Swimming in the Global Talent Pool

Thriving in today’s worldwide labor market requires top skills, creative tactics and ‘relevance.’

When he was a 16-year-old student, Jeff Kiiza would never have imagined that 10 years later he’d be writing code in Perl, PHP/MySQL and AJAX for companies in the U.S., Canada, Australia and Spain — and that he’d be doing it from his home in Cordoba, Argentina. “Back then, it would have been a dream or science fiction,” he says. “But the availability of greater free-flowing bandwidth and companies turning to the Internet have allowed it.”

Hemang Dani lives in Mumbai but works for global clients.

Hemang Dani lives in Mumbai but works for global clients.Hemang Dani is pretty amazed that in the past six months, he has boosted his income to $5,000 per month by working for companies in the U.S., the U.K., Germany and Australia. Not bad, considering the low cost of living in his home city of Mumbai, India. Dani’s projects range from coding “shopping carts” and enabling credit-card processing on Web sites to managing portals as a webmaster.

Dani and Kiiza have jumped with both feet into the global talent pool. Both worked for overseas organizations even before they joined Menlo Park, Calif.-based oDesk Corp.’s online marketplace, which links programmers with businesses that need their services. Kiiza coded for a university in Tanzania, and Dani picked up work through GetaFreelancer.com, which is owned by a Swedish company called Innovate IT.

And because there are more programmers like them every day in developing parts of the world, IT professionals in the U.S. are now competing in the global talent pool as well. While many U.S. companies today are still hiring globally only when their need is short-lived or skills are scarce or too high-priced in the local or domestic labor pool, some are going global simply to find the best of the best, no matter where they’re located, according to Kevin Wheeler, president of Global Learning Resources Inc., a recruiting consulting firm in Fremont, Calif. “Cisco, Microsoft, Google — these companies have clearly taken the position that they’re going where the talent is,” he says.

Companies such as MySQL AB don’t care where employees live; they hire for raw talent. The open-source software maker’s 320 employees reside in 25 countries, and 70% of them work from home, according to Steve Curry, director of corporate communications at MySQL.

Even more-traditional companies like Henkel Corp., a consumer products maker in Dusseldorf, Germany, are letting the work flow to the worker when they’re in search of scarce talent. For instance, Henkel’s need for IT professionals with experience in SAP’s Advanced Planning and Optimizer module prompted the company to extend its talent search outside of North America and Western Europe, even though that’s where the software is used the most, says Amy Bloebaum, vice president and CIO at Henkel of America Inc. “When we’re looking for a specialized skill that’s in high demand, we’re very flexible in terms of where the talent is located,” she says.

With all that in mind, IT professionals in today’s job market need to begin preparing now to swim among the fresh schools of competitors in the global talent pool. “If you’re 45 and plan to work until you’re 65, you’re going to be forced to embrace this,” Wheeler says.

Keep Current

To play in the global game, you don’t have to be young, but you do have to exude what technology recruiter David Hayes calls “relevance.” This means having at least a basic understanding of some of the so-called Web 2.0 technologies that have emerged in the past few years, such as blogs, wikis, podcasting and RSS feeds.

“The world has changed, and you can either change with it or get swept up by it,” says Hayes, president of HireMinds LLC in Cambridge, Mass. “On your resume, if you don’t talk about something you do that’s connected to one of these new spaces, you won’t even be considered. So start running a cooking blog or say you enjoy podcasting your wife’s rock band.”

Another key area to at least understand and perhaps participate in is the open-source community. “There’s a belief system in there, and you have to be able to express that,” Hayes says of the open-source world. “If you want to know what’s going on in the world, participate in it.”

Though this may not be easy for IT veterans, it’s a good way for them to rejuvenate their careers, Wheeler says. “I’ll talk to an IT guy with 15 years of experience who knows three or four different programming languages and has really good system experience. Then I start talking about phishing or blogs or PHP, and they look at me like, ‘Huh?’” he says. “I don’t expect you to do that stuff, but at least you should have heard of it.”

