CIO roundtable: IT management in the Philippines

The IT industry is one of society’s many sectors that are always in flux, given its progressive nature. As technological advancements develop swiftly over time, IT professionals are left to struggle to keep up with the pace and efficiently cope with the challenges presented before them–IT staff management being one of them.

For October’s CIO Roundtable Feature, Computerworld Philippines invited three IT executives to zero in on how they manage their IT staff, how human resource management has changed over the years, and how they cope with the challenges of handling a highly technical and intrinsically creative IT workforce.

Rene de Guzman, vice president for Information Technology of National Reinsurance Corporation of the Philippines, pointed out the internal struggle with keeping his people occupied even in times of low project inputs for the company. “We are constantly challenged to keep our people motivated, to be passionate in the work that they do because that makes them most productive and creates the best results with their work,” he related. “So that’s a very big challenge to managers like us.”

Aside from keeping his employees motivated for work, Michael Asiddao, head of Information Technology and Operations group of Megalink, also has to keep his staff intact and protect the company from unexpected attrition. “There will always come a point when not everyone in your staff are good technical people who will rise to the challenge,” he explained. “But if you just manage their motivation, uplift their creativity and bring out the best in them, they would tend to stay.”

Meanwhile, Angel Lito Averia, head of the HR IT Forum, related that IT staff management hasn’t really changed over the years; the principles are the same, according to him, and that only the strategies and procedures of managers have changed. “I guess it’s pretty much the same if you start talking about concepts about of human behavior and so forth. It’s the same thing but it differs on how these concepts are applied,” he said, adding that the trick lies in how CIOs and IT managers are able tweak the principles to suit their particular needs, so that they will be able to respond to the particular demands of the market.

Leo Querubin, president of Avante Philippines, served as the moderator for the discussion, with Julius Suarez, sales engineer of security firm Sophos Plc., sitting in to offer insights about the topic.

Excerpts of the roundtable discussion follow:

Computerworld: For your company, what does IT staff management mean and why is it important to the business?

Rene De Guzman: Basically, I think I can define staff management for our group in three parts, but it’s not particularly about IT staff alone. Maybe the demand nowadays comes from more than being a skilled IT professional. Especially in an environment like ours, an IT staff member really has to partner with the entire organization.

Communicating clearly the employees’ roles and responsibilities is one; another is implementing an effective training and education program so that the expectations of the organization are properly deployed. Third is to constantly challenge the employees to create value to their work. This I believe is how we see staff management in general.

Computerworld:What challenges or issues do you constantly face in managing IT staff and how do you address them?

Rene De Guzman: In my job, shrinking budgets is a constant. But the budget that we probably have now in my organization is the biggest IT budget that we’ve had in years. So, when I say shrinking budget I actually mean the challenge of creating value in every expense item that you have approved. We challenge each other more. You asked people making requests, “Why do you need this?” When people do not appreciate the real value of the product and the costs, it is necessary to go back to the drawing board and ask, “Why do we really have to spend on this? How many users are going to benefit from this? Why do we have to have 100 licenses if we can have 10 licenses instead?” You have to think as if you own the company. I think that’s something that everybody has to think about. Nowadays, we have to challenge the rationale behind the many tasks that we do.

Mikey Asiddao: Staff management for me always starts with the company’s requirements. If an organization has a requirement that needs technology, I have to look at my army and check whether we have the people, technology, skills, and resources to address the business requirement. And IT staff management starts with that. I will have to look at the skills that are required and I will have to collaborate and talk with the HR (Human Resource) head and my boss.

If I do not have the people to o it, then we have to look at the appropriate processes to be able to address that concern. From then on, we manage the people, we look at their competencies, we look at their drive to deliver, we look at their performances, and we evaluate them based on a certain standard. In Megalink, we have that performance evaluation plan at the start of the year when we look at you, we assess the skills, and if you lack the skills we qualify it. So that is where performance evaluation planning comes in, because you have to look at your entire IT staff and look at who are capable and not, and who are those that have the potential to be in the next levels later.

