CIO Confidential: Unfair Game

FRAMINGHAM (03/15/2000) - CIO hell is an 8-foot-by-6-foot interview room with no windows and a door that can't be opened because the conference table is too large. In hell, CIOs spend eternity interviewing job applicants with the technical savvy of Jethro Bodine and the sensitivity and charm of John Rocker for positions that the HR department will never approve. In hell, resumes are 165 pages long (not including the applicant's arrest record), and each candidate is accompanied by his agent, an angry-looking guy with a red, pointy tail sticking out of the back of his double-knit green leisure suit.

It's recruiting day at my alma mater, and if these interview rooms were any smaller, I'd need a license to practice medicine. I watch the last candidate as he swaggers out of the room in his borrowed-for-interviews gray pinstripe suit and too-tight-in-the-neck oxford shirt and wonder if he could read my desperation. Of course he could! I hate this kid.

Several days each year, I accompany our recruiters here in an effort to keep my management team energized and focused on this key activity. I have always liked having "fresh-out" college kids working in the department. They're full of energy and ideas, they work like slaves and, unlike many of their more jaded coworkers, they're generally really glad to be here. We used to call these kids "Bambis" because there was a time when you could tell them almost anything, and they'd look at you with wide-eyed astonishment. Not anymore. Now Bambi has antlers.

Here's a sample of how my last interview went:

Me: You've got some terrific grades here. So tell me a little about yourself and what you're looking for from your first job.

Kid: I want to be a director in three or four years and then I want to be a vice president, but I'm willing to wait a while for that.

Me: (what I should have said): That's real interesting, Skippy. Now, read my lips. Director is a title, not a profession. Do you have any passion at all for information technology?

Me: (what I actually said): Uh-huh.

When exactly did the candidates take over?

Now more than ever, the success or failure of my organization hangs on our ability to recruit effectively and, even more important, our ability to retain the talent we've got. While this may sound obvious to you, dear reader, I will tell you that the vast majority of managers in this department are very, very poor recruiters. Furthermore, there are few companies (including my own) where these core competencies of recruiting and retention ever show up on anyone's performance evaluation. Quite remarkable when you consider that an IT manager's long-term success can, for the most part, be predicted by his or her success in these areas. (Once again, HR is asleep at the switch.) There are three immutable and unpleasant truths about information technology staffing and retention:

Turnover is expensive. As far as I know, only life insurance companies think high employee turnover is a good idea. I suppose that's because an insurance salesperson's performance suffers pretty badly once he's sold a policy to each of his relatives and run off all his friends.

But for an IT department, even low turnover, for any reason, has a devastating effect. At my company, we estimate that losing an employee costs our department an average of $78,000. Sound high? Well it shouldn't when you consider the costs of recruiting, on-boarding, relocation, signing bonuses and training, combined with the lost productivity and schedule slippage on the projects or tasks the individual was working on. That's all over and above the costs of burning out the folks who are left behind to fill the gap.

Furthermore, losing even a handful of people can mean losing hundreds of person-years of accumulated skill and business knowledge. It's unfortunate that we managers, not to mention our shareholders and investors, don't have a more accurate reckoning of the losses to our companies whenever knowledge workers leave. I'm sure it would scare the hell out of us. Perhaps there should be a balance sheet write-off for human capital.

Retention rate is the most accurate indicator of the quality of a department's leadership. Barring extraordinary circumstances (such as the opportunity to join a startup two days before an IPO), good people don't leave managers they admire and respect or job assignments they find interesting and challenging or companies that respect them as people and professionals. They just don't. The reason this is such a mystery to so many is because very few of us have ever experienced this happy combination of circumstances over any extended period of time.

Poor and inexperienced mangers like to think that there is a difference somehow between "good" turnover (employees who are fired or encouraged to quit) and "bad" turnover, and that the rationale employees give for leaving an organization is the same as the reason they leave. Managers who learn the truth early are destined to become great CIOs. The truth is that good turnover costs are usually higher than bad turnover costs in severance packages and due process enforced by HR departments.

Good turnover does not represent a process working successfully to weed out poor performers but a recruiting and screening process working very, very poorly. The truth is that the rationale for leaving given during an exit interview is just that, a rationale. The real reason is probably some far more irrational notion that crossed that person's mind shortly before the daily call from the headhunter. Sixty seconds into the conversation, when the programmer says "tell me more," the decision is made and the search for the rationale begins.

My best, most productive, most reliable managers have, far and away, the highest retention rates. They are constantly in touch with how each of their people is doing and feeling. They take each resignation as a personal slap in the face. They believe that smart people can be taught anything except to be smart and that when people are given roles and tasks they are interested in, they will perform miracles that return far more in value than the training, time and money invested in them. They know that it is far easier to see the warts on the people we know than the ones on the candidates we just spent an hour with. They know that some warts can be fixed and some they'll just have to live with for the sake of holding onto a valuable performer. My best, most productive, most reliable managers lead from their hearts, not from their heads.

A recruiting job is harder than any IT job on my organization chart. Even for people who like it, recruiting is hard work. IT professionals are not natural recruiters, and the reason is simple. Recruiting is sales. Salespeople are extroverts. Most IT people are not.

If you don't believe me, just get stuck in an elevator with a Fortran programmer sometime and then spend the next two hours holding up both ends of the conversation.

We bring this on ourselves. We hire entry-level people, and if their career progresses in anything resembling a normal way, they will work as individual contributors for perhaps six or seven years. During these formative years we encourage and reward people who stay in their cubicles, keep their heads glued to their monitors and show no interest whatsoever in a healthy balance of work and life. Then, if they prove to be good programmers, we make them managers and are surprised to find they have no people skills.

In a cause-and-effect world, this drives a lot of the success the independent contractor industry has enjoyed over the last 10 or 15 years. It's far easier to "order" a programmer as one might order a pizza than to sell someone on joining the organization. If I had a nickel for every time someone told me that we've hired contractors because the talent simply isn't out there, I'd have a ton of shiny metal that wouldn't cover the cost of even a day's worth of a contractor's time. We pay premiums for contractors and consultants that suck our budgets dry, arrest the development of our organizations' internal capabilities and cause us to place the future well-being of our company in the hands of people who have no emotional stake or connection to the business.

Lately, we've started a program where every person in the department who is about to be promoted from an individual contributor role to a team manager is sent off on a six-month assignment as an IT recruiter reporting to a member of the HR support staff. In every case, the new manger returns to the department far better prepared to take on the challenge and profoundly humbled to learn that there are harder ways to make a living than IT.

The kid in the borrowed suit closes the door behind him as he heads to his next interview down the hall with a competitor of ours. Sitting here in this vertical coffin, I write a note to our "real" recruiters that we should bring him to the home office for another round. We'll probably make him an offer, at a starting salary higher than what I made my first 12 years out of college. As demand continues to outrun supply for at least the next five or 10 years, and barring any catastrophic economic collapse, there's little doubt that he'll be given a director's title far sooner than he's ready. I hope it turns out to be as wonderful as he imagines it to be, and I wish him luck.

I wish us all a lot of luck because, with Skippy at the helm, we're going to need it.

Anonymous has been a CIO at household name companies in various industries for over 12 years. Send your recruiting war stories to

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