Turning to Technology

Career changers provide needed pools of potential IT talent.

The resume of your next CIO might look something like that of physician Mitch Morris, newspaperman Dan Gingras or accountant H. James Dallas. Your next application developer could be a nurse manager; your next help desk staffer, a mill worker. Your next IT manager could come from marketing.

Many people are making those kinds of career changes, and as a confluence of factors transforms the U.S. workforce, IT managers need to be on the lookout for potential talent, regardless of its place of origin. "Changing demographics are going to force them to do that," says Gretchen Coch, director of the skills development program at the Computing Technology Industry Association.

The upcoming retirements and semiretirements of baby boomers will take millions of workers out of full-time employment. Meanwhile, there aren't enough young people coming up through the ranks to fill the expected vacancies. And, particularly problematic for IT leaders, the number of college students in technology and computer-related programs has dropped. "You put all this together, and it's quite a big issue," says Claire Schooley, an analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

But the good news is that more people are willing to make major career changes than in the past.

Schooley says that human resources managers have been watching these trends for a while and developing strategies to cope with them. IT managers need to do the same. They have to broaden their recruitment and retention efforts to ensure that they're capturing those career changers and aging boomers who, with their business experience and IT acumen, can really drive a business forward.

"That's a pool of talent not to be ignored," says Leon J. Leach. As executive vice president of the University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Leach oversaw Morris' performance there as CIO.

Unusual Resume

Mitch Morris
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Mitch Morris
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Morris' work experience is quite different from that of most CIOs. He started as a surgical oncologist at M.D. Anderson in 1985, four years after graduating from medical school. He became interested in how technology could improve the delivery of health care and volunteered to serve on technology-related committees.

His avocation became his job when he took the hospital's top tech position in 1997. He worked as CIO there until 2001, when he left to join First Consulting Group in Long Beach, Calif.

Leach acknowledges that Morris wasn't a techie but says he "displayed an aptitude and interest" in IT. However, being an IT natural doesn't make up for years of experience coming up through the ranks, "so Mitch had to make sure he had good people working for him," Leach says. For example, Morris created a deputy CIO position and hired a strong tech person to fill it.

Morris himself concedes that his technical expertise wasn't the same as that of someone who had spent a career in the trenches. But he says that didn't hinder him. "To be a successful CIO, you have to appreciate how the technology works, you have to know how to manage people, but you don't have to go into a data center and play with cables," he says.

Morris says he had something more valuable: an understanding of how the hospital worked and what end users needed. "If you understand the business and are able to drive the business, that's as important as making sure the trains run on time within IT," he says.

Not everyone agreed with that point, at least initially. "There's always skepticism. There are challenges that you can encounter where people paint you into a position because of your background," Morris says. "You have to prove yourself with results."

Initially, for example, vendors would explain their products "like I had a learning disability," Morris says. His approach with them was direct: "I'd just say, 'Let's cut to the chase.' And once I got to know people, [my background] was not an issue."

The Middleman

H. James Dallas
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H. James Dallas
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Dallas encountered similar skepticism when he moved from accounting into the IT department at Atlanta-based Georgia-Pacific Corp. He started there as a cost accountant shortly after graduating in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in accounting. As the company advanced its computer systems, Dallas says he saw an opportunity to be "the man in the middle" -- the one who understands the business requirements as well as the technology.

He took evening programming courses at Georgia State University and joined the IT department as a programmer trainee in late 1984 -- a time, he says, when everyone else in the department held tech-related diplomas. "They were skeptical of my abilities in the beginning," Dallas recalls. But he proved himself to his colleagues and spent the next 20 years working up the ranks at Georgia-Pacific, moving between management jobs in IT and the business divisions. He became CIO in 2002 and retired late last year.

Changing Times

CIOs must increasingly consider recruiting people like Dallas and Morris to fill their IT positions, says Bill Gilbert, managing director at Futurestep, a Korn/Ferry International company in Los Angeles that provides outsourced recruiting services.

They'll also have to be more flexible. Studies show that many baby boomers will continue to work in some capacity beyond retirement age. Many will want reduced hours and responsibilities as well as flexible schedules. Some might also want to retain their senior-level benefits, such as long vacations. "The baby boomer group is going to have a lot of different effects on what jobs look like, what retirement is," Schooley says.

IT shops are already making adjustments, because the market for workers has tightened considerably in the past year or so, says Gilbert. He expects that the competition for talent will only become fiercer as boomers retire en masse.

IT hiring managers will have to be more receptive to candidates who have taken e-learning and noncollege technology courses, Gilbert says. They also need to work with other managers to identify rising stars throughout the company and provide them with cross-functional training. "You have to manage your own talent across the enterprise," he says, adding that such direction has to come from the top to ensure that companies identify and track such individuals and get them the training and education they need. "Companies need to be in touch with their employees," Gilbert says. "That's key to hanging on to them."

All Welcome

Such strategies have worked for Donald Newsom, vice president of IT at Caraustar Industries Inc., an integrated manufacturer of recycled paperboard in Austell, Ga. Newsom started as a bookkeeper at Caraustar in 1974, before moving into what was then data processing. He now draws many of his own new IT workers from other fields. Some started as switchboard operators, receptionists and mill workers.

Newsom sends these workers for focused training or college degrees or pairs them with mentors. "I will take a person who gets along very well and works hard, and I can make them anything they want to be," he says.

Dan Gingras
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Dan Gingras
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Newsom says he can do this because of the culture he has established. Because he and other managers came to IT from other business disciplines, new hires from other fields know they're welcome. He invests in training and development. And he tracks employees' interests and progress, which allows him to know their strengths and talents.

"It's perfectly acceptable for someone to come up through another discipline, as long as they know that managing IT is a discipline all its own -- and they get a graduate degree or get the credentials to do that," says Dan Gingras, a partner in the IT leadership practice at Tatum LLC, an executive consulting and services firm in Atlanta.

Gingras should know. He worked in journalism for seven years before he learned programming skills in the early 1980s. He worked his way up to serve as CIO, CTO and even CEO at numerous companies. "I think we're going to see many more [IT] people coming from inside the company but outside the IT organization," he says, adding that with the changing demographics, smart CIOs will be welcoming them.

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The Evolving Workforce

Working Longer

44% of global executives say they plan to continue working past the age of 64.

15% of those plan to work past the age of 70.

Base: Nearly 2,000 global executivesTraining Decisions

85% of IT professionals say they decide what IT training and education they need based on their own career plans.

8% make choices based on their employers’ requirements or recommendations.

Base: 462 IT professionalsCareer Change Likely

62% of global executives say it’s “highly likely” they’ll make a major career change before retirement.

26% say it’s “likely” they’ll do so.

Base: 1,700 global executivesAn Aging Workforce

31% of private-sector employees are 45 years of age or older.

46% of government employees are 45 years of age or older.

Pratt is a Computerworld contributing writer in Waltham, Mass. Contact her at marykpratt@verizon.net.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

  
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