Talent wars: Are your IT staff getting poached?

Dan Herrington says his first inkling of a brewing IT talent war came early this spring, when he noticed that “college kids weren’t accepting our offers on the spot.”

This was a first for Herrington, who is executive sponsor of college recruiting for IT at USAA, a San Antonio-based Fortune 200 insurer and financial services company that has been No. 1 on Computerworld’s Best Places to Work in IT list for two years in a row.

Herrington adds that another disturbing new trend is a “marked increase” in the number of college hires who accept job offers but then later change their minds. “We’ve seen college students reneging on internships as well,” he notes.

USAA has responded by expanding its out-of-state college recruiting efforts and stepping up communication with interns between the time they accept an internship and their first scheduled day on the job. So far, the approach appears to be working, as evidenced by nearly 200 college hires — both full-time employees and interns — in 2011.

In Melbourne, Fla., Vinay Patel, senior software engineering manager at Harris Corp., has been seeking experienced software developers for three or four months. So far, only two applicants have passed both telephone and in-person interviews. Both were offered employment, but one turned down Patel’s offer and the other accepted but subsequently reneged a week before he was due to start. Apparently, he received a better offer, Patel says. “The job seekers seem to be in the driver’s seat right now,” he notes.

A quick scan of numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics confirms this about-face in the IT job market. In May, it pegged the IT unemployment rate at 3.8%, significantly lower than the national average unemployment rate of 9.1%. At the same time, 65% of 900 hiring managers surveyed by Dice.com said they expect to hire even more tech professionals in the second half of this year than they did during the first six months of 2011. “The growth has reached a level where positions are staying open for months due to a shortage of qualified technology professionals,” according to the Dice report, which went on to suggest that now may be a great time for IT job candidates to ask for more money than they’re offered initially.

“Technology professionals are the basis for innovation, efficiency and creating an agile workplace,” says Tom Silver, senior vice president of Dice.com. “Now is the time to ask for more money. Negotiate hard at the outset of a new job, because that initial salary may set the base for the next three years.”
But it’s not just any IT professionals they’re after. What most companies want are IT people with experience in newer technologies they’re looking to deploy or those with very deep technology and business experience in a particular industry. Experience with developing mobile and social media applications, using newer programming languages like Ruby, and deep integration skills for linking on-premises computing systems to cloud-based services are at the top of recruiters’ wish lists.

Harris’ Patel, for example, says the application development openings he has are for highly experienced professionals. “For these positions, which are for new projects, we need people with five to 10 years’ experience. They are not positions for new graduates,” he says. “It has been very difficult to fill them.”

Guardian Life Insurance in New York recently conducted an IT workforce assessment and found that 35% of its IT staffers are over 55 years old. “Almost half [of our] IT workforce will be eligible for retirement in 10 years,” says CIO Frank Wander. “It’s staggering. These are our most experienced people.”

What Guardian is looking for, he says, are young IT professionals to whom extremely high-value senior IT employees can pass on their experience and knowledge about Guardian’s business and processes (see sidebar). On the technology front, Guardian — like just about every other company that’s hiring for IT — needs professionals with data modeling and design skills and mobile application skills. The insurer is also seeking IT workers with data center consolidation experience.

“Fifty percent of Fortune 500 companies will be modernizing their data centers over the next five years. The reason is that devices are becoming more powerful. They take up less space and need less electricity,” Wander notes. “We’re doing a data center modernization and consolidation initiative, and we want people who have been through this. It’s very hard to get. It’s one of the hottest areas.”

Also high on corporate IT recruiting wish lists are any and all skills having to do with cloud and software-as-a-service (SaaS) technologies, as well as the business process and technology integration know-how needed to link these newer technologies to legacy computing environments.

Recruiting experts say this particular need is both a blessing and a curse for corporate IT departments. On one hand, IT professionals want to work with these newer technologies, so in-house cloud and SaaS projects can help corporate IT departments attract and retain the best and brightest.

