5 tips to recruit IT talent – without big league perks

You can recruit top people even if you're not Facebook or Google, says this software CIO
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Harvard Business Review How to Keep Your Top Talent CIO

Hiring and retaining the technology talent you need is a challenge for nearly every technology leader. With U.S. unemployment holding steady at 4.3 percent, its lowest level in more than 15 years, it’s not likely to get easier anytime soon.

[ How does The Weather Company tackle recruiting? See our related article, To attract millennials, Weather Company IT leader says make work meaningful. ]

But there are ways non-household-name companies can get highly skilled technologists to sign on and stay, says Jay Leader, CIO of Rocket Software, even if you can’t match the salary, perks, or name recognition of some other employers. Rocket, based in Waltham, Mass., employs about 750 developers around the world – about half the company’s total head count. Recruitment, he says, is job one. “I don’t care how much time you’re spending on recruitment – spend more,” he says.

Here are some of Leader’s secrets for hiring and keeping top technology talent:

1. Let them see the impact of what they do

“The word we use here more than any other is ‘impactful,’” Leader says. The best technologists care about a lot more than the paycheck – they want to know how the work they do makes a difference to a company, its users, and/or and its customers. “Google is awesome, but how do you know you’re impactful?” Leader says. “Or if your code is one of 150 people’s code that runs somewhere in Amazon Web Services, do you really feel like your work has made a difference?”

2. Don’t assign a task until you know what you want

“Part of being impactful is having your work see the light of day.”

“One phenomenon you see frequently is: We’ve changed our minds for the 80th time this week,” Leader says. “Now that we’re looking at it, it’s not what we wanted, or a customer made a comment.” That’s not a good habit, he says, if you want to retain skilled technology employees. “Part of being impactful is having your work see the light of day.” To avoid frequently changing projects, he says, “We try to give people well thought out missions.”

3. Give maximum autonomy

People who want to see the impact of their work also want to make as many of the decisions about that work as they can, Leader says. “So my personal model is to give people as much autonomy and authority as possible.”

At the same time, they’re responsible for achieving results. In return for wide latitude about how to do their work, IT employees at Rocket Software are held accountable for the outcomes of that work. “I want to be given responsibility and accountability, and to be creative,” Leader says. “Why would I think my people want anything less?” The approach works well, he adds. “We find that to be attractive to the people who are attractive to us.”

4. Love your legacy experts

Many IT people are motivated by opportunities to work with cutting-edge technology. But what if your business requires the use of legacy systems, as Rocket Software’s does? “We’re still going to give you a lot of autonomy and space for creativity around working with that technology,” Leader says. “You may be working on a ‘legacy’ technology but it’s important and we’re going to treat you like it’s important. We love all our children the same.”

5. Focus on retention

Leader says keeping good employees once you have them may be even more important than getting them in the door in the first place. “If someone leaves after three years, having to start over is debilitating,” he says. “There are very few tech people today who don’t have opportunities to go somewhere else to do something else. I wake up every day aware that people are here by choice, not necessity. They can likely get more money somewhere else.” 

People stay, he says, because the company delivers on its promise to give them autonomy and let them see the impact of what they do. “If you do nothing else but create an environment where people want to come and stay, that’s a force multiplier. My best recruiting source are the people who work here. Just this month we had three hires from internal referrals. The highest compliment an employee can pay us is to recommend us to a friend.”

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and columnist for Inc.com. She is co-author of "The Geek Gap: Why Business and Technology Professionals Don't Understand Each Other and Why They Need Each Other to Survive," as well as several other books. She lives in Snohomish, Washington.