North America: U.S. Best Employers Know What Makes IT Workers Tick

From mentoring programs to one-on-one skills assessments, U.S. companies get to know their IT workers as individuals

Paul Costello earned an executive MBA while working as a programmer at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. If you think a newly minted MBA is the last person you'd find in an IT shop, think again.

Costello is now the executive director of administration and budget control for IT at the university, where his finance and management skills are put to use on a daily basis.

Conventional wisdom says highly trained staffers simply boost their marketable skills and look for higher-paying jobs elsewhere. But as the companies named Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT Worldwide demonstrate, just the opposite is true.

Take Costello, for instance. He earned that MBA 17 years ago.

"We want everybody to grow, whether they're training in management or in IT or getting a certification in a new technology," says Lewis Temares, vice president of IT at the University of Miami and the boss who recommended Costello for the program. Because it's an educational institution, the university allows its IT workers to take up to two classes during the workday. Those who elect to take two classes need to make up only one of those hours during the workday, because the first hour gets written off as lunchtime. And if those courses are directly related to work or part of undergraduate coursework, they're free.

"People don't make the complete job decision on pay alone," says Temares. "Money is not a primary motivator; it's only a temporary motivator. People don't want to not make money, but they do want to come into a place where they want to work."

Holistic View of the Employee

As an institution of higher learning, the University of Miami may offer some educational perks that few corporations can, but that doesn't mean that professional and management training aren't highly regarded facets of corporate life.

Companies that are successful in IT stay that way by grooming their employees through mentoring and formal training that are part of an overall career development plan. They also view their workers as people who need flexibility to strike a balance between work and home and between pursuing pet work projects and more routine duties.

The Home Depot Inc. is one such company.

The Atlanta-based home-improvement chain selected Java as a core technology several years ago, and consequently, it employs more than 450 workers with Java development skills, says Mike Anderson, vice president of information services at Home Depot.

"We didn't hire all those people into the company," he says. "We actually cross-trained most of those developers, from things like Cobol and Informix, to learn that trade, and we took some Java developers and trained them to work on the mainframe."

Hiring new staff may have jump-started a few Java projects, but Anderson says that by cross-training its existing developers, the company gained a long-term advantage that's key to keeping its operational costs down.

Keeping skills sets current and being exposed to new areas of the business that are affected by technology systems and applications ranks highly with technology workers. They know that the more closely projects get aligned to core business needs, the more IT and its workers become an asset.

Helping to Steer Careers

Like Home Depot, Comerica Inc. and State Farm Insurance Cos. focus on employee development programs, stressing both formal and informal mentoring relationships to help steer the career paths of their IT staffers.

Francisco De Armas, director of emerging technology services at Comerica, a Detroit-based bank with 350 branches throughout the U.S., started as a programmer/analyst in 1994. After attending an Internet conference a year later, De Armas struck up a mentoring relationship with John Beran, CIO at Comerica. During the course of that ongoing relationship, De Armas and Beran met regularly to discuss Internet technologies and business strategy. De Armas credits the relationship for grooming him for his current management post.

"I was extremely impressed and flabbergasted that the CIO of a major corporation was taking the time to mentor a low-level technology guy," he says. Later on, De Armas' manager nominated him for Comerica's Leadership College, which offers management courses in subjects such as conflict resolution, coaching and mentoring to its high-potential IT workers.

"It was a hard step to move from technology to the management ranks," De Armas says. "I was this rough-around-the-edges technology geek, but they care about people."

Barb Wanthal, an assistant vice president of systems at State Farm, also credits mentoring as a key tool that helped further her 18-year career with the Bloomington, Ill.-based $48 billion insurance giant.

Wanthal also started as a mainframe programmer. But she has received a slew of formal courses and on-the-job training that has helped her develop her technical, business and management skills. Wanthal is currently involved in a formal mentoring relationship with an assistant vice president of public affairs that she says keeps her connected with current business issues. She's also a mentor to two lower-level IT staffers.

