Training vs. hiring to meet the IT needs of today and tomorrow

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In the digital era, IT skills requirements are in a constant state of flux thanks to the constant change of the tools and technologies companies need to keep pace. It’s not easy for companies to find and hire talent with coveted skills that will enable them to innovate. Meanwhile, training internal staff to take on new skills and challenges takes time that is often in short supply.

Sandy Hill is quite familiar with the various skills required across a variety of IT disciplines. As the director of IT for Pegasystems, she is responsible for IT teams involved in areas ranging from application development to data center operations. What’s more, Pegasystems develops applications to help sales, marketing, service and operations teams streamline operations and connect with customers, which means she has to grasp the best way to use IT resources internally, and the IT challenges the company’s customers face.

CIO_Q and A

The Enterprisers Project (TEP): How has the emphasis you put on training changed in recent years?

Hill: We’ve been growing exponentially over the past couple of years so now we’re implementing more global processes and procedures. With that comes the training aspect of making sure everybody is on the same page.

Most of our focus has shifted to training staff on new products and tools that get implemented to drive innovation and enhance end user productivity. For example, we’ve implemented an asset management system; we didn’t have one before. So we had to do training globally instead of hiring someone who already knew the product. As we’re growing, we’re also trying to maintain a tight budget and flat headcount. So we’d rather internally train than try to hire new people.

TEP: Describe your approach to training. What are some of the ways you help employees evolve their skills?

Hill: I require each staff member to have a technical and non-technical training goal, which are tracked and reported on as part of their performance review. Their technical goal needs to align within their job function, and the non-technical goal can be anything from focusing on sharpening one of their soft skills to learning something outside of their area of expertise. I perform yearly staff evaluations to see where the gaps and shortages are so that teams remain well-rounded.

TEP: To what extent have your training initiatives helped quell recruitment and retention issues?

Hill: Keeping our staff excited about learning new technologies keeps their skill sets sharp. Having the staff know that we value them, and we are vested in their professional growth and development motivates them. 

TEP: What sorts of training have you found to be most effective?

Hill: We use several different training methods that we’ve found to be effective. With new or special projects, we try to incorporate a training curriculum led by the vendor as part of the project rollout. If that’s not an option, we use off-site training. We also purchase on-line training packages, and I encourage my staff to attend at least one conference per year to keep up with what’s new in the industry.

TEP: For what sorts of skills have you found it’s better to hire new people than train existing staff?

Hill: It depends on the project. In one recent initiative, trying to implement OpenStack, we didn’t have internal expertise at all. So we aligned with a consulting firm that specialized in that area. We utilized their expertise on-site to help run the project and train internal team members. It was a massive undertaking to get internal people to learn the skills they needed while also doing their day-to-day jobs.

The consultant helped us determine the headcount we needed to be proficient. This allowed us to assess our staff to see if gaps remained, which would require additional training or hiring. And we did end up hiring some of the contractors. But the alternative was to send some number of FTEs (full-time employees) for 6 to 8 weeks of training, and our pipeline of projects wouldn’t allow that.

TEP: In thinking about some of your most recent hires, what skills did they have that are especially attractive to you?

Hill: In recent hires, I’ve focused on soft skills. In addition to having solid technical skills, they need to be able to communicate effectively, work in teams and have the ability to persuade, negotiate and resolve conflicts.

IT people in general kind of keep to themselves; they’re often not the most social people. Now, where IT is more integrated throughout the organization, the ability to give useful updates and status reports to other business units is critical to show that IT is an active presence and to be successful.

Download “IT Talent Crisis: Proven Advice from CIOs and HR Leaders” to learn the unique ways CIOs and industry experts are navigating their own talent management struggles, and 12 actionable tips for surviving the IT talent crisis.

Paul Desmond has been working as an IT trade press reporter, writer and editor since 1988.  He has extensive experience covering a range of technologies, including networks, unified communications, security, storage, virtualization and application strategies.