Where'd all the good people go

Where'd all the good people go

Companies that are beating the IT talent drought.

Companies recruiting IT staff face many challenges and chief among them are the declining number of IT graduates and a shrinking pool of skilled job seekers. And like it or not, there's the cool factor, too. The competition for attracting staff is tight. A recent survey by the Australian Computer Society says IT unemployment is at a five-year low of 3.84 per cent.

Companies such as Google, which offer jobs in bleeding-edge technology development combined with a relaxed atmosphere and excellent benefits, will be a formidable challenge for competitors seeking to attract the same talent.

While the lure of working with cutting-edge technology can give an edge to IT companies recruiting for research and development positions, there are a variety of jobs in IT and many roles sit within IT departments of businesses outside the industry itself.

Speaking to companies as diverse as Google, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group and De Bortoli Wines, it is possible to glean advice on how to attract IT talent. Google, talent magnet

Three years since its initial public offering, Google still has that "wow" factor, which is the envy of other IT companies and means it can attract top talent. Indeed, the company casts such a shadow over the recruitment landscape that Forbes recently published an article called "How to Beat Google to Tech Talent".

Google's competitors may have taken heart when the company released its quarterly results in July and admitted it had overspent on recruitment. It seemed Google was going to slow down the recruiting juggernaut. But, according to Google Australia's head of engineering, Alan Noble, that's not going to happen in Australia.

The Sydney operation was only established in May 2005 and Noble says head office is aware it needs to continue to grow. "We have very, very ambitious recruiting goals. We're trying to recruit as many qualified engineers as we can," Noble says.

Just over a third of Google's 100 or so local staff are engineers but Noble says the recruitment target for Australia is to double it every year. "That's faster than the Google average."

In order to meet the targets, the company uses a small team of in-house recruiters; a couple of them are solely dedicated to engineering. Noble admits the ratio of recruiters to staff is high (some figures have quoted it at about one recruiter to every 12 staff).

"We are a growth culture and a people culture," Noble says.

About half of Google Australia's engineering intake will be graduates. Noble acknowledges the decline in IT enrolments in the country is one of the issues facing the IT industry, but says the recruitment challenges are not unique to Google.

"I would say it's more challenging recruiting senior engineers, in part because they're often more passive candidates. They're often happy and not thinking about a new job."

Google Australia has a number of initiatives to attract senior engineers by raising awareness of its local engineering focus both at home and overseas. It is sponsoring this year's Open Source Developers' Conference for the first time and the "G'day Google" event hosted at its Californian Googleplex in May was aimed at expat tech workers in the US. Google still needs to promote the Australian office as a destination for research and development. "It's not common knowledge that you can work in R&D here in Australia", Noble says. "In California, there are tens of thousands of expat Aussies and there are hundreds of thousands in the UK. Clearly, it represents an untapped market."

Google's recruitment process isn't bulletproof. Its rigorous and lengthy process has been criticised but Noble says it is improving. Engineers now average about five interviews, he says, and the overall recruitment time is down to about two months.

But Google can act fast to snap up talent if it needs to. "If we are in a competitive situation, we can accelerate the process."

Google has about 12,000 employees globally, so it no longer a start-up or a small company. Noble admits it needs to work to attract smart, entrepreneurial talent.

"Exciting start-ups are our biggest competitor," he says. "We're certainly looking at programs and incentives to facilitate entrepreneurial behaviour, so people don't feel like they need to leave to start a company."

Google's employee perks are well known in the industry. Its "20 per cent time" program is held up as a major drawcard. It allows engineers to devote 20 per cent of their work time to their own projects - with the proviso that it may become a useful Google project. It gives them room to develop ideas and potentially expand them into new products. The most famous example is Google's webmail product, Gmail.

"It's common knowledge that we have good benefits," Noble says. "But the motivating benefit above and beyond all others is the work itself. You get to work on products that tens of thousands of people will be using. Other benefits are the icing on the cake.

"The biggest attraction to Google is we can offer big, attractive problems. If engineers are looking for big challenges and profound impact, Google's the place for them."

