Opinion - CNBC Work

How one tech company's workers get ahead with an unlimited book-buying benefit

Zoe Cunningham, managing director of Softwire
Key Points
  • Employee development and retention are critical in the tech sector.
  • Continual learning opportunities will help prevent workers from leaving.
  • Softwire lets its employees order any books they want to learn from.
British tech firm Softwire created a library for its workers and gives employees the right to order any books they want to read for professional development at the company's expense.

When it comes to recruitment, the UK tech sector is an unbelievably competitive space – there simply aren't enough high-caliber people out there to fill all the roles available. That's why it's essential for a digital engineering business, such as Softwire, to put employee development and retention at the core of what we do. If we don't, our people will have no shortage of suitors.

Staff retention is complex, but one key is not: creating an environment where people want to stick around because they have clear career paths. For us, that means showing anyone in the business, from our apprentices and graduates upwards, that there's a route for them to grow into the person and professional they want to be.

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Company culture needs to be open, supportive, vibrant and intellectually stimulating. Part of this culture is to listen to employee ideas. Something getting mentioned to me a lot was to have a quiet space in the office where people could go to work or relax in a calm environment. We already had a chillout room, but in spite of the name, it's actually rather boisterous, given it hosts the table football, pool table and pinball machine. It's not a good place if you want some peace and quiet.

At the same time, we'd started to build a collection of books.

I've always been a great advocate of reading. This is partly inspired by the way other tech sector leaders I admire, such as Sheryl Sandberg, talk about how books have influenced them and their careers. I'm a strong believer that reading can play a big role in an employee's development, and we were keen to expand the way we supported our people in this regard.

These two things came together, and the idea of having a proper company library was born.

Given the dual purpose of our library, it was important we created the right ambience. Using a couple of bookshelves to partition off a corner of the office wasn't going to cut it. So when our next office refurb came around, we found the perfect space, at the far end of our top floor, away from hustle and bustle. With lots of natural light flooding in, we added sofas, coffee tables and soft furnishings, and decorated the room in calming colours. All of this has helped create the relaxing and peaceful environment that people were after. Its popularity among employees indicates it's fulfilling this purpose – and our staff retention strategy.

Technology marches on, but people remain the same.

Many of our people come to us direct from school or university. We then provide the training they need to build enterprise-grade software. Over time, these people rise through the ranks, where they need to learn to manage others. This may start by mentoring a junior developer, then lead a team of four, then six, then ten, and so on. We want to support them at every step of this career journey, and our library of books plays an important role.

People learn in different ways and at different speeds. While some learning is on the job, some people like to read up about techniques in advance of using them, while others like to supplement what they're learning on the job by reading books at the same time.

Different books suit different styles, so we don't have a standard reading list. Instead, and also because books are so cheap compared to facilitated training — we do very little of the latter, in part because of our library — we allow anyone who would like a book to support them in their current (or future) role, to buy it for the library at the company's expense. We don't monitor or question this. Trusting employees to do the right thing helps foster the culture we want.

Popular titles

This employee-led buying, combined with strategic purchases made by the management and our learning and development teams, is how our library has now grown to around 500 books.

Popular titles at the moment include some of the books you would expect at a software company, such as Clean Code: A Handbook of Agile Software Craftsmanship and Working Effectively with Legacy Code, as well as a variety of language-specific books (.NET, the open source programming language, being a current favorite).

Management titles also feature prominently, including Jo Owen's How To Lead. This is our most popular management title, unsurprising, perhaps, given its relevance to managers at all levels of a company. Interestingly, in the context of this piece, it has a section on how to read for business, a concept that's really interesting to think about.

Other popularly checked-out books include Marshall Rosenberg's communication classic Non-violent Communication and oldie but goodie How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie. It's hard to believe that a book written in 1936 can still be so relevant today. Technology marches on, but people remain the same.

Browsing through the records of which books are most popular, one title caught my eye. It's not one I was expecting to see and it definitely wins most unusual book in the Softwire library. The title? Learn how to be a Dolphin Trainer. Checkouts? 0.

By Zoe Cunningham, managing director of British technology company Softwire and a member of the CNBC-YPO Chief Executive Network

About YPO

CNBC and YPO have formed an exclusive editorial partnership consisting of regional "Chief Executive Networks" in the Americas, EMEA and Asia-Pacific. These Chief Executive Networks are made up of a sample of YPO's global network of 26,000 top executives from 130 countries who are on the front lines of the economy and run companies that collectively generate $9 trillion in annual revenue.

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