Computerworld (to Mr. Averia): With your experience, both private and public, do you have the same challenges that other CIOs face in terms of managing different IT staff from both public and private companies? Is there a difference in handling the IT staff from a public company or from a private company?

Lito Averia: With private companies, it’s relatively easier than with the government, mainly because of the budget. A private company can pay more for the skills required, whereas in government a lot of politics come into play, nepotism for one. Sometimes you are forced to hire somebody because the big boss up there told you to hire him, even if the guy does not have the necessary skills that you need at the moment.

When it comes to challenges, sometimes, we all know that developers are very dynamic so it depends on the contract. Sometimes there’s a deluge of opportunities, you just need to hire the necessary skills. Sometimes you are in limbo when there’s no project coming in. So what do you do with your existing staff? This is one of the issues today that we are looking at with Congress. Are you aware that there’s a proposed amendment to the Labor Code requiring a 20 percent cap on contracted workers? It’s an issue that cuts across industries. Basically it is addressing headcount. You just have to manage your headcount within costs. That’s an issue that we are all facing today.

With regards to challenges in managing IT staff, one is, of course, you try to hire the good ones. Some developers have such artistic temperaments. They differ in temperament to people with technical knowledge. The ones with artistic temperament find it hard to communicate. Interpersonal relationship is a challenge to them. What we did before was to create a map for the purely technical people so they can go up the ladder, differentiating them from the ones with obvious supervisory and managerial skills. We created another ladder for that group. But sometimes it all boils down to salary, or economics. That’s why there’s a lot of movement in the industry, people are starting to migrate.

Computerworld: What do you think is the main reason for attrition?

Averia: The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence, and especially if that grass is far from abroad.

Computerworld: How about you, Mr. de Guzman, what challenges have you encountered in IT staff management?

De Guzman: My experience can be summarized into three words. One is motivation, two is people-centric and three is results. We are constantly challenged to keep our people motivated, to be passionate in the work that they do because that makes them most productive and creates the best results with their work. So that’s a very big challenge to managers like us. Second, people-centric, because naturally IT organizations are technical in nature. We are talking about highly skilled people but if they keep on talking to machines and not work with people and align themselves with the needs of the organization, it gets quite dangerous. So I believe that it’s very important for IT organizations to always align themselves with the business requirements and it is important that they are good team players and that they work well with people.

The challenge lies in how you shift at least a portion of their interest to working with people, communicating to people and talking to people. We see so many instances when what is done by IT is not well deployed within the organization simply because of lack of understanding within the business units. The third is results. As a summary to all these, it’s important that you are able to deliver the results the organization appreciates, not the just the one you appreciate as a technical person.

Assidao: For me, attrition and retention has also been part of my problems. I myself am a technical person, so I get bored easily. Just like what Mr. Averia said, sometimes it all boils down to economics. There will also come a point when not everyone in your staff are good technical people who will rise to the challenge. But if you just manage their motivation, uplift their creativity and bring out the best in them, they would stay.

So, in Megalink, we started to develop a career development program. We have this program called the “Megastar” where we look clearly at the potentials people in our organization have. We have performance evaluation, competency level assessment, and we look at people that have the potential to be leaders. We make sure to inform them their current standing with the company because that can possibly address retention. If you make them aware and inform them how they are doing, you can clearly give the proper programs for them to develop. One of our challenges include people looking elsewhere because they are not informed of their competencies. But if you try to talk to them, even a small chitchat at the end of the day, you can easily manage them.

Another challenge, as what I’ve mentioned earlier, is that technical people tend to get bored easily. If they are not doing anything, they find something to do elsewhere. So we always make sure that they are trained and that they have something to do–we make sure that the sand boxes are available for them to be able to throw in anything they want to do in the boxes. We don’t tend to limit them, people tend to want their own way so we make sure that the testing environment, documentation and books are there for them to be able to enhance their skills. If you tend to control them, they tend to be more difficult.

I manage different people in my organization: I have people in production, I have people in the corporate head office, and I also have people in the field–people whom I don’t see every day. And one of the challenges we met making sure that they are in sync with corporate head office. We have diverse management in different geographic locations and one of the things we find difficult is in keeping them informed. You have to make sure that every IT person is informed of what’s going on in the corporate head office.

