The importance of upskilling in the technology industry

Long before the pandemic accelerated digital transformation across industries, we have been undergoing a fourth industrial revolution. Jobs will require new skill sets to keep up with evolving technology. According to the World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs Report, 50% of employees will require upskilling or reskilling by 2025 in order to meet business demand and thrive in their careers.

As a key technology research and development hub for Hexagon, Hexagon Capability Centre India (HCCI) drives innovation and deploys ever-evolving technologies to meet global customer needs. HCCI was one of the first IT companies in Hyderabad and today — 35 years later after its opening — has a workforce of nearly 2,000 and growing.

Technology companies know all too well how employee skill sets must be broadened and enhanced to remain competitive. For this reason, HCCI implemented an upskilling program to serve our employees, our organisation and the market.

Deciding to upskill

Any upskilling effort must serve a business purpose. In our case, our goal was to ensure that our software continued to meet evolving best practices — not only in the code itself but with the user interface and experience. We also needed to enable the consumption patterns that are becoming prevalent in the market. Our customer base was looking for cloud options, which required a different skill set than what would be needed to build on-premises software products.

The employees at HCCI are technologically savvy and eager to learn. They also have an eye on their future career paths and are keen to ensure that their skills do not become obsolete. I felt we had a duty to invest in employee growth to keep them engaged and prepare them for the future.

Once the business case was established, we had to convince leadership that upskilling was the best solution for the organisation. Most of the time, when employers need newer skills, they look outside of the company. It’s easy to publish a vacancy, list which skills are needed and go into the market to hire someone. Many companies miss out on upskilling; this — in my view — is a mistake. When you overlook the team that has lived and breathed your solution for 10 years or more, you’re losing a lot of domain knowledge and are instead just adding technologists to the company.

Establishing the process

After engaging the management team and getting buy-in, our first step in the upskilling process was starting with a small proof-of-concept. We began by giving two or three people — out of our 200-member team for the specific product line — time to research new technology and compare it to different solutions in the market to determine which would serve our needs best.

During this process — and this is key — you must keep top management in the loop. Let’s use pasta as an analogy. If you were to come into the meeting room with cooked pasta, leadership will would want to know why you cooked it the way you did — why didn’t you use option B or C? I would recommend coming with all the process details so you can assure them that during the proof-of-concept, you tried options B through F and determined that option A would deliver the best possible results for the organisation. If they understand the whole path you took, the chance of them agreeing to your solution proposal increases.

Step two involved doing deeper research in terms of architecting the solution. Because we were working with our top employees, we were able to take this beyond the proof-of-concept phase into a solid project that convinced management to bless it.

Next, we took the two or three people who were involved in the proof-of-concept and built a couple of teams around them (pulling from internal employees). While the teams didn’t know the new technology, they knew the domain, knew the customers and knew the problems. They were also excited to learn the technology because they knew that if they learn, they grow. They had a clear reference point in the people who had piloted this initiative and were now serving as team leads.

While we were upskilling our team, we couldn’t leave our legacy product behind. We decided to replace the team members who had moved into the newer project with outside hires who could support the legacy products as well as begin building their domain knowledge.

The entire transition took place over a period of time— approximately three-and-a-half years in our case. Generally, it will take three to four years to completely upskill an existing team.

Overcoming challenges during upskilling

While rewarding, the upskilling process is not without its challenges. One of the biggest challenges occurs when you move from a team of two or four to 30 people or more. When someone is learning a new technology, the training process can be endless. To manage it, you must find the right combination of self-learning, classroom training and on-the-job experience. However, for the first two to three months, there needs to be a lot of handholding with the leads, as it is rare that everybody knows the technology equally.

The pandemic also had an impact on the process. When you’re working in a physical environment, it’s easier to share information. For example, one of the hub leaders may pass by someone’s computer and notice that they should be doing something differently and correct it at that moment. This is not so straightforward in a virtual environment.

I won’t discount that there are wonderful tools for collaborating digitally, but it’s different from face-to-face. Meeting agendas may be related to a particular topic and leave less room for guidance that is not topic related. Now that we have moved into a hybrid model, face-to-face meetings take more time because people are seeking additional guidance when collaborating in person.

For the employees themselves, many were initially hesitant. They wondered, ‘What if I’m not as good with the new technology as I was with the older tech stack? Will I be able to learn?’ There was certainly a concern regarding their competency during the process. Fortunately, all the employees who were asked to try this have proved their proficiency. Some were more proficient than others, but that happens with any group.

In the end, I have clearly seen that people have been happy to improve their skillsets. After the process, you can see the joy and sense of accomplishment in their faces. However, during the transition, they experienced change, and any change can be painful.

Looking at success

When reflecting on this upskilling initiative, I would say that success lies in the fact that our products are serving our customers’ needs and that our team has grown even in these difficult times. New challenges are getting resolved not only in terms of the features and functions but also in terms of technology, scalability, method of consumption and performance.

Looking at another metric, we wanted our senior colleagues to be up-skilled and continue to contribute. Now we can proudly say that all of them happily continue with us even after the “Great Resignation” period, as they have become masters of new technologies!

And yet another metric — albeit a related one — is general team growth. Because they could create and sustain a solution with new technology, the team acquired new responsibilities of critical customer management and software architectures.

Improving talent retention and recruitment

At Hexagon, we want people to stay with us because the longer they are with us, the more value they create. Your employees know that changing even one line of code can affect hundreds of customers, so you need people who know the history behind what was done and the purpose it serves. For this reason, upskilling is absolutely a part of our talent retention strategy.

We also highlight our commitment to upskilling during the recruitment process. All hiring managers are trained to understand what Hexagon as a whole is doing as well as what HCCI is specifically doing so they can share this information with applicants. The hiring manager also explains during the interview the three different learning models we offer for continuous upskilling — online, in the classroom and on the job. We have seen a difference in outcomes since we started coaching hiring managers on how to speak about upskilling with candidates.

Preparing our team for the future

As a manager, I feel we have two responsibilities: 1) to give people the tools they need to be successful and 2) to ensure they are engaged and happy with what they’re working on. It does a disservice to your employees to keep them from learning new things in order to retain them.

My goal is to make every member of the team smarter so they can contribute to Hexagon’s technological advancements and — at the same time — create an environment where they want to stay. Upskilling is certainly a powerful tool in meeting this goal.

Navaneet Mishra

Navaneet leads Hexagon Capability Center India (HCCI), formerly known as Intergraph and has guided the center to become Hexagon's single largest R&D hub. With more than 1850 professionals and growing, HCCI drives various core Product lines and Technology Solutions across all Hexagon BUs. Prior to this, Navaneet served as the Vice President for Globalization Services at SAP Labs India, Bangalore. He was responsible for teams across multiple continents looking after the localization of Logistics and Manufacturing Industries products across 40+ countries worldwide. During this time, Gartner and several leading dailies have featured his views on IT products for India/from India.