IT professionals seeking to work on-site in a corporate setting also need to hone their personal marketing messages, particularly about how they bring value to the business. “Most of our customers want someone in their physical office because it requires interaction with the business community and a holistic connection to the business,” says Hayes.

Unfortunately, this isn’t what comes across in the bulk of the resumes that Bloebaum sees. “It’s very important for job candidates to convey how they made a difference in their last job,” she says. “When you read as many resumes as I do, it becomes apparent very quickly which ones think of their technology experience in a business context [and which] think in a technology context.”

Even IT professionals who pursue hot technology areas such as reusable software components, service-oriented architecture or wireless applications are practically unemployable if they can’t meld that knowledge with how it’s used, says Diane Morello, an analyst at Gartner Inc. For instance, if you market yourself as an expert in reusable software, you also have to convey your ability to synthesize information about business processes and translate that into software modules, she says. “You need to take a larger view than your own specific job — whether it’s a global view, an industry view or a process view,” Morello says.

This, says Wheeler, is how IT professionals can show what he calls “charisma.” “So many people who have IT skills are technicians — competent executors of things like writing code,” he says. “But when you talk to recruiters and hiring managers, they want an IT person who’s skilled but has some edge — some moxie or an understanding beyond just being a technician.”

Tables Turned

And U.S. companies are not the only ones looking for these intangible traits. Indian firms such as Wipro Ltd., Tata Consultancy Services Ltd. and Infosys Technologies Ltd. are recruiting workers overseas, including in the U.S. At Infosys, for instance, the Global Talent Program looks for graduates from top U.S. universities for software engineering positions.

Matt Sorge

Matt SorgeA key characteristic that Infosys seeks in candidates, according to Bikramjit Maitra, vice president of human resource development at the company, is “learnability.” “We take people for their ability to learn, not just for the specific knowledge they have,” he says.

So far, 126 U.S. citizens have been hired to undergo such training in India. One of these is 24-year-old Matt Sorge, a mechanical engineering graduate of MIT. “In the interview, I spoke a lot about the fact that I worked at two to three jobs that were fast-changing and dynamic and that I had to learn on the spot to contribute to the common goal each day,” he says. “They were looking for that type of individual because information technology is changing every day, and they don’t need people who are stagnant.”

It’s a trait that Sorge notices not only among the software engineers he meets in India but also in many employees, from the instructors at Infosys to the maintenance people in the hotel he stays in. “Everybody here is extremely motivated and willing to be here until the job is done,” he says.

Sorge’s time in India will also help him as employers increasingly look for candidates with multicultural experience and the ability to work on global teams. “I’m not saying we won’t hire people with experience in [just] one business, one function or one country,” Bloebaum says, “but it’s quite important for people who come from a variety of skills and backgrounds to make up the IT organization.”

The preferred candidate is willing to work within a global model, says John Dubiel, who was recently hired to be a U.S.-based practice director at Tata Consultancy Services North America. “Employers want people who understand different work models, like offshore models, or where your team is in multiple geographic locations outside the U.S.,” he says.

It also includes having an open mind about your source of employment. “People in the U.K. and Europe are much more accustomed to working for multinationals [with overseas headquarters] than Americans are,” Morello says. “It’s a difference between parochial thinking and global thinking — that global doesn’t necessarily mean Western.”

Dubiel says a company’s location will matter even less over the next five years. “Pretty soon, the issue of whether I work for a U.S. or Indian company will be irrelevant,” he says. “All these companies that offer services are pretty much the same; only the headquarters will change.”

When that happens, it will become more important than ever for IT professionals to grab hold of their careers and start steering them. “Many people sleepwalk through their careers,” Morello says, “but even older programmers can expand themselves to look at other aspects of knowledge they possess and make it part of the living, breathing experience they offer to a company.”

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at marybrandel@verizon.net.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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