Computerworld: The “superstars” in the company–those that are highly skilled and are often regarded highly by management — are the ones who tend to say. And it’s actually the middle peer people who have the tendency to have a lateral movement to another company or have the inkling to move abroad. Is that still the same?

De Guzman: Filipinos are naturally adventurous and global. Nowadays, there are two tracks for migrating professionals. Whatever industry they’re in, there’s always a direction towards going out of the Philippines. Migrating somewhere else now is a dilemma that applies not only to IT professionals but across all professional careers. First track is the normal direction towards advanced economies like the US, Europe, Australia or the Middle East. But coming from a multinational background and watching over global economies, another track is directed more towards Asia. In the second track, opportunities in developing an IT career locally are growing. Asia is now the melting pot of opportunities. Soon, if not now, the picture is going to change so that people around the world will be going more towards Asia, and I think this is advantageous to the Philippines. I guess the fact that the people go elsewhere is really more a matter of finding better opportunities, and this will continue happening.

Asiddao: I think it is still applicable to the mid-tier employees, often called the “farmers” that plow the field. They are the ones that are clearly on target by other companies, because they are really the ones going to the field and doing technical stuff, while the superstars attend meetings and talk with clients. In my experience, those are the employees who leave for ventures in other countries. There are people who move to US and Europe but the bulk of my employees moved just in the region, say in Singapore, China or Malaysia. There’s a lot of development happening in our region. The electronic payment companies target those who have high specialization and get them for their regional operations, especially the very skilled people from the Philippines.

Computerworld: What strategies or methods have proven effective in managing IT people?

Averia: One of the things that I did in my last engagement, knowing that people eventually migrate and leave the company and go elsewhere, is to make sure that I have a pool of talent below that I can train. So I started an apprenticeship program. The work in my last engagement was pretty regular–it gets boring because they do the same thing day in and day out. What I did was first to establish a pool of apprentices.

The other one I did was to create a multi-ladder competency scale. I created one, for example, for network administration, network development infrastructure support and another ladder for development, and yet another ladder for database management and business intelligence. Employees can jump from one ladder to another if they want to develop new skills, but there are certain standards in the set of criteria for each ladder for you to be able to advance. I’m glad my replacement has perfected the system, because for example, my former secretary is not in operations, and she’s enjoying the job.

De Guzman: I guess one important thing about managing the IT staff with all these challenges is that we have to take note of these challenges as given facts. So knowing them, we should be able to put up effective programs to address all of them. Going back to the aspect about shrinking budgets, I guess one of the more effective strategies in addressing this is to be constantly critical of growth opportunities. By doing so, we should be able to create accomplishments that are recognized by the organization.

Asiddao: The strategy has always been one that is very structured and another that is very personal. Structured in the sense that we collaborate with HR to address the IT staff, because we cannot do staff management ourselves given that is not our competency.
Personally, I have sessions with people where I talk to them and ask them frankly about their lives. Even the president of Megalink participates in such discussions, were we invite people of different ranks and he talks to them about anything. I, for myself, have small discussions with my people over beer, because at the end of the day you have know if your people are happy. So if my people don’t feel empowered and informed, I talk to them. One strategy to be effective in managing your people is to be frank to them, because if you always keep promising things yet you don’t deliver, it creates conflicts and starts confusions.

Querubin: Majority of companies today have CEOs who are very traditional and not very knowledgeable about the importance of IT to the business. How do you face that kind of challenge, not just in terms of IT staff management, but in influencing your bosses so that you can become more effective IT staff managers?

Averia: At the end-user side, it’s always a challenge because the bosses don’t or barely understand IT. The bosses always look for ROI (return on investment). But the problem is there’s no ROI to IT infrastructure. You just translate it to something else. For example, you come up with metrics like levels of efficiencies and speed of delivery. There was one time I had to wait for three quarters for a decision because the bosses are specifically asking for ROI.
Sometimes you just have to shock them. Sometimes, I keep telling them that we need to put something in to secure the infrastructure. They don’t see that. What they need to see are numbers, peso values. Sometimes I have to deal with a lot of bosses on a personal level. I talked to them one by one to educate them. For example, at one time I was trying to convince them to put a business continuity and disaster recovery plan in place. I had to educate them that it’s part of risk management. I had to do a bit of risk analysis to determine the organization’s risk appetite. So, I had to come up with the numbers again and how much it would cost. For that particular project, scare tactic worked.

