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Q&A: Desperately seeking business skills

Incoming SIM President Robert Keefe says there's a need for IT professionals to 'invest in themselves'

By Thomas Hoffman
October 9, 2007 12:00 PM ET

Computerworld - MEMPHIS -- Two years ago, when Robert Keefe was an IT executive at Russell Athletic, he offered a signing bonus to a highly coveted business relationship manager he wanted to lure to Atlanta. Keefe also created a set of performance incentives to help seal the deal with the candidate.

"We wanted to make it easier for him and his family to come into the Atlanta area," said Keefe, who has since joined Atlanta-based Mueller Water Products Inc. as senior vice president and CIO.

As the incoming president of the Society for Information Management, Keefe knows first-hand how escalating demand for IT professionals is leading CIOs to pull out all the stops to land and keep valued IT workers. Keefe spoke with Computerworld yesterday at SIM's annual SIMposium conference here about labor and other IT management concerns.

Of the top concerns cited in the newly released SIM membership study -- i.e. recruitment and retention issues, IT-business alignment, the need to develop business skills within the IT staff -- which of these are top of mind for you right now? Business and IT alignment is probably the biggest thing; having the right people and having them train themselves. I try to encourage people to invest in themselves.

I don't spend much time on retention. If you involve [IT staff] in the workings of the business and they feel visible and valued, that's what helps keep them engaged.

What are SIM members saying in terms of challenges they're encountering in recruiting entry-level IT workers with adequate communications and other soft skills? First and foremost, there are not enough [computer science and IT majors] due to media coverage on offshoring.

Personally, I look to recruit out of universities that have that emphasis [on soft skills]. I lecture at one university in the Atlanta area and I'm a mentor-in-residence at another university, and they're working on bringing these soft skills into the program and integrating the business side with it.

Some CIOs complain that they're having an equally difficult time finding veteran IT workers who have sufficient business experience. What are you seeing? Working with the business is part of our profession, it's not just technology anymore. A lot of the onus falls on the individual [IT worker] to get the training and experience they need. They're out there [in the labor market], but they're hard to find. You have to pay a little bit of a premium to get them.

Are signing and retention bonuses for some IT workers coming back into vogue? Yes. But for Generation Y, money isn't the only thing that drives them. They're also looking for interesting challenges and an inviting [work] environment. It's tough to convey that in the interview process.

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