How to get the most out of your IT talent

Tech pros talk about how to cultivate creativity and focus talent on projects that increase the value of IT.

As the spotlight on cost reduction has dimmed, IT has picked up plenty of new directives: to deliver business agility, drive innovation, and increase its value to the business, to name a few. Yet at the same time, IT remains responsible for all the tactical and operational activities it has always performed, such as keeping systems running, delivering new capabilities, and securing intellectual property and corporate data.

For CIOs and IT leaders, the management challenge is how to help IT employees break the tactical habit and use their strategic skills more effectively. We asked for advice from three tech professionals with different perspectives on IT talent. Their expertise can help IT leaders who want their teams to work smarter and be more engaged. Some of the tactics can be adopted without a lot of investment, while others require outside help or more significant cultural overhauls.

Before/after coffee tasks

Time management is a logical place to start. A capable leader can help his team make time for higher-level tasks that will increase the value of IT to the business. But good IT leaders require cultivation.

"Most IT professionals are what I call accidental managers," says Eric Bloom, a former CIO and current president of Manager Mechanics, which specializes in helping companies develop IT leadership talent. Many IT managers were promoted because they were good at their former jobs even though their new jobs might have little to do with their past experience.

Eric Bloom, a former CIO and current president of Manager Mechanics

"Hey, you're the best techie, congratulations," Bloom says. "You didn't go to school to learn what we're going to ask you to do. All of the things you did that made you such a star employee and made us want to promote you -- none of that is applicable to what we're going to ask you to do. And, the job opened because we promoted someone into the job last year, with a skill set somewhat like yours, but they failed miserably and we had to fire them. Welcome to management."

New IT managers have to adjust to a role of delegating vs. building. "Your creativity comes in maximizing the efficiency of those working for you," Bloom says.

One delegation technique Bloom has devised is what he calls zone-based staff prioritization. It's built around the idea of being in the zone when people know what needs to be done, aren't distracted, and are motivated to complete a task, they can be more productive, more innovative, and do a better job. "Sometimes people are at their best. Sometimes they're alert but not creative. Sometimes they can do things but they're not really open to challenge. And sometimes, there are things they can do as long as they're not asleep or semi-comatose," Bloom says.

Bloom's technique aims to prioritize people's to-do lists by zone levels, with the most strategic tasks being tackled when people are performing at their highest.

"When they're at the top of their game, they should be doing software development, writing business cases, developing project plans, and things like that. If they're alert but not really creative, they could be doing project plan vs. actual tracking, or writing status reports," Bloom says. "If they're not really up for a mental challenge, they can be returning routine emails, reviewing their spam folder, completing expense reports. If they're basically not sleeping, then they can clean their office, file things, delete old email."

If managers can give their staff a range of assignments, and teach them this technique, then people can figure out how to plan their day, based on what zone they're in. "IT people can be more efficient if they use zone-based priorities," Bloom says.

Cross-training and speed dating

Keeping up with the pace of change in tech is an ongoing challenge.

Chad Cardenas, chief innovation officer at Trace3, talks about the need to cross-train tech talent in multiple disciplines so companies can better handle shifting business requirements. Cross-training can shake up the status quo and also help with retention of employees who appreciate the chance to learn new skills.

"Engineers come from different backgrounds, have different skill sets and areas of expertise. Typically, they will get trained up and inserted within that particular wheelhouse of expertise that they already have," Cardenas says. "That's a challenge for a lot of companies: to break down those silos of engineering prowess and get their engineers cross-trained across multiple disciplines, so they can be more efficient, more powerful, and more valuable to the organization."

Trace3 offers a training program called ScaleThem that helps clients pinpoint their business challenges and then develops a customized education program, including road maps for each team member.

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Like many of its offerings, Trace3's training programs grew out of the firm's own transformation, over the past several years, from a traditional value-added reseller and systems integrator to a professional services firm with an emphasis on business transformation. As the company morphed, it found it had a surplus of storage engineers and not enough big data talent. Instead of recruiting outside the firm, Trace3 gave its storage gurus the chance to train to become data scientists. The engineers were happy, and the business was growing in the right direction.

"You can get way more out of that investment than you could out of consolidating a server environment or buying a cheaper storage solution," Cardenas says of cross-training technologists. "You're going to have happier engineers who are more engaged, more aligned to the business."

Another Trace3 offering aims to help IT leaders stay up to date on the latest technology developments. Through its VC briefing program, Trace3 works with venture capital firms to set up a day of meetings in Silicon Valley, tailored for a CIO or CTO. "We curate and customize the entire agenda for the day, full of venture capital companies, entrepreneurs, and founders of early-stage startups," Cardenas says. "All of the content and the speakers for the session are selected based on the areas of interest and the business needs of our particular client."

This "speed dating" approach to innovation can expose IT leaders to players outside the familiar vendor landscape.

Far too often, there's little time for researching what's on the horizon amid the day-to-day requirements of IT, Cardenas says. "It's still shocking to me how, to this day, large IT organizations with thousands of people and a billion-dollar IT budget still don't have a single person -- let alone a dedicated team -- responsible for researching new technology and then vetting it and integrating it. It blows my mind."

Schedule time for creativity

Cambridge Consultants depends on the creativity of its engineers to solve problems for its clients.

"Clients tell us about a problem they're facing in the marketplace. That might be a competitive threat that they want to respond to, it might be some IP protection that they need to build, or they might be worrying about an expiring patent. We apply technology to solve that problem for them," says David Bradshaw, a director in the Boston office of the UK-based product development and technology consultancy firm.

One way the firm works to keep its employees energized is through its corporate development program, which allows engineers and scientists to pursue their own project ideas.

"Being a consulting company, we sell our hours to our clients. Obviously we carry a surplus of those hours, and we need to find a productive way of using them. What better way than to let the staff be creative on their own ideas? This gives them an outlet to develop in an area that interests them," Bradshaw says. "It leads to better retention, because people are working on things that they're genuinely passionate about. That's the whole idea of the program."

The parameters aren't completely open-ended; the firm tries to find some correlation to what the business is trying to achieve, he says.

"That teaches our people to take some corporate responsibility in these things as well," Bradshaw says. "So we don't just get a crazy array of things that we would never be interested in. We tend to get things that are well thought through and are strategically aligned to what we're trying to do as a business."

To ensure that people have time to pursue these side projects, it's built into the company's annual planning process. The leadership team reserves 5% to 10% of the firm's overall engineering hours for these activities, even without knowing the focus of the projects.

Over the years, the program has results in more than 20 corporate spinouts. Most recently, a side project resulted in the creation of Aveillant, which was spun out from Cambridge Consultants in 2011. Aveillant's holographic radar technology -- which is being used to control radar inference in the wind energy industry grew out of work a team was doing to prevent auto collisions. An engineer had an idea for applying the technology in a new area and ran with it.

In addition to boosting employee satisfaction, there are other efficiencies as well, Bradshaw says. "These people are training themselves as they're doing this work. They're educating themselves, often going out and finding out about new areas and actually indirectly contributing to the company strategy as these programs are undertaken."

He credits the firm's corporate culture with making the program work.

"We have a corporate culture of empowering individuals very early on in their careers. We take great people on, we trust them, and we empower them. That gives people the confidence to have these discussions, to believe they can achieve something, to not be afraid to bring their ideas to a manager or somebody who's actually then able to make an investment decision based on that. It's very much an accepted and encouraged part of what we do."

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