Growing a Tech company: 5 Lessons Learnt in Hiring

A guest post by @Wanjiku

Two months ago, Erik Hersman wrote a nice post on his blog about Kazi ya mkono. To the educated folks, “kazi ya mkono” is for those who didn’t go to school and were relegated to manual labour or just assisting and to the folks doing it, its a way of earning a living.

Over time, the term “kazi ya mkono” has evolved to mean the people who are not afraid to get their hands dirty and, given the proliferation of universities and colleges, having a degree doesn’t mean anything, and you still get to do kazi ya mkono.

But for the sake of this article, let us use the meaning as “digging the trenches, getting our hands dirty and just getting stuff done”. I am that person who always has a business going, whether selling biscuits and bread in high school or operating the corner milk shop in the neighbourhood – I am the side-hustle person.

Since Erik’s piece came out, I have been thinking about my mistakes and lessons in the process of growing a tech company. Staffing is probably the biggest challenge a growing company faces, along with capital. Investing in an area like tech infrastructure is challenging. You get the most skilled and the mediocre claiming ability to do the same job.

The lessons relate to bringing together a team, that will help achieve the dream.

1. Earning your credibility: One of the guys we hired in the early days, told me that he wanted to work for a company with directors. I wondered what he meant because the company is limited ergo, must have at least two directors.

What the guy meant was that he wanted to work for a big company with a name or a board of directors – I presume more than two. You guessed it right, a month later, the guy gave me a day’s notice when Wananchi Group came calling. (and that was of course after I had paid him his salary 🙂 )

That statement stuck with me over the years because the guy went to work on the same salary or maybe slightly higher, but he had chosen to go because Wananchi had the name. That I couldn’t argue with although I wanted to ask if Richard Bell would tuck him to bed in the evening, after his board meeting or serve him dinner. But I reserved my comments.

You can imagine the conversation a few months ago, when we discovered the guy was let go from Wananchi and was working at another company but with basic pay. I actually called him to say that we still have the same directors but could give him a job. Well, that was just talk.

People want to work for a credible or seemingly big organisation. That is why people get souped-up offices, with furniture that can massage behinds, directors buy big cars and provide this make-believe image in order to attract talent. People seem to buy into this perception big time.

2. Papers don’t always mean anything: Last month, I was very shocked by a smooth-talking guy who had tech certifications from here to Meru. He had everything but I was interested in the practical bit. I asked him like ten times whether he knew the stuff and if I sent him to a client he would be o.k. He answered yes, giving me examples of sites he had deployed and I was impressed by the young man.

Enter the practical bit. The technical lead greeted him with a router and the guy descended on his phone to search. Then he was told that the internet wasn’t needed. The guy sneaked out under the guise of pressing matters. The guy had Cisco certification but he couldn’t even log in.

I have several other cases of guys with certs who have done it but an equally high number that are self-taught or learnt on the job and are very good at it. My new strategy was to start with the practical, then chat about other stuff later.

The best, efficient people are not always the most educated.

3. No one likes to persevere, learn and earn later: This debate has been going on for a while. A person leaves university and immediately wants to earn some big money. They don’t look at it in terms of experience and what they can provide, its all about the big money.

Yes, our higher education teaches us that we can only be managers and bosses and not the people doing the actual stuff. I guess that is why very few people want to stick it out for a few years on minimal pay that rises normally;  we are all ready to drive within year one and how will you guarantee that loan?

I was recently eavesdropping on a conversation with two people in accounting. The old timers got their jobs when CPA (K) was the thing. Now, new graduates are coming with the papers and within the first year they wonder why their boss with minimal papers should be taking home that much.

I drew parallels with tech, where new graduates ask the same of a guy who has learnt through experience over the years. How do you answer that, while there is no substitute for experience?

I gave up on trying to show people what comes with patience. I started by working hard to show people that lack of higher education shouldn’t be a barrier to achieving dreams. People didn’t see that far and in the end, my colleague told me to quit “being all motherly”.

Now, I demand performance, if you can’t hack it, try another place where mediocrity is entertained and if you want to go stay at home, it is ok.

4. For the guys who put their head down and work: I know much has been said about salary negotiations and productivity. The last quarter we hired more people and of course we all have to keep the wage bill in check. The salaries are not the highest but we are good and make people comfortable.

But after a month or two, we realised that some of the guys were worth more than they negotiated. These guys had gone out of their way to deliver beyond expectations. The fact that they were on fair or comfortable salaries didn’t impact their productivity.

There are several circumstances that may make people not to get the best deal but once someone has proven their value, it is only fair that you make them feel appreciated. So, within the second month, the salaries were adjusted up, to reflect their (almost) true value.

I am still struggling with the guys who over promise and under deliver. How do you call guys and say, your salary is a scale lower? Yet they negotiated higher? That one I am still figuring out.

5. Rewarding loyal employees: In every company, I am sure there is that one person or people who can give you the history, from the time they all shared one desk. These are the people with institutional memory and probably know the organisation’s DNA.

Pay rises, continuous training and promotions are some of the strategies to retain the people but as companies grow, shareholding becomes a better option.

Conclusions: There no way of saying that these lessons apply to everyone but for Kenyan companies that are bootstrapping, you are likely to face these challenges.

At the same time, don’t think that your passion and drive as a founder can necessarily rub off the people working there. You need extra motivation and money does a great deal of motivation. If you have to go hungry to drive the company, you can do it with your co-founders, but not with the employees, otherwise they will start leaving.

The trick is to sell the dream to the team while at the same time working hard to make the conditions comfortable and making them feel it whenever there is an upturn in fortunes. If the profits get better, find a way to make it felt.

That is what I tell myself 🙂

1 thought on “Growing a Tech company: 5 Lessons Learnt in Hiring

  1. Jackline Wambui

    Employment and HR related stuff for the tech world in Kenya is very complicated. From personal experiences most over promise but cannot deliver while those who deliver mostly under negotiate their terms. It is a tough balancing act on the side of employer/client, but i think as we move forward things can only get better with the likes of iHUB and other training centres coming up. Also looking into freelancers and creating regulations in this field will be an immediate improvement.

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