Technology and training are IT lures

While IT professionals in the West may get a kick out of a big pay packet, the No. 1 priority for IT workers in Central Europe is access to training and new technologies.

This is a cultural issue and results from a focus on personal development that starts at a very young age, according to Tony Goodwin, chairman and CEO of recruitment consultancy Antal International Ltd. who is based in the firm’s London office. And the basic levels of training tend to be good, if not better than in the West because of the former communist regimes’ traditional focus on education, he says.

“IT staff here have a definite desire to be at the forefront and prove themselves to almost be better than the West,” he says. “So the main thing for people is to be in touch with new technology and training. Massive salary increases are generally less of a motivator.

“Culturally, it’s about devoting yourself personally, which means that IT professionals want to know what a company is going to do for them to take them to the next stage,” Goodwin adds.

Nonetheless, the salary of IT personnel can be two to four times the national average across the region as a whole.

In addition, IT infrastructure in the area is rapidly approaching Western standards, and in fields such as broadband and wireless, organizations have even leapfrogged the West in terms of new technology adoption as they replace antiquated systems or introduce new ones.

That means opportunities to learn new skills are readily available to supplement basic technical know-how, Goodwin says, although the region still lags in some areas, such as knowledge of the latest programming languages.

As a result, IT staffers find that their skills are in demand at home and also provide them with opportunities to move abroad, particularly if they work for one of the many large multinational firms such as Hewlett-Packard Co. or Microsoft Corp. that have flooded into the region during the past 10 years.

Michal Danielewski, joint CEO of IT services company ComputerLand SA in Warsaw, agrees that training and development are a key consideration to IT personnel.

“Personal development is seen as the most important thing because staff have no commercial value if they don’t develop their skills. They are keen to be part of interesting and sophisticated projects such as implementing the newest Oracle applications or customer relationship management systems,” he says.

But this also translates into a desire to know that their employer will be there for the long haul.

“A stable employer makes IT staff confident that they will have a career path. We’ve been around for 11 years, we’re big and we’re involved in a lot of different activities because we service the top 100 Polish companies,” Danielewski explains. “So we have plenty of opportunities for staff to take different career paths.”

For example, Danielewski took his first job at ComputerLand 10 years ago, after earning a university degree in computer science. He now heads the company.

“We believe it’s possible to realize your career dreams here. Everyone that’s really good and wants to work hard can make it to the top, and nearly all of the top management got there by working their way up,” Danielewski says.

These factors combine to mean that for every position ComputerLand advertises, it receives between 50 and 150 job applications.

IT Staffers Treated Well

Inga Biraite, human resources manager at telecommunications giant Omnitel in Vilnius, Lithuania, says a combination of challenging work, competitive salaries and a fun working environment have contributed to the staff turnover of only 30 per year.

“It’s a mixture of everything, but there aren’t that many companies in Lithuania like us that can offer challenging possibilities and constant access to new technology,” she says.

Biraite acknowledges, however, that IT staff are also paid well compared with other staff members and receive good benefits packages. Moreover, they are sent abroad for training purposes “because you can’t get courses here in new technology, but having up-to-date skills is important,” she says.

Omnitel also prides itself on its flexible and democratic working practices. “We need creative staff to take the lead now, so the old Soviet-style bureaucracy doesn’t work any more,” Biraite explains.

“There has to be a democratic, creative working environment, or it wouldn’t be possible to survive on the market, which is growing so quickly that people have to be very flexible,” she says. “So we have everyone working in small project groups and have cross-departmental meetings so that everyone can learn from new ideas.”

Hewlett-Packard Bulgaria in Sofia is another vendor that has appeal as a result of its size and reputation.

Sasha Bezuhanova, general manager at the firm, says, “HP is a very reputable name on the market and so is perceived as an organization that will provide good professional development and compensation. People also benefit from a high social status because they are working for a well-respected company.”

But HP also attempts to motivate staff by rewarding achievement at both the local and corporate level. The Achievers Club has been set up to recognize individuals’ contributions at a Europe-wide level, while membership of the Presidents Club is awarded to outstanding individuals worldwide.

Microsoft SRO in Prague, meanwhile, believes that an open environment, where good communication and teamwork are valued, plays a key role in staff retention. As a result, Microsoft SRO organizes family weekends for the whole company once a year, encourages team-building events and has regular informal meetings to encourage personnel to bond.

Martina Smidochova, Microsoft’s human resources manager in the country, says: “Microsoft strongly supports an open-door policy for resolving problems quickly and fairly. Employees are encouraged to air their creative ideas, issues or concerns through open discussion with their manager or any member of the management team.”

Microsoft, like Ericsson Hungary Ltd. in Budapest, also considers its appeal to be partly due to the international nature of its business, which means that employees have the chance to work abroad if they so desire.

Ana Joznec, Ericsson’s people and culture director, explains: “Ericsson is a global company and gives the chance to its top performers to go on short- or long-term assignments abroad. This leads to knowledge sharing and improved awareness of other people’s cultures and is quite normal these days.”

On the other hand, many staffers are also happy to see that Ericsson is investing in the country and employing local people, she says, which means they can “work on the same things that colleagues do at headquarters in Sweden and elsewhere and not be forced to leave their home country to be successful in their profession.”

According to Tom Schwieters, an analyst at Framingham, Mass.-based IDC, which has offices across Central Europe, this is positive news because “there will be growing demand in companies for IT expertise over the coming five years.”

With growth rates expected to hit a sedate 10%, however, he says he doesn’t necessarily expect this to translate into a huge staffing boom. Companies in the region are more likely to take measures to boost productivity in their IT departments and will “look to outsourcing to reduce costs and increase the quality of their IT function,” says Schwieters.

But Bezuhanova says the appeal of pursuing an IT-based career path to people in the region isn’t likely to disappear any time soon.

“The general trend towards the increased use of the internet and IT in general means that a lot of young people are keen to do computer science degrees because there are good jobs available. This is enhanced by the social perception of the IT profession, which is very high. IT staff are highly respected here,” she concludes.

Catherine Everett is a freelance writer in Herts, England.