Tuning up tech careers

If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it dozens of times in the past three cash-strapped, resource-constrained, hyper-cost-conscious years: The one and only purpose of IT is to support and enable the business. That means everybody in IT, from network administrators to data architects and project managers, must know the business better than ever before.

“You have to understand the business. It’s more important than understanding technology if IT is going to be proactive,” says Dennis Fishback, CIO at San Jose-based energy producer Calpine Corp.

True enough. Yet experts warn that there’s also a danger of IT organizations increasing their business focus at the expense of maintaining leading-edge technology expertise. That’s why the very best IT employers are simultaneously upgrading and enhancing purely technical IT positions — and their accompanying salaries and benefits — as part of a dual-track career-path system.

“The best companies, and especially those with an R&D mind-set, are searching to support the individual technical contributor and the value they bring,” says Linda Pittenger, an analyst at People3 Inc., a Gartner Inc. company in Bridgewater, N.J. “To stymie them is ridiculous. It’s Flintstone HR.”

It’s also increasingly risky as the economy improves and hiring picks up, especially at companies with pent-up demand for top technical talent. In a 2004 PricewaterhouseCoopers survey of 177 chief financial officers at U.S. companies, 63 per cent of those in technology companies said they plan to increase their workforces by an average of 3.5 per cent this year.

At the same time, many IT workers are restless and looking for a job change. In a survey conducted in late 2002 by Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Spherion Corp. and Rochester, N.Y.-based Harris Interactive Inc., 51 per cent of 3,278 U.S. workers interviewed said they wanted to leave their current jobs. IT workers were especially dissatisfied, with 40 per cent reporting poor or fair job satisfaction, compared with 28 per cent of the total sample.

Here’s a look at how several leading-edge IT employers across a variety of industries are fine-tuning their IT career paths to attract and retain some of the best and brightest technology- and business-focused IT talent.

Side-by-Side Career Ladders

Cardinal Health Inc. has spent the past two years overhauling its IT career-path system. Before that, says IT Director Dave Hammond, the human resources department and upper management considered it “an absolute anathema” to award incentive pay to any workers other than managers. This approach shortchanged the many employees who have deep knowledge of particular computing platforms or software tools and can solve problems but have no desire to manage other people, he says.

“You’d never put these guys in front of customers on a sales call, but you also couldn’t do without them,” Hammond explains. Today, he adds, “everybody understands that.”

Under the old system, those technology employees were penalized. But that all changed, Hammond says, when CIO Jody Davids won approval for the current system of parallel career tracks — and pay — for IT workers and IT managers.

“The way we have structured the job paths now is that they are parallel, but there also are nexus points along the paths, so there’s always a way to get back,” Hammond explains. “An IT architect might go back to school and get an MBA and want to get on a project management or manager track, and we allow that. We allow free changing, as long as people have the skill set.”

Cardinal’s one stipulation is that workers who receive extensive, company-paid training for a specific position must commit to remain in that position for a minimum of two years.

Global Experience

Top-notch experts in a particular technology, such as Oracle databases, can be difficult to attract to a Fortune 500 company outside of the high-tech industry “because these experts like to associate with their peers,” says Barry Libenson, CIO at Ingersoll-Rand Co. in Woodcliff Lake, N.J. “You have to be able to provide them a career path in which they can rise in the ranks of the technical staff.”

The US$8 billion industrial manufacturer does that by awarding increasingly larger and more complex technology projects to top talent and sending those employees on assignments around the world.

“Right now, one of my best guys is responsible for a (US)$1 billion project in Dublin, Ireland, where all of our European orders flow through. He is the architect,” explains Libenson. “The real tough question is, What do I do with him when he comes back to us? He’ll probably take over a large-scale sector implementation.”

Chetan Shah, executive vice-president of technology at Synygy Inc., a software and services company in Conshohocken, Pa., dispatches his top technical employees to India and other offshore sites for two to three months at a time to set up software development centres. “We offer this as an opportunity for people who want to get experience in other cultures and work with technologies that are different,” he says. “A T1 here, for example, is different than a T1 in India.”

Integration Experts

IT career paths changed at Rich Products Corp. when the Buffalo, N.Y.-based frozen foods maker migrated to SAP AG’s ERP software to run its entire business. IT employees with subject-matter expertise in a particular business function, such as logistics, sales or procurement, moved into so-called competency centres where they serve as knowledgeable liaisons between non-technical users and the IT group.

“These people are functional experts who started their careers on the business side and then became involved in IT and process-change initiatives,” explains CIO Paul Klein. Technology-oriented IT workers, on the other hand, are now focused on systems integration, which requires a deep knowledge of operating systems and network architecture, he says.

“Our whole (technical) focus now is managing architecture and integration and continuing to assemble a collection of packages,” Klein says. “We don’t design screens anymore, so we don’t need things like strong relational database management skills. And when we do need that expertise, we go outside and bring in contractors.”

Salary and compensation for both technology employees and those in the competency centres relates directly to their level of leadership responsibilities, Klein says. “If you’re an individual performer, no matter how good you are, you’re going to max out,” he adds. “But as long as you have leadership responsibilities, you can get beyond that individual-performer cap.”

For example, Rich Products is upgrading its 1,500 PCs across 20 manufacturing sites. “It’s strictly a technology project, not a business project,” Klein notes. “But the project leader is someone with a lot of technology project management experience, and that person is making as much money as project leaders who are leading business projects.”

It’s not whether a project is about business or technology that determines the manager’s compensation, he says. “It’s a matter of how much leadership you want to take on.”

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