In government, it’s different because it’s either you stick with the budget or be creative, because the solution might just be over your budget. Sometimes, the budget for a project wasn’t included, so that poses another challenge. The planning for budget in government is done annually, not like what happens in the private sector where when your boss comes up with a project but it’s not appropriated, in one way or another you’ll get the money to fund it.

De Guzman: Same as with Mr. Averia, in my experience as an IT manager, I have many bosses. You really have to take time to ensure that you are able to generate their agreement. On the question of what do you do with your bosses when they don’t really understand what the work is all about, I think we should be able to make sure that we invest time with our bosses. Take every opportunity to communicate with them the things that we do. Because when you present something to them, they will not instantly appreciate what you’re trying to say but through constant communication and reminders, eventually, it will sink in. And when the appropriate time comes and they have already digested the idea, you will realize the fruits of your efforts. That is why you always have to plan ahead because many ideas you want to get across may have to take this repetitive path that will require appropriate use of time.

Asiddao: Since I joined Megalink last year, my experience has always been good thus far. My boss used to be the IT operations head of Citibank, so he understands IT clearly. But most of the years he’s been in the business of banking, it was overtook by the business side of things, so he has to recall all his IT years way back. For me, that’s better than zero IT knowledge.

When I talk to the bosses, they would always ask for numbers. So what I do is I convert them to other units, say FTE (full time equivalent) savings in man hours. That’s one way for me to justify to my boss. Say, if you have two people doing it now, with automation the business would only need one, so we have one full time equivalent savings. Sometimes it’s hard like in security, because it’s widely considered as not a revenue-generating measure. It’s very difficult to propose to the bosses, but if you address it as a risk kind of thing, and be able to quantify the possible losses of the company, then it becomes a little acceptable to them

Computerworld: Has IT staff management become more difficult or easier over the years? Why or why not?

Averia: I guess it’s pretty much the same if you start talking about concepts about of human behavior and so forth. It’s the same thing but it differs on how these concepts are applied. But among the challenges that the HR manager faces are external factors, like competitions. Like I said earlier the grass is always greener on the other side of the fence. There was one time a new entrant in the industry, this was two three years ago. They started offering almost double salaries to everybody and everybody was asking, “What are these guys doing?” But the major challenge for HR managers to begin with is how to retain and keep their people. Even CIOs or IT heads have the same challenge when, at that time, good offers where running in the market left and right in that particular organization. But it’s the same thing. It’s just really dynamically and progressively reacting and responding to the changing business environment.
What I’m trying to say is given the cost restrictions and given the challenges outside, how do I come out with a better retention program? You then begin to start thinking out of the box and coming out with such freebies as prepaid phone cards, quarterly or monthly rice packages, or instead of a car I’ll offer you transportation allowance. Sometimes it boils down to that. In the end the challenge is you tend to ran out of ideas of perk packages.

When you’re in flux, you think about how to keep the people happy and keep them there so that they’re still here when the next project comes. On the other side of the fence, however, if you have too many opportunities, you ask yourself: “Hey, where do I get the people?” and “What skills do I need for this project?” It is always a challenge. And so my approach to one organization was to keep a pool but of course you cannot always rely on the pool. What I did was to partner with a particular school, actually a couple of schools to supply me warm bodies, even if they’re only just 3rd or 4th year college students, I can always train them.

You need to update yourself with the developments outside, including both external and internal factors. But the principles and concepts have not changed dramatically. It’s how you tweak it around to suit your particular need so that you’ll be able to respond to the particular market needs. Again, I’m saying that as a vendor, having experienced in the vendor side. On the user side, frankly sometimes it gets boring because you do the same thing day in day out and your tendency is to have a break, a good time.

