In today’s highly volatile work environment, the average IT professional rarely stays with a single employer for a long period of time. While the recession of 2002 has created an overabundance of lower-level IT professionals, the competition remains extremely strong for those IT superstars whose skill and background make them indispensable. While some IT attrition is inevitable, there are many techniques that savvy IT managers can use to retain their top talent.

Who are the IT superstars, and do you have one?
While many IT shops have hundreds of technology workers, the retention efforts are normally focused on the technical superstars whose knowledge of the company’s systems are not easily transferred to replacements. These IT superstars typically hold a masters degree or Ph.D. in Information Systems or computer science from a top U.S. university and are highly trained in system internals. In most shops, the IT superstars typically serve as system architects, informaticists (functional pros who possess an MS in computer science and are also trained in professional areas, such as medicine or accounting), database administrators, or system administrators.

The explosive growth of the IT industry has created a two-tiered job market. The top universities often produce the IT superstars, while lesser schools produce hundreds of thousands of IT programmers and developers. Even in recession, large corporations actively recruit their top talent for their mission-critical roles from recognized graduate schools and rely on state universities and community colleges to provide talent in IT development areas.

So how do you tell if you have an IT superstar? Answering the following questions can help you find out.

  • Does he or she possess a professional degree or certification? If an employee has earned an MD, JD, MBA, MSEE, or CPA degree in addition to an IT degree, that person will be very difficult to replace in the open job market.
  • Did he or she graduate from a “top” university? If the employee graduated from a top-notch technical university with rigorous admission standards, then he or she will command a premium in the IT job market. These schools include most all of the Ivy League schools, especially MIT, and also include universities with stellar reputations in Information Systems such as Purdue, the University of Texas, the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of San Diego, and the University of California at Berkeley.
  • Has he or she published IT research? Many IT superstars publish theoretical research in respected academic journals (the Journal of the IEEE and the Journal of Information Systems) to advance IT knowledge.
  • Is he or she trained in a specialized skill? IT professionals with specialized, difficult-to-find training are often IT superstars. Examples of specialized skills include SAP, Oracle Applications, and J2EE.
  • Is he or she a recognized IT expert? If an employee has published books or magazine articles or is in demand as a conference speaker, then he or she may be an IT superstar.
  • Does he or she possess irreplaceable institutional knowledge? If the employee serves in a mission-critical IT role such as chief architect or DBA, his or her departure may create a vacuum in your IT department.

Retention techniques
While no method can guarantee employee loyalty, there are a host of techniques used by IT management to reduce attrition among IT superstars. These techniques include:

  • Flex time. Burnout can be a real problem among the IT superstars who must typically work evenings and holidays to maintain the computer systems. Many companies offer formal comp-time policies or institute a four-day workweek, allowing the superstar to work four, 10-hour days per week.
  • Telecommuting. Many IT superstars are allowed to work at home and only visit the office once per week for important face-to-face meetings.
  • Golden handcuffs. Since a high base salary does not always reduce attrition, many IT managers use yearly bonuses to retain employees. These golden handcuffs may take the form of a Management by Objective (MBO) structure whereby the superstar receives a substantial annual bonus for meeting management expectations. Some companies implement golden handcuffs by paying the employee a huge signing bonus (often up to $100,000) and requiring the employee to return the bonus if he or she leaves the company in less than three years. However, don’t be surprised to find that other competing companies will reimburse the superstar to repay the retention bonus.
  • Office perks. Since many IT superstars’ command salaries commensurate with corporate vice presidents’, they often get private offices and company cars, and fly first class.
  • Job titles. Because IT superstars command high salaries, many are given honorary job titles. These include fellows titles such as the Apple fellow, whereby the corporation grants special privileges to IT employees granted fellow status. Other IT superstar titles include vice president of database administration, chief technologist, and the new job title (used by Bill Gates), chief software architect.
  • Specialized training. Reward your IT superstars by sending them to lavish conferences and expensive training classes. For example, Oracle Applications professionals visit Hawaii for major conferences, and IT cruises have become an extremely popular reward for the IT superstar. The Geek Cruise Line combines a technical conference with an ocean cruise, offering hot topics in Oracle, Java, and Perl. Companies pack these cruise ships with their IT superstars, sailing to exotic destinations in Alaska, Hawaii, and the Mediterranean.

In sum, while the recession of 2002 has created a shakeout within the lower ranks of IT professionals, IT managers remain committed to retaining their top IT talent, and those IT professionals with specialized skills are still in high demand. It is imperative that IT managers recognize his or her IT superstars and take active measures to retain them.

Join the discussion

Some of Donald Burleson’s suggestions for retaining superstar employees involve money and perks that many IT managers don’t have at their disposal. Do you think his suggestions are viable in today’s economic environment? What alternatives do you suggest? Send us an e-mail or post a comment.