Keeping hold of your top talent

Retaining IT workers and software developers is becoming a growing concern, especially when an economy starts to gain momentum, according to some hiring experts.

For Mark McArdle, vice-president of consumer engineering at the Waterloo, Ont. office of security solutions provider McAfee Inc., keeping top-notch developers on his team is critical to the company’s success. The loss of one core member would have a “massive impact on the business. We are what our people can create,” he said.

McArdle added that retention concerns generally “become more acute when the economy is in a hot stage, growing and expanding.” When the economy in all sectors is low, everyone values their job. “You see the news (on TV) or read (in the newspaper) about another company announcing layoffs and you feel lucky to not be in that position. You hope your company weathers the storm,” he said.

McArdle’s comments reflect the findings of a recent survey by Robert Half Technology (RHT), a recruitment firm in Menlo Park, Calif. The poll, which included responses from more than 1,400 CIOs from a stratified random sample of U.S. companies with 100 or more employees, found that 58 per cent of those surveyed said keeping their best people is becoming more critical now that things are picking up in the IT industry.

According to RHT, employee retention should be a high priority in any economic environment, but it is particularly important when firms are preparing for growth and new business opportunities. Turnover can be costly for organizations in terms of lost productivity and intellectual capital, as well as recruitment and training expenses, the firm added.

When Graham Brown, Corel’s executive vice-president of software development, first read the results of the RHT survey, his initial response was to agree with the findings. But taking a step back, he said, retention concerns really shouldn’t be viewed as more important once the economy starts to improve.

“(Retention is) really a product of where you place your focus. It’s about job satisfaction, with a focus on keeping people happy.” For companies that provide opportunities for growth as well as “more tangible results,” such as profit sharing and stock options, retention is a natural outcome, he said.

In fact, apart from special circumstances, it’s probably unwise to focus on retaining employees as an end unto itself, rather than making sure they are happy over the long term. A few years ago when times were tough and companies were working toward short-term rewards, retention concerns were also short term — trying to keep people from leaving over the next 60 or 90 days or for the next round of funding, he said.

Gail Oxley, Corel’s vice-president of human resources, said that longer term fostering of trust and respect is what enterprises should be focusing on now that the economy seems to have picked up somewhat. In this industry “you weather a lot of highs and lows and (at some points) you are kind of riding wave. But you can’t forget about retention when you are riding the wave. You’ve got to think about what keeps your workforce motivated and engaged.”

The survey, Brown said, might be viewed as a “call to action” for managers who haven’t been paying attention to long-term retention issues. However, “if you find that you need to take action now, you may have already bombed it,” he added.

McArdle said that at McAfee, part of every manager’s core responsibility is to make sure that they make investments in the company culture, recognize the performance of people that have succeeded, provide visible career growth and offer competitive compensation.

He said the wrong culture is one of the top reasons IT employees tend to leave. “They either don’t feel happy with position, the kind of work, the way the company operates or the way the manager interacts with them, and they seek out change.” Having a strong culture is also the best way to retain people, especially in R&D. “People are challenged (and) they feel like part of something that’s successful. It covers a lot of potholes in the road.”

Keeping employees satisfied also means providing a career path so they can move on when they are ready, said Corel’s Brown. “(We focus on) individual growth within the role itself through retraining people. Anyone who may have management capabilities will go through a large session of training before they are put in a management position. It lets them know we do see greater things for them. It’s a subtle message but an important one.”

McArdle emphasized providing more than just a management career path option. “In some companies if you want to progress, you have to become a manager or you’re at a dead end. But it’s not everyone’s forte to get into people or team management. You might take someone who is very strong (technically) and turn them into a mediocre manager just because have no where else to go.”

McAfee has a well-defined technical career path and those who follow it are not required to take on management responsibilities. “More and more companies are starting to do that.”

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