The ones that get away

A couple of years ago, just down the street from InfoWorld’s offices in San Francisco, an undistinguished establishment became a favorite lunch spot for InfoWorlders for one simple reason: No one was ever there.

You could pick your table, eat unremarkable food, and hold a discussion as if you were in a private conference room. Recently, I noticed that — with no noticeable marketing and no change in the menu — this place has grown more packed, to the point where there’s sometimes a line to get a table. Who are these people?

Judging from the conversations I overhear while waiting for a table, the influx includes engineers, sales representatives, recruiters, and startup entrepreneurs. Many speak the language of selling, buying, hiring, “ramping up,” and even (gasp!) “stock options.” If there’s a clearer sign that things are picking up, I can’t imagine it. Could it be 1999 all over again?

Maybe not, but I feel certain of one thing amid all this new energy: The flurry of lunchtime activity is a leading indicator of an IT talent war. Proactive IT managers need to make sure their retention weapons are loaded — everything from providing paternal career advice (“there’s a good reason why you don’t want to work there…”) to sketching a plausible path for advancement. But they should also mentally prepare for the inevitable staffing casualties that result from a more robust economy.

Turnover is the fact of management life most daunting for IT managers (especially the newly minted ones). When someone leaves, the IT manager faces a number of questions. Most often the first one is, “Is there something I could have done to keep this person?” But I think the more important question is, “Why is this person leaving?”

An honest, self-critical answer to this latter question can highlight an important lesson for the IT manager. On the negative side, an employee departure might suggest a management shortcoming. One of my biggest management mistakes came several years ago when an excellent employee repeatedly complained to me about the unprofessional behaviour of his immediate manager, who reported to me. I recognized the problem but let it fester until the good employee handed in his resignation, leaving me with one less good employee and a problem manager. This is a classic example of management neglect that can and should be avoided.

On the other hand, an employee departure can be proof of a team’s vitality. The principal job of a good manager is to recognize and cultivate talent. When talented employees are encouraged by management to exploit their talents to the fullest, they frequently develop new interests or abilities that lead them in different directions. Recently, an extremely talented developer in our engineering group resigned to take another position with greater challenges — a position I simply couldn’t match.

I wish him all the best and look forward to filling his position with another stellar employee who will grow into the type of professional everyone wants to hire. I try to do whatever I can to keep the best people on board, but as a manager I never feel bad when an employee advances his or her career into new areas. It’s the ones who get away because of inaction or inattentiveness that teach you the hardest lessons — lessons I resolve to never have to learn again.

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