The IT Talent Problem

Business-savvy IT executives can be hard to come by, and that’s a big problem if your company relies on technology to exist (it does). Maybe it’s t...
Martha HellerMay 17, 2013
The IT Talent Problem

Way back in 2000, just before the dot-com bust, I wrote a weekly column for CIO magazine, and I spent months covering “the technology workforce crisis.” The big issue was the cap that the U.S. government had put on H‑1B visas and the strong need that companies had for developers and other technologists. Then along came the dot-com bust, and the news (and my column) was all about layoffs and identifying the real goats in the Internet debacle.

As the economy recovered from the bust, we all took a more balanced view of technology hiring. Companies needed good technology people, and they were able to recruit them pretty easily or augment their teams offshore.

Enter the 2010s. With cloud, mobility, big data and consumerization, companies are in even greater need of technology talent than they were in the late 1990s, and that talent is in even shorter supply. Computer science enrollments are at an all-time low; baby boomer workers are retiring and taking all of that legacy-systems knowledge with them; and Silicon Valley is hot again. Would that young, brilliant developer rather join the next Zynga or upgrade the payroll systems at your insurance company?

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Two weeks ago, I asked the IT executive readership of my weekly newsletter, The Heller Report, to answer the question: If you had a magic wand, what one talent problem would you solve? Responses poured in and addressed challenges around recruiting, developing leaders, and retaining the talent that they currently have. But more than 70 percent of readers would use their magic wand to do only one thing: give business skills to their technologists. Their people, they worry, are so narrowly focused on the technology that they fail to see the forest through the trees. They do not understand the business context of their technology work, nor can they have a meaningful discussion with the leaders of the business areas their technology supports.

This lack of business-savvy technology talent is a serious problem for every company that relies on technology to exist (which is, of course, every company). Those beautifully “blended executives,” who can talk technology in one meeting and can talk business in another, are rare birds. Yet with technology moving directly into the revenue stream of your company, you need them, and your need is only going to increase.

One option is to spend all of your time (and money) recruiting blended executives from the outside. You will be in heated competition with every other company in your market, and if your recruiting function is not a competitive weapon for you, you will find yourself in a losing battle.

You would be much better off growing your own. Here are some ideas:

Build a rotational program.
Encourage your head of human resources to work with your CIO and a few of your other business leaders to build a program that rotates IT people into different functions of the business. This kind of program is not easy, with your CIO having to survive without a trusted IT leader for a period of time, but the long-term result of a good rotational program can be tremendous. It may well be worth the investment.

Involve your business leaders.
If a rotational program is too much to take on right now, build a leadership development program for IT that involves your business executives. Encourage your CIO to invite the heads of your major business units to meet regularly with the senior IT team to educate them on their business area. And be sure that you, CFO, are spending enough time with IT. Use that interaction to chip away at the long-standing wall that often exists between the business and IT.

Embed your IT people in the business.
By now, your CIO should have restructured the IT organization so that each major business or functional area has a dedicated IT leader. These positions are called “business relationship executives”, portfolio CIOs, or customer relationship managers and they often report both to the CIO and to a functional or P&L leader.  The more time they spend in “the business,” the more they learn skills beyond IT, and the more valuable they become to you over time. (You know you are on the right track when you walk into a business unit meeting, and from the dialogue taking place, you cannot easily distinguish the IT person from everyone else.)

Use the “buddy system.”
If an embedded structure is currently beyond your reach, start with a “buddy system” where each major IT leader has a partner on the business side. Your head of IT operations can buddy up with your head of business operations; they head of application development can buddy up with your head of sales.  They sit in on each other’s meetings, get to know each other’s organizations, and learn the major drivers – and challenges – of each other’s areas of responsibility. The buddy system can be a good way to ramp up to a more formally aligned structure.

In some ways, getting technologists to be better at “business” is fighting the natural order of things.  Many technologists are drawn to the bits and bytes of what they do, and are not overly interested in broader context (or in building the relationships that come along with working with their business peers). But with the right leadership development program, you can fight the natural order of things and develop a new high-value generation of blended executives. Now, all you need to do is retain them.

Martha Heller is president of Heller Search Associates, a CIO and senior IT executive recruiting firm, and a contributing editor to CIO magazine. Follow Martha on Twitter: @Marthaheller.