Home Depot's Anderson says exposing IT staffers to other aspects of the business and technology keeps them informed and nimble.

"Our developers are really business integrators," Anderson says. "I don't have to carry the overhead of developers that are trained in just one language or platform. Business used to be about stovepipe applications, but to succeed at an integrated environment, you need flexibility."

Flavors of Flexibility

Flexibility crops up in myriad ways when one speaks to IT workers who love the places where they work. Flexibility seems to come in two standard flavors: flexible work schedules and flexible work assignments.

In terms of work schedules, some people like to start their workday at the crack of dawn. For others, it's important to start later in order to drop a child off at school or avoid rush-hour traffic. While the core set of employees work the typical 9-to-5 day, top IT departments recognize the importance of striking a good balance between work and home.

"You want to make sure that employees' needs are met and to make sure the job gets done," says Costello. "By being flexible, you and the job become important to the individual. Flexible job hours or time arrangements are not always easy to achieve. But if you make the job fit the employee, that employee will want to keep the job and to do it well."

At Cabot Corp., a Boston-based maker of printing agents, critical projects often require long hours of work, but the extra time doesn't go unnoticed.

"We have a fairly young staff, so the ability to balance family and work is very important," says Marian Cole, director of IT infrastructure at Cabot. "If you work a lot of overtime, you get time off. [Compensated] days are very much apart of our culture."

Yet it's not just about what time people arrive at and leave the office, but what gets done during the workday. Flexibility also pertains to work assignments. Being able to select some assignments and vary long-term work tasks scores big points with IT workers, who relish the challenge of new technologies and the opportunity to flex their intellectual muscles in new assignments.

At Home Depot, new jobs get posted on the company's intranet, and staffers get to elect which assignment they'll take on next, which may include setting up training courses to obtain a required skill.

At New York-based Avon Products Inc., CIO and senior vice president Harriet Edelman recognizes that IT work is a form of creativity for many technologists and thus applies a strategist brush to work plans.

"If you're in a reactive role with no creativity, then you're more vulnerable to turnover, because your employees will go somewhere else where they can use and develop their talent," she says.

Open Lines of Communication

But in the end, without an open relationship between staff and management, not much would get discussed about training needs, flexible hours and selecting a suitable assignment.

De Armas once managed a developer who produced less-than-stellar results on programming tasks but who seemed to volunteer for the hardware systems aspects of application development. Instead of giving him the boot, De Armas lobbied for an opening in systems administration and saw to it that formal training followed.

"We pay attention to people and try to stay attuned to what makes them tick," he says. "He's a great systems analyst. It wasn't that he was a bad developer, but I don't think he enjoyed it, and it showed."

Along those lines, companies that sport nonhierarchical management philosophies -- ones that let workers from all levels of the organization feel that they can and do make significant contributions to the business -- also receive strong job satisfaction reviews from IT staffers.

"We have a strongly nonhierarchical working environment, where everyone understands where they can have an impact," says Jeffrey Spar, CIO at The Readers Digest Association Inc. in Pleasantville, N.Y. "The whole group interacts with each other quite a bit. There's no real feeling of having a problem that you can't tell a manager about, and that doesn't mean an analyst couldn't solve a problem that a director would."

"It's an open environment," Edelman says of Avon. "People feel like they have an impact and a say. What our business needs are solutions that work. And that's the most reward that you can give, because people get a psychic reward of working with the business."

Spar and Edelman both define nonhierarchical work environments as ones where everyon -- from vice presidents to systems analysts -- is encouraged to get engaged in improving the way IT serves the business. By removing gaps between workers and decision-makers, both say they're also infusing their staffs with a sense of ownership and empowerment about the business.

"It means that people don't have to work things up and down the system to get approval, so people feel empowered to solve things and make suggestions," Spar says.

That's not to say that regular components of job satisfaction aren't important, such as a competitive salary and first-class benefits. But at top companies, those criteria are already in place.

Copeland is a freelance writer in Chicago.

Copyright © 2002 IDG Communications, Inc.

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