Pragmatic Atlassian

One company that competes directly with Google for talent is five-year-old software vendor Atlassian. The company, which builds and supports enterprise wiki and project management software, has an office in California and an R&D centre in Sydney.

Atlassian has 110 staff and, according to CEO Mike Cannon-Brookes, has pretty much doubled every year. "Our target is to hire two engineers a month. This is incredibly difficult," he says.

He attributes the recruitment challenge to a lack of available talent in the market, as well as the company's high standards for recruits and its emphasis on software.

"Not a lot of people have software development skills. Most are working in insurance and large corporates. It's very different to work on those systems as opposed to developing a software application."

Google is the company it comes up against most when recruiting, but Cannon-Brookes says that despite having a similarly rigorous screening process, Atlassian's hiring cycle is much quicker.

"They're our most frequent co-interviewer but we've done quite well against them, I have to say."

Atlassian also has a slightly different focus in talent spotting, he says. "They emphasise academic credentials, we're more practically focused. Can you do the job? For us it's about building applications."

Atlassian also has a mostly Java environment which doesn't overlap much with Google's C+/C++ environment, he says.

Apart from Google, the recruitment competition is corporate Australia - banks and insurance companies. "In San Francisco, our competition is start-ups but in Australia there aren't that many start-ups hiring engineers," Cannon-Brookes says.

Atlassian's recruitment process involves an average of four interviews, including phone screening, code tests and technical tests. The average interviewee meets five or six Atlassian employees during the process and it usually takes a week.

Rather than being off-putting, Cannon-Brookes says feedback from new recruits is that they appreciate the involved recruitment process. "They come out of it knowing the product, knowing the company and saying 'I want to work with these guys'. To them it shows that we care about who we hire."

Atlassian's "Fed Ex days", inspired by Google's 20 per cent time, are a drawcard for recruits, Cannon-Brookes says. Fed Ex days are a day off from normal work to let staff work on projects they can complete in a day - they can positively get it done overnight, just like the FedEx delivery promise. The emphasis is on creating something that can be used in-house or added to products.

As part of its longer term recruitment plans, Atlassian sponsors six scholarships at The University of NSW and is negotiating to sponsor scholarships at the University of Technology, Sydney. The company took on two graduate IT recruits this year and has another one starting in January.

The company also has a presence at industry events to build its profile and attract potential recruits. It encourages staff to attend and speak at conferences, and sponsors developer community events such as the Sydney Java User Group Confluence.

"It may not make an effect today but you want to be on people's lists. Our best recruits come through these channels," Cannon-Brookes says. "Recruiters are expensive. My personal ballpark for recruiting people is around the $20,000 mark given recruitment fees, HR time and engineering time for interviews."

And even after paring down to one preferred recruiter (who also recruits for Google), Cannon-Brookes says Atlassian's hiring rate is about twice as successful as those put forward by the recruiter. He estimates the company hires one in 10 candidates via the agency.

Broken banking stereotype

While offering a very different work environment to a software development house, ANZ's general manager enterprise services Kieran Griffiths says its IT recruitment efforts aren't hampered by the stereotypical image of banking as a stodgy environment. In fact, he says, ANZ's progressive work culture is its major drawcard. Griffiths oversees the infrastructure, service management and enterprise applications for the bank across Australia and New Zealand. Its 1200 staff work on major infrastructure upgrades such as IP infrastructure, as well as building systems and projects, and overseeing capital management and Basel requirements.

ANZ's IT recruitment is handled by its internal unit, ANZ Careers, supplemented by employment agencies when needed. The bank also has a graduate entry program that takes in a few hundred graduates a year across its campuses in Australia, New Zealand and Bangalore, India.

"Clearly, the IT market is getting tighter but we find staff are readily available to us," Griffiths says.

He attributes this to the effort ANZ has put into developing a work environment that "people enjoy and find challenging".

Like most larger financial institutions, ANZ is investing in new technologies such as web services and unified communications. "We maintain a pretty balanced workplace across heritage and newer, more agile technologies," Griffiths says.

One key advantage for banks in the recruiting game is that they provide staff with opportunities to gain experience across the business. "We've consistently found that staff appreciate the ability to get business and financial services experience beyond the pure IT role they may have started in."

