Rather than making painful attempts to woo top talent, offer current and potential employees a raft of compelling alternative benefits like stability, proven leadership, and opportunities to learn other aspects of a business beyond IT.
Today's Wall Street Journal featured a front-page article about the "employee benefits" being lavished by technology companies, ranging from beer kegs with integrated iPads, to an in-office tree house for employee naps. You'd be forgiven for shaking your head and recalling Yogi Berra's immortal quip about "déjà vu all over again," as the story reads remarkably similar to press coverage before the last technology bust. Companies that make small or nonexistent profits are commanding valuations in the billions of dollars, benefits and stock options are being lavished on young employees in the name of "attracting talent," and CEOs proudly discuss company "play days" but seem surprisingly light on a compelling strategy to turn a profit.
While I sincerely hope we will not repeat the post-tech bust economic slump, the signs do not appear encouraging. An exceptionally painful aspect of the tech bust for many CIOs was slashed budgets, and a scarlet letter of sorts, simply for being associated with technology, however remotely. Many good CIOs took an underserved hit to their reputations, merely for being associated with technology. In preparation for coping with the return to the spotlight that IT is now facing, and the potential for another roller-coaster ride, I recommend the following:
Forget the foosball tables
In their zeal to compete with Silicon Valley cool, some companies in the late '90s tried to bring a bit of "the valley" into their corporate culture. Perhaps you were one of the unlucky ones who stood in a staid boardroom in 2000 on "Hawaiian Shirt Day," flanked by a nervous-looking developer and an annoyed CFO, both looking out of place while tentatively sipping beer drawn from an incongruous keg in the corner of the room.
The current tech boom is certainly going to ramp up demands for developers and technical talent, and there's no doubt you'll be competing with perks ranging from tree houses to foosball tables. However, rather than making painful attempts to match those benefits, offer current and potential employees a raft of compelling alternative benefits: stability, proven leadership, opportunities to learn other aspects of a business beyond IT, a deep mentoring program, etc. Essentially, your differentiator is your corporate maturity; experienced management to their beer bashes, an honest salary and benefits versus stock options that are more likely to be worthless than make one a billionaire. Whatever you do, unless it truly fits your culture, avoid trying to be something you're not.
Don't believe (or pitch) the hype
Many corporate leaders bought the dotcom hype hook, line, and sinker and parroted the claims of the tech vendors all while repressing a niggling sense that their business models just didn't work and that the numbers just didn't jive. Some CIOs appeared downright confused, bursting into the CEO's office on Monday with a proposal to shift all their resources to one technology du jour and repeating the same process on Wednesday for a completely different technology.
If you've been in this business for several years, you likely have a fairly keen sense of what is likely to work and what is vendor snake oil. In all cases, look at these emerging technologies from a perspective of how they can accomplish a business objective and explain them to your peers in those terms. You'll become the source of cool-headed advice and expertise through any potential tech busts, rather than appearing as a partner in crime with the perceived tech charlatans.
Have a disaster plan
In addition to whatever technical disaster planning you've done, work through a budgetary "disaster plan." If we go through another technology bust, corporate tech spending is going to be an unintended casualty. While most IT budgets are cut to the quick, things will only get worse for CIOs who have not planned appropriately. While considering a budgetary worst case, begin touting IT's successes and capturing business returns on your IT projects. The more you can build a sense that a dollar spent on IT is a dollar well-invested, the less painful any tech bust-related budgetary backlash will be.
Contemplating another technology boom and bust cycle certainly is not an uplifting process, especially as the global economy continues to stagger. While forced ignorance may be the least stressful option in the near term, one only has to think back a decade to recall the hit to the entire technology industry that was sparked by the last technology bust, and having a plan to cope seems like a far better option than hiding in one's corporate tree house!
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology as well as the companion e-book The Breakthrough CIO's Companion. Prevoyance Group provides strategy consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, and you can follow his blog at www.itbswatch.com.