The other experience that I had while being on the user side is giving the people more flexibility. But not on the operations side since it’s really fixed hours. It’s a routine for the technical operations and when they’re idle, it’s a bit of a problem because that’s an opportunity for gossips and rumors. To avoid that, you have to keep them busy.

Yet in the development group, they really have artistic temperaments. When they come in at 8 a.m. you know they will start to working at 10 or 10:30 a.m. after they had breakfast. And the ladies will have to, you know, engage first in their beautifying rituals. I always hear a blow dryer whirring in the background. But even if they start at 8, 10, 10:30 a.m., they will work until 10 or 11 in the evening! That was the challenge I encountered. My boss would tell me: “Hey Lito, your staff is always late.” I’ll tell my boss they’re in flex hours, and he would reply that there is no such thing and goes on saying the other employees are discouraged because they come in early and start early. And so we imposed that 8 to 5 scheme to them, some of the programmers started counting the hours and would leave at exactly 5 p.m., whereas if they were left alone with flexible working hours, they are more conscientious. If they have to finish a project, they will, even if it means that they have to stay until midnight. By giving flex time, I never had an occasion where any of the developers said, “sir, I went into overtime.”

Asiddao: Our IT staff management is still the same but it differs from every organization. It all boils down to the norms and procedures you have to follow in the organization and which effectively affects the way you manage your staff one way or another. You cannot just disassociate yourself with the organization and have your own type of management. It has to have a backbone. The organization is your backbone to be able to effectively manage your staff.

Before the IT staff management is just eight to five but with all the tools now, we have cellphones, YM, facebook, and all other tools and the management has become 24 x 7 already. There’s an organization that I know where they have a collaboration on facebook and what they discuss is about their staff and what they are doing and how they are like. There’s one way of managing diverse or geographically different locations of staff using Google. So there are tools by which the boss would be able to manage their staff.

De Guzman: Same as what Lito and Mike mentioned awhile ago, organizations in the past and those of today generally apply the same programs. My input is what really changed between previous and current practices is the phase of the speed of change. It reflects the changing speed in the market and technology. More than difficult, the better term to use is challenging. It’s more challenging nowadays than it was in the past because of the constant and accelerated change in technology, the need to continue to learn and re-learn tools and the constant pressure from customers to deliver greater choices in the business marketplace.

Computerworld: I suppose that adds into what Lito mentioned a while ago in terms of the greener pastures, since now it’s easier for your staff to find out what the greener pastures are because of internet, because job sites send you emails every day.

De Guzman: They don’t go out of the office and yet they are employee candidates of many companies.

Averia: Through the years, it’s been a problem because the phase now is a lot faster.

Querubin: In the past, Filipinos would have to wait for a relative to go to the States or abroad and after a year, the relative would call so you have about six months manifestation period.

Averia: Not only that. Today, interviews are done over the internet.

Querubin: In fact one of the problems of PSIA in the past is we encountered a lot of Singaporean companies. These Singaporean-based companies come over on a Saturday and interview people. They will say: “Ok you are hired but you have to leave by Monday and if you can’t leave by Monday we get somebody else.” And so even if your staff is working on the middle of a project, they will say: “Sorry boss but I have to go because obviously you will not be able to offer me an opportunity like this.”

Asiddao: I’ve had cases like that. My staff has been interviewed on a Saturday, and they have to leave on Tuesday in the middle of the project even if they don’t have clearance yet. That’s why most them already had passports.

Querubin: But that’s what you also tell your people. I tell my staff “make sure you have passports because a project can come up anytime and you maybe have to leave right away. But at the same time you are also worried that they are also ready to go and work abroad. However, you don’t want to be like a Saudi employer confiscating their passports.

De Guzman: I think an important realization here is, if it’s for the good of the employee, you won’t hold him back.

Averia: That’s actually one of the arguments that we have in HR IT, it’s always for the good of the employee but they should also give us time.

Computerworld: What concerns do you regularly hear from your IT people that have made an impact or influenced the way they are being managed?

Asiddao: A lot of times especially if you have constant communication with your people. Basically, that would be the top level down the line. I for myself makes sure of that. Feedback for me is very important. That is one of the reason why I talked to them all the time. Presence is very important. Feedback as a leader is important. You have to sometimes ask how am I doing with you? How do I manage you? Are you happy? So it’s very important as an IT staff manager because if you don’t do that, you will become a little disconnected with your staff and it will be very difficult for you to address their concerns.