Griffiths plays down the role pure technology has in attracting or retaining staff. "The reason they stay is the environment we've created," he says. "We have a culture that values the individual and acknowledges the importance of work/life balance. That seems to work very strongly for us."

Innovative winemaker

At the other end of the corporate spectrum is De Bortoli Wines. Having a small IT department headquartered in regional NSW hasn't worked against the company. In fact, CIO Bill Robertson says the winemaker's long-term dedication to open standards, open source technologies and innovation has helped it attract applicants from overseas.

The De Bortoli wine business has nine sites, including its main winery and head office outside Griffith in NSW. Its small IT department of seven work within a primarily Unix/Linux environment.

"Our ERP [enterprise resource planning software] system has been great for running the core business processes (purchasing, manufacturing, logistics, sales, financial) and is collecting enormous amounts of data about our business operations,"

Robertson says. "

To help make better business decisions using this data we have implemented Palo (for financial modelling) and are implementing Pentaho (for online reporting, analysis and data mining). We are also trialling visual access to this data using mapping and GeoTagging via Pentaho."

The company's IT has benefited from a progressive management attitude in recognising the benefits of IT investment and staff have been given the time to develop and implement technology, he says.

De Bortoli has hired several IT staff from overseas, including one former full-fee paying student from a local university, Robertson says. "Our location was actually an advantage because the business migration scheme gave preference to those who went to regional areas."

Despite the small size of the family-owned wine company, staff have the scope to work on new technologies. "We have an interesting open source GIS research project using MapServer and OpenLayers to provide browser-based access to various mapping layers and meshing this data with Google Maps. We are now at the stage of implementing GeoTagging for visual access to vineyard and vintage intake data," Robertson says.

The company involves local students as interns on some of its research projects - one of whom was later taken on as a cadet. De Bortoli is also seed funding the development of an OpenOffice interface with a view to community building and reaping some tech benefits for the business.

Graduate recruiter

NSC Group is a privately-owned systems integrator with a staff of 125, over half of whom are engineers. It provides communication and call-centre technology services to enterprise customers.

The company has hired 10 staff for its Sydney office in the past two months, and its HR manager Michelle Natoli, who is also a company director, says NSC is increasing its graduate recruitment because of the lack of more senior candidates in the job market. "We're trying to hire four or five graduates at the moment," Natoli says.

NSC is also looking for skilled workers from other countries. Through a combination of personal contacts and advertising, the company has employed four South Africans under the 457 skilled entry visa.

Natoli estimates the cost of overseas recruitment is about $10,000 once relocation allowance, temporary accommodation and the immigration consultant and visa costs are factored in. This compares favourably with employment agencies, she says.

"Most recruiters in Sydney probably take 18 to 19 per cent. On a $100,000 package, that's $19,000 before the employee is in the door."

When hiring, NSC comes up against its competitors - Telstra, IBM, Nortel and Cisco. NSC's smaller size and lack of red tape gives it an advantage, Natoli says. "Because we're smaller, we're a lot more nimble and flexible. We can make decisions quicker.

"You have to be really quick with offers. We'll typically do two interviews, maybe three at a maximum. The process takes about a week, but sometimes a day.

"We have a good name in the market, we offer career opportunities, fairly young management and not too much red tape," she says.

A flexible work environment is important for those with families, Natoli says. "Where they can work from home, we're happy to promote that."

NSC offers permanent part-time roles and recently gave all staff a BlackBerry or wireless card to enable "hot desking" and flexible working.

In Google's shadow

In conclusion, there's no doubt that major players such as Google cast a long shadow over the rest of the playing field when it comes to recruiting the best and brightest IT talents. Companies across the IT spectrum - in software development, large organisations or regional IT departments - are all attempting to play to their strengths when competing for staff. While most of the companies interviewed spoke of the need to engage IT staff with the technology, more emphasised the need to provide a work/life balance. In an increasingly competitive recruiting environment, understanding employees' personal needs could be the key to hiring and retaining staff.

© Fairfax Business Media

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