How To Attract Talent For A Changing IT Organization

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More sophisticated skills are needed just as businesses are locked in a war for tech-savvy employees. To win, tap into a sense of purpose.

By Russ Banham

Strategic CIO 360

Like many strategic CIOs, Ryan Smith at Intermountain Health directs a digital transformation journey that is well underway. The wide use of mobile, cloud, AI and other technologies at the not-for-profit system of 25 hospitals and 225 clinics has redefined operational workflows, from the front office staff to its 2,700 physicians and advanced care practitioners.

Overseeing this vast digital ecosystem is Smith’s job, one that took on new meaning during the pandemic. “Previously 97 percent of my 1,000-member IT workforce worked onsite at our Salt Lake City headquarters,” he said. “Overnight, they nearly all went home to work. Even now, 70 percent of them work from home most of the time and come in only for specific business purposes. I’m still trying to understand what it all means.”

At the same time, Smith is struggling to maintain the pace of Intermountain Health’s digital transformation, populating the IT organization with needed skill sets in cloud engineering, advanced analytics, NLP (natural language processing), intelligent automation and RPA (robotic process automation), among other competencies. In the current war for IT talent, he also needs to retain more traditional skill sets supporting its data centers, networks, servers and back-end systems in functions like finance and HR.

StrategicCFO360talked with three other IT leaders in addition to Smith; all promoted the value of their organization’s culture, training, work from anywhere options, diversity and inclusion initiatives, and career-building opportunities in enticing talented technologists to join their teams.

A case in point is TIAA Bank, a national digital bank with a few brick-and-mortar branches managing $43 billion in assets. “We’re aggressively moving towards a cloud native architecture but like other IT organizations, we’re experiencing attrition and are finding it tough to compete for talent against tech giants like Google,” said CIO John Elton.

Making a difference in his recruitment tactics is the mission of the bank’s parent company, Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association, in serving the financial needs of educators, researchers and nonprofits. “We have a long history of helping those who help others,” Elton said, “which is an appealing value proposition for people reexamining the meaning of their work.”

Skill Shortages

During what has been dubbed The Great Resignation, such propositions and more are needed to recruit and hire technology professionals, particularly at a time when CIOs are seeking different skill sets beyond software development and engineering.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 4.2 million people (nearly 3 percent of the workforce) quit their jobs in August, and almost 20 million people changed their employment between April and August. In September, 40 percent of employees in another survey by McKinsey said they expected to leave their current employ in the next three to six months, an astonishing 64 percent of them without another job on tap.

“There’s been a war for tech skills going on for several years, but what we’re seeing now has less to do with compensation and more to do with people pivoting their career trajectories towards more human-related work,” said Greg Douglass, Accenture Global Lead, Technology Strategy and Advisory.

These skill sets are different than they were five years ago, when many CIOs at the outset of a digital transformation were hiring people with mission-critical software engineering, machine learning, cloud architecture, data science and DevOps skills. Now, they seek people with these skills and business experience, Douglass said. “The ideal candidate has spent some time in finance, sales, HR, supply chain and so on,” he explained.

This hybrid talent pool is extremely shallow, compelling many of the consulting firm’s CIO clients to upskill the IT staff to absorb the nuances of different business functions. Others are reskilling business line professionals to learn how to manipulate data, develop data lakes and use cognitive computing tools to analyze the data for decision-making purposes.

Accenture is doing both. “We’re putting our 600,000 employees, including all the consultants, through a seven-part `snackable’ content curriculum, in which they’re learning about blockchain, 5G, data and analytics, and edge computing to become more digitally fluent,” he said. “And we’re simultaneously upskilling the IT organization to contribute more fully to the business functions.”

Such atypical talent recruitment and retention tactics are becoming the norm for many CIOs. “The demand for IT skills has accelerated as we and other companies migrate to the cloud and pivot to using new technologies like AI, NLP and machine learning,” said Kathy Kay, Senior Vice President and CIO at public company Principal Financial Group, a large financial investment management and insurance company with $990.4 billion in assets under management.

While the IT organization’s attrition rate is up slightly, Kay feels her approach to attracting needed skill sets is filling the void. Chief among the recruitment tactics is a robust summer internship program involving more than 100 college juniors and seniors majoring in IT, which enjoys a 75 percent conversion rate to fulltime staff jobs. Unlike lesser programs where interns are order takers, Principal’s interns collaborate with the IT team in solving real-world business challenges, Kay said. “Those who accept a position with us after their graduations tell us the deciding factor was their ability to make an impact when they were interns,” she added.

