Startup Stories

ASOS: lessons in tech talent from the fashion frontline

Ecommerce & Marketplace, Future Fifty 2018, Late Stage

Angela JamesonAngela Jameson, December 27, 2018

Recruiting, retaining and inspiring your tech team is one of the biggest issues that developing businesses face. So we jumped at the chance to hear from ASOS’s Chief Information Officer Cliff Cohen and Chief Technology Officer Bob Strudwick, on how the global retailer and tech business tackles this challenge.

ASOS is a £2.4 billion revenue online retailer that delivers to 18.4 million customers in almost every country in the world. Of the 4,000 or so people it employs, 1,100 are in technology, after having worked hard to hire roughly 200 people a year for the last three years.

About 20 companies from the Future Fifty and Upscale programmes joined us for the first ever CTO & CIO roundtable, convened by the Future Fifty team. Here are some of the key takeaways from the discussion:

Locate yourself where the talent is, for the best chance of recruiting

With competition for skilled talent already tough and possibly set to get tougher, you need to think about whether your location is helping or hindering. ASOS says there is competition for skilled tech people in every city in the UK. In addition to its London HQ, ASOS has a small team in Birmingham. Cliff’s view is that you need to go where the big players are, because they create skills and attract local talent to the area.

Attracting and retaining people can’t just be about money

On salaries, Cliff says: “There’s an amount you have to pay. If you can’t, you are not even in the game.” But his view is that attracting and retaining people can’t just be about money – businesses need to attract software engineers, architects, product managers and more, on the rest of their offer, whether it’s culture, development and career opportunities, or the chance to work with cutting-edge technology. They should also make the size of their team – be it small or large – a point of differentiation to attract the right people. Another participant spoke about the value of lifestyle freedom: allowing engineers to work wherever and whenever they want. In some cases, this had meant they could travel the world while continuing to work, ultimately resulting in happier, more engaged employees.

Being able to develop your skills really matters to engineers

Bob says “no engineer wants to be the most talented person in the room”. They prefer an environment where there are better people than them to learn from. ASOS has invested in developing software craftsmanship and is establishing an ASOS approach to engineering. “Developing the culture isn’t just about beanbags and foosball tables – which we don’t have.” Instead, ASOS has lots of initiatives that encourage engineers to develop their skills and also foster a culture of learning. It employs coaches and practice leads, whose role is to help other people get better at their job. On the last Friday of every month, the company holds Tech Develops which is an opportunity for each staff member to work on a project or a passion, learn something new, write a blog – or whatever else helps them develop in their craft. Similarly, one roundtable participant highlighted the success his business had found in giving junior engineers significant responsibility and support early on, to help them develop.

You can attract talent through technology selection

ASOS was a very early adopter of Microsoft’s Azure; opting for the latest technology helped attract and retain curious technology-driven staff. It means ASOS can tell recruits that they will work very closely with the leading technology companies in the world.

It is possible to keep rockstar engineers, without turning them into managers

Cliff says: “There needs to be two paths (an ‘individual contributor’ path and a ‘manager’ path) to move up at a company. Not every engineer wants to manage.” ASOS has people that have declined promotions because they want to keep close to the code. You have to be prepared to pay those influential long-serving engineers as well as you would if they were managers.

Setting the bar high when recruiting pays dividends

ASOS has each job applicant conduct a 90 minute coding test and rejects a lot of people. Cliff wonders if they are setting the bar too high, but ultimately Bob usually convinces him that they are not. Cliff says: “I could do with 200 [more engineers] tomorrow but I always lose the debate with Bob, because everything we have done is really good. Lowering the bar – the dilution effect – could impact the whole team.”