The talent to deliver
- 09 November, 2008 22:00
The skills crisis is hitting home, and you are looking at creative ways of shoring up your IT team. How do you attract the staff you
need? We ask CIOs to share their strategies.
Staff numbers are critical to meeting deadlines on any IT assignment,
but finding good employees - let alone retaining them - can become a
project's biggest problem when, as at present, there is a skills
shortage hungrily eating into the available stock of talent. So, we
asked our respondents: where and how do you start looking? Or,
alternatively, how do you counter the threat of being short-handed
when it starts to affect your current workload?
Chief information officer, Wotif.com
Stalking students at graduation ceremonies, staging "bring a developer
friend to work with you" days, poaching competitors' staff by hanging
out in nearby coffee shops - and we've also considered, as a
recruitment method, shamelessly mentioning the fact that we're
currently recruiting developers in opinion pieces published by MIS (sister publication of CIO NZ).
But experience has taught us that the best way to attract and retain
high-quality staff is by providing them with a job they want to do,
within an organisational structure that supports their needs and
facilitates their ambitions, while surrounding them with peers they
respect and want to work with.
The challenge that lies therein is reconciling the interests of your
workforce with those of the business. Four strategies that have worked
well for Wotif.com are:
1. Tailoring career progressions to suit the ambitions of our staff.
This strategy has included the establishment of leadership roles that
allow our most technically proficient staff to act as mentors, without
requiring them to take on traditional management duties of countless
meetings and paperwork. Conversely, we've introduced programs to up
the skills of those staff who would like to pursue a traditional
management position. Among other improvements we've made to our
organisational structure is the creation of roles for those whose
passion lies in systems architecture.
2. Including existing team members in the recruitment process. With
this strategy, we're not only able to assess the technical skills of
recruits, we're also able to measure the cultural fit of the
individual prior to hiring them. Not only does this create an
unofficial buddy system, that we've found increases retention of new
staff, it also places value on team cohesiveness, which is of
particular importance to a company leveraging agile methodologies for
3. Creating a work environment that is outcome-driven rather than
procedure-driven ensures our team feels invested in the result and
gives them a sense of empowerment.
4. Our decision to make extensive use of open standards and emerging
technologies has provided a number of benefits to the company. We've
found it has helped attract individuals who aspire to work with the
latest technologies, as opposed to legacy technologies. The benefit to
our existing staff is they are continuously gaining experience and
developing skills in leading technologies and standards.
It's an ongoing process, but one we're committed to. Essentially,
we've taken an inside-out approach. And, given the way this industry
works, how better to attract the best applicants than through
word-of-mouth recommendations from your existing team?
Acting information technology director, University of New England
Wow, is that alarm bells I hear? Some immediate questions leaping to
mind include: how did we get to this point? Scope creep? Poor
estimation? Less-than-adequate project management? Or are we just
crippled by opportunistic headhunters?
If a project manager brought this problem to me, after asking them
what they intend to do about it (I never did like doing other people's
jobs for them) and assessing their perspective, I would endeavour to
find out why staff are leaving. They must have wanted to work on the
project to be there in the first place, so what's changed?
Irrespective, the viability of this project is a concern as it is now
well into the high-risk category. I would be calling in project
assurance. Does it still meet the business case? Show me the budget
and expenditure figures! What are the products and deliverables, and
can we restructure the scope and still provide return on investment?
This may open a case to challenge a funding freeze. Or it could
confirm that we need to cancel the project.
If the problem is project management or leadership, then look at
changing the approach, increase rigour, review the roles and
responsibilities, or even the leader. Worst case, we would rebuild the
team and see how that affects progress. Note, though, that there is
significant risk here as a poorly considered change of this nature may
leave you with an even bigger mess.
I'm a firm believer in hiring for attitude and training for skill.
Some of my best analysts have come from the business, so I would look
there for opportunities, or if I looked internally within IT, I'd find
out which existing staff are just waiting to burst out and grow, as
some of our best programmers and network administrators started in the
Coming from a university environment, we have had success hiring
recent or near-recent graduates. The secret here is to ensure they
have a good coach or mentor. My preference is to go with a coaching
approach rather than mentoring; to me such roles are proactive and
more about challenging the person being coached to grow and achieve,
than being an occasional sounding board.
With graduates, you have to be prepared to let them go as they are
just starting out on their life's journey, and when they do, be
satisfied that you set them on the right path.
If considering hiring recent or soon-to-be graduates, you need to talk
with lecturers to find out who are their top students, and why. I
always like to conduct a semi-formal interview.
These kids don't have a career history yet, or a long list of industry
referees, so I'm looking for motivation and the right attitude. You
know they have aptitude because, after all, they are doing a degree.
But you need to target students in at least their third year, as they
have a track record of achievement.
Once you have them, you need to train them. I'll guarantee these
people will be motivated. So, to maximise value from this energy,
channel it into areas that are productive for you and give these
people valuable lessons by putting them with your best. For example,
pick an experienced staff member who exemplifies the qualities you are
looking for as coach. If you want a great code-cutter, put them with
your best for six months. Do likewise for business analysts, systems
administrators, project managers, and so on.
Most importantly, don't delay!
IT manager, Opera Australia
It's all about the "want to" factor. It's 5.30pm, Friday, and the
project has just hit a bump in the road and slipped into a holding
pattern. A couple of things have not gone as planned, deadlines are
looming, your staff are looking at their watches. But what are they
It's at this point you remember the little article in MIS about those
wonderful people called "the team" and the ingredients that can, and
will, make the difference. So, what is it that will keep this team
focused, loyal, productive and wanting to achieve and contribute
beyond the sum of their individual skills and talents - and on a
continuing basis? I break this down in five ways.
First, find a reason. There has to be a reason why they "want to" do
this; the more passion they feel for the reason, the more they will
buy into its overall success. Most good reasons have a healthy mix of
what I call "emotional logic". Often, emotion is seen as a weakness
but it is, in fact, one of the most successful engines driving man.
Balancing it with logic allows it to become a powerful and focused
force, encouraging teams to overcome obstacles that try to hinder or
stop a worthwhile project.
Create some romance. Every good reason also needs romance. Encourage
people to spend quality time giving of themselves, utilising their
imaginations and feelings, along with the clear decision that they
"want to" invest in this particular employment adventure.
Culture and mission are vital. What is it that makes people hunger to
work with certain individuals or organisations? Among the challenges
1. Establishing clear agreement on identifiable objectives, targets,
standards and roles.
2. Aligning corporate/team and individual objectives wherever possible.
3. Identifying team leaders and members who understand and celebrate
their unique mix of personalities.
4. Recognising effort, skills and achievement, at both individual and
5. Ensuring that top-down and bottom-up views are discussed.
6. Working out people's strengths.
7. Growing the realisation that work can be fun and rewarding to
ensure people will "want to" do it again and again.
8. Establishing a debrief/review process at the end of projects that
identifies the wins and opportunities to do it better next time.
Focus on the fruit. If all the above ingredients are in place and
working well, remuneration and bonuses will not be the dominant driver
for the "want to" factor. There are legitimate times when money will
be the primary or dominant objective for staff, but in these
situations reward for performance and not the promise.
Look and find. I've had considerable success in having existing teams
devise their own strategies for finding new members. They will also
generally have a good understanding of people and sources that are
likely to be able to meet your requirements. Rewarding staff who
assist in recruitment always helps the cause, but their enthusiasm
about their own work environment will count above all else.
Advertising in its many forms is always a good place to start, but the
size of your operation will dictate the options available.
Fairfax Business Media