the rest of the festival covers this in spades) and will be bringing some South East based animation, post and CGI bods up on the train, probably tell everyone in attendance that you need to move to London to train and work there, hop back on the train, job done. They’ll all be excellent examples of what they do in animation, FX, motion graphics, asset creation and so on, and probably of global standing – but the tone and design of the solution, will be completely off the mark.
On reflection I am very annoyed – mostly at myself, and I’ll just put it down to experience. But the outcome is I’ve had an opportunity disappear due to a far inferior alternative being offered for free (and often free things end up having no value), and it took an unreasonably long time to be updated on this. Maybe the comments thread will chuck up similar, or I hope, different experiences.
I’ve been “doing” karate since I was a teenager, and I keep going despite the fact that I’ve only recently achieved my black belt, and have just the one trophy to my name. Observers may wonder why I’ve failed to do more than that in nigh on 17 years. I ask the same sometimes. Grades and competition are vital parts of karate to keep it living and breathing, but not the be-all and end-all.
Thinking lately about what value it might be bringing me beyond, say, fitness, brought me to this: we claim all the credit for a success, and none for a failure. We could be talking about your business, or the university department you work in, or a karate club: someone wins an award, beats off the competition, and the club is happy to present it as the result of their input, the special combination of their particular style and their drive.
And then someone doesn’t do as well as expected: well, they didn’t put enough effort in, maybe they don’t have the right potential (or the judge was biased). The idea that this perceived failure is also a result of what the business/club/faculty did – or chose not to do – is never entertained.
Repeat this, wax on wax off, time and time again and soon enough your best talent go elsewhere – often to work for themselves so that credit and responsibility all goes to the end of the same line. So you go out to hire more talent (hire another expert, hire another expert) and on it goes, wax on wax off…
In karate, this isn’t always so bad – I’ve found that the best people are the ones who are prepared to stick at it, and if they do the outcome is always expertise, regardless of percieved talent. Other areas of endeavour can be far less forgiving.
(Oh yeah, here’s my club.)
I don’t think I’d ever be comfortable branding myself as an expert, regardless of my depth of knowledge and skill in one area or another – not that I do possess either in any depth, as my colleagues and past supervisors would be swift to point out.
Knowing what I know now, I’d be even less comfortable being branded an expert by someone else. If the ups and downs of the last few years working in what some would call a quango (I’d argue we’re not, but whatever), most of the problems we were briefed to deal with were adaptive challenges – those based on trends in behaviour and attitude: all essentially leadership issues, as identified by Ronald Heifetz. Experts are required to solve technical challenges – those problems requiring specific, in-depth know-how.
Despite that we hired a lot of experts, often self-branded experts, to solve adaptive challenges. It sometimes feels like an expensive way to not solve a problem, but then it’s more attractive than taking on that real challenge: altering the behaviour and attitudes of larger groups of people, or companies, or key decision-makers. You need a hell of a lot of soft power and influence, and be communicating at a national level. I’m not sure we have the influence, and most of the time we’re killing ourselves just to impress at a local, or at best regional level.