Another key factor was Principal’s mission to provide financial safety and security to people and small businesses. “Given the turbulent times of the past year and one-half, it just resonated with them,” said Kay. “For example, many of the interns last summer were involved in building a site that helped our small business customers apply for PPP (Payroll Protection Program) loans.”

Other factors drawing in this young talent include Principal’s work from anywhere model in IT (approximately 95 percent of external job openings are allowed to work remotely; most choose the option) and the firm’s commitments to DEIB (diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging) and ESG (environmental, social and governance) factors. “Forty-four percent of our tech leaders are female, which is way more diverse than the tech industry at large,” said Kay. “We’ve long held to the belief that diversity and inclusion are good for business and simply the right thing to do.”

Once hired, the former interns are given jobs that align with their technology interests, such as software engineering, information security or data and analytics, and provided a mentor with the skills set. Training is ongoing. “We subscribe to the online AWS Skills Guild, where IT staff can put in the skills they seek like cloud, DevOps or purpose-built databases, and receive training on a self-serve basis,” Kay said.

Retention Attention

Joe Meyer, Chief Technology Officer at Paycor, a provider of human capital management software with more than $350 million in annual revenue and over 2,000 employees, has found equally innovative ways to recruit and retain talented IT professionals. “We’re reskilling and upskilling staff, providing career-enhancing stretch assignments, and hosting regular hackathons to drum up innovative tech ideas for the benefit of our customers,” said Meyer.

Training in Paycor’s agile software development process is provided both at the company’s five physical hubs and virtually via Zoom. “Every morning, the IT teams have a virtual standup where we talk about the work for the day,” Meyer said. “It’s not unusual for different team members during a video conference to collaborate on developing code hundreds of miles from each other.”

While Meyer has found it relatively easy to recruit entry level people, it’s been tougher to find senior software developers with experience in cloud platform resiliency. “Remote work options on a national basis initially made it easy to recruit beyond our traditional hiring regions, but once every company did the same thing, we were all in the same boat,” he said.

To differentiate Paycor’s recruitment value proposition, candidates are informed about the IT staff’s participation in Habitat for Humanity and Cincinnati’s charity-focused Flying Pig Marathon each Halloween, and an internal website where the 275-member IT organization can contribute digital dollars to colleagues starting a coat drive for a homeless shelter. “Candidates also are drawn to the opportunity to join an employee resource group of people with shared characteristics,” Meyer said.

Paycor’s recruitment website sums up these human-focused characteristics: “Think big, dream big…and have fun along the way.”

At TIAA Bank’s IT organization, Elton oversees one-third of the digital bank’s 900 employees, with much of the remainder working at its contact center. Prior to its digital transformation, the team was composed of primarily software developers and engineers maintaining the overall IT infrastructure and network. While Elton said there is still a need for these skill sets, the role they perform has changed.

“It’s no longer the traditional sit down and write code; automation has changed that,” he explained. “Instead, new talents are needed to stitch together the different components from providers like AWS into a deployed solution. Since it’s difficult to recruit these skill sets and colleges are not churning out enough of them, we’re reskilling IT staff to develop these capabilities.”

A similar talent evolution is in place at Intermountain Health. “It’s not like the old days when everything was built by the IT team,” Smith said. “With so many technologies available from third parties, we have a need for people who can organize and orchestrate the different parts into a business solution.”

He’s hopeful that Intermountain Health’s remote work options for IT staff will encourage talented people outside its three-state region in Utah, Idaho and Nevada to consider joining the team. “Thanks to our new work from anywhere model in IT, we can recruit from anywhere, too,” he said.

Earlier this year, a new Chief Information Security Officer, Eric Becker, was hired in Chicago. “One of the toughest people to attract these days is a topnotch CISO, given the recent wave of ransomware attacks launched against hospitals and other organizations,” said Smith.

“Eric is one of the best CISOs in the medical field, working previously at University of Chicago Medicine and Columbia University Medical Center. He’ll work almost entirely from his Chicago home, flying to our headquarters on a once-a-month basis or so, when we specifically need to have in-person meetings,” he added. “We could never tap that level of talent before.”

Russ Banham is a Pulitzer-nominated business journalist and best-selling author.

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