Computerworld: But what are these concerns specifically?

Asiddao: Would you believe, a lot of them are very simple to the most sophisticated. The most common of course is salary and benefits. You just have to be frank and transparent about it. This is the way I manage people and you have to look at it very objectively. You don’t have to put too much emotions because when you talk to them, these guys have so much emotions because they’re coming in from the farm, they are the once who are plowing the fields, sweating and everything. And that’s why don’t ever step into their emotions, just try to listen and be objective about it. That’s why it is also very important that you went through on what they’re experiencing right now because you can really relate. That’s why it’s really difficult for some to manage these people because they had never undergone their work. They don’t know what its like doing programming at 2 a.m. or doing some operations.

Computerworld: So your mini-kapihan is part of your staff management?

Asiddao: Yes, because in every project, we don’t dwell on negative things. We’ll be longing for the beer at the end of the day and after a week after a project team meeting: “come on let’s drink for a few bottles.” That’s our mini-kapihan. We eat breakfast and we talk about life. So it’s very important, and as much as possible we don’t talk about bad stuff among people. It’s kind of difficult to do software development when you burden yourself with negative things.
I sometimes ask them if they’re happy in the company or how I can make them happy. Do you have a problem with me? So that’s very basic and at the end of the day IT staff management for me is more about human management. There’s a human side. You can’t just plainly think about giving attractive compensation package or benefits. There’s always a personal thing behind it.

De Guzman: Feedback really keeps your feet on the ground. Otherwise it will be so much more difficult.

Averia: To answer your question directly, we have the same concerns. It’s always again economics, benefits, current development. One of the reasons why I came up with that multi-ladder thing was when I got into that organization they’ve been there for like 10 years and the people have been doing the same thing day in day out. Life is really pretty boring. So one of the things that were raised to me by some are: “Sir, we’re like this everyday. Nothing changes.” So I came up with that multiple ladder and said: “You know, it’s up to you if you want to climb any of those ladders.” That’s how I dealt with the problem. But, of course, pay check is always a problem especially for a family man. He has to support his family for things like tuition fees and healthcare.
Together with the other managers we had to push for a health care support program and improving that package so that the members of the family can be included. So, again getting feedback from the employees and trying to address it in a more general sense so that everybody enjoys the same thing and everybody is in the same page. One thing I failed to mention was the style of management. In general, I’ve always been the consultative type. For example, in a project, I ask my people: “What’s your deadline for this?” It’s going to be a self imposed deadline. And if the project goes like “well will make it in 60 days or 90 days,” I hold them to it. So I tell them, “ok, so that’s what you’re committed to. If you fail, these are the accountabilities and liabilities.” You have to make them aware. So it’s like a carrot and stick system. Then I become controlling because then I’m after output and delivery. But I always try to emphasize that with technology today we have a lot of tools that we can use for development you don’t have to re-invent the wheel. So speed of delivery is always an underlying idea because at the end you have to satisfy end-users, your customers. I keep telling my staff that our customers are not only the ones outside. The users within are also our customers and we have to satisfy their requirements as well.

Querubin: I think the common trend in terms of IT staff management I suppose if you put it on a singularity would be motivation whether it be motivation in terms of economics or motivation in terms of challenges and performance or maybe acquisition of skills. I suppose some even look at economics as the opportunity to travel because majority of Filipinos travel primarily because of business related travel rather than personal. So maybe that could be summed up in terms of also incentives in terms of IT management.

Averia: I’ve been asked with the same issue of migration or moving to some other place. My friends in the US would ask: “Lito, you are highly qualified, why did you not go to the US or somewhere else?” I’d say, “mahal ko ang Pilipinas (I love the Philipipines).” Where else in the world would you be that at the end of the day, you can have a bottle of beer, go home, your food is ready, your laundry is done? You go to the states and you do everything yourself. Why make it hard to yourself? I have a number of friends like that. They stayed on, and that’s one way of looking at it.

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