At Purdue Pharma, a privately held pharmaceutical company in Stamford, Conn., CIO Larry Pickett says a modern IT infrastructure that includes cloud technology is a big reason the company is able to retain its most talented IT employees. “We’re right in the middle of implementing state-of-the-art technology and doing things that are innovative and building [IT employees’] skills, so it increases retention,” Pickett says. “We are implementing a private cloud infrastructure across two data centers, so there’s an opportunity to learn those skills without leaving Purdue.”
Competing With Vendors

On the other hand, corporate IT’s need for IT professionals with cloud, SaaS and integration skills pits corporate IT directly against technology companies themselves in the escalating war for talent.

“Vendors look at people who have worked at [user companies] as bringing institutional and cultural knowledge with them and a hands-on knowledge of workflows,” says Russell Reynolds’ Banerji. This makes corporate IT employees prime poaching targets for technology vendors.

What puts IT shops in an especially tough position, experts say, is that job seekers typically view technology vendor companies as more innovative and better able to offer opportunities for growth.

“If you think of corporate IT budgets and the way they spend, 80% is usually going to maintenance of old stuff and maybe 20% goes to innovation,” notes Woodson Martin, a senior vice president who heads recruiting at Salesforce.com. IT professionals “want to work on cloud and languages like Ruby. They want to work on the future, not the past, but the fundamental mechanics of that 80/20 means it’s hard to keep the talent happy.”

Big budgets for research and development give vendors another advantage, says Steven John, strategic CIO at Workday, a SaaS vendor based in Pleasanton, Calif.

“Corporate America can’t go as deep [into the technology] to challenge the best people. That’s all happening on the vendor side,” says John, who was previously CIO at specialty chemical maker H.B. Fuller; he joined Workday when Fuller became a Workday customer.

“Workday is doing some very cool technology. We’re one of the leading cloud vendors out there, so this is one of the places high on the list of places to be on the cutting edge,” he says.

Nick Colisto, CIO at Hovnanian Enterprises, a home builder in Red Bank, N.J., puts it this way: “Twenty years ago, everyone wanted to work for IBM when they came out of college. As companies built larger systems, people switched off and went to work for large user companies. Now, with companies like Google, Amazon and LinkedIn, we’ll see a shift of IT resources back to technology companies.”

Colisto says what concerns him most are the cloud companies.

“Cloud computing is expected to go from around $68 billion in 2010 to over $100 billion by 2012. So, yes, I am concerned we’re going to find our infrastructure resources pilfered,” he says.

Minneapolis-based Medtronic is in what CIO Mike Hedges describes as IT “maintenance mode.” As a result, “we have had several people go. In some cases, people came to me [and said they had better job offers] and I could not match what they had been offered — in money or projects,” he says.

Hedges notes that Minneapolis is headquarters to Cargill, 3M and Target, all of which compete for the same IT talent. “Wherever there’s a lot of companies with large projects just getting ready to start, there’s definitely poaching going on,” he says.

“When you talk to CIOs, they’ll tell you they’re not poaching. They say that if people apply, they apply,” Hedges says. “But I know that when one or two people left Medtronic to go to other companies, what happens is they call their friends.”

In other words, when someone leaves for a better opportunity elsewhere, it’s likely that you’ll lose other staffers looking for the same opportunity, he says.
Where’s the Leading Edge?

When IT consulting firm Taos provides consultants to corporate IT organizations looking to design cloud architectures, the client’s IT employees see the writing on the wall, says Coco Brown, president and chief operations officer at the San Jose-based company.

“It may not be that their jobs are in danger, but they see that their traditional corporate IT world will be diminished in time, and they see where the exciting things are happening,” she says. “It’s a very competitive market right now, and one of the attractive messages we have is, ‘Come work for us and we’ll get you into those [cloud] environments where you’ll be on the leading edge.’ I see CIOs very frustrated by this.”

Workday’s John says he fully expects to see more IT employees within corporate IT organizations move to technology vendors — and in his book, that’s not a bad thing.

“The cloud is changing things,” he says. “You’re already seeing operations and the non-differentiating work move to the cloud.” It only follows that IT professionals focused on operations and infrastructure would also move to cloud and other technology vendor companies, he adds.

“Now, we’re not just outsourcing bodies, but technologies, processes and people,” he says. “The line between vendor CIO and corporate CIO will cease to exist, and IT people will move back and forth between that boundary much more frequently.”


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