In order to survive the IT talent crunch, CIOs need to stop looking for people with particular certifications or technical talents. They need to look instead for technical people who are willing to learn.
Like a migratory bird that returns to its seasonal nesting grounds on a recurring basis, talk of a talent crunch in the IT industry is once again on the lips of CIOs and industry pundits. Technology titans point at the educational system and lament the lack of new math and engineering students, and fund programs to try and swell their ranks while expressing disgust at the current dearth of "talent." Rather than blaming poor school funding or singling out students of particular nations as particularly talented in particular disciplines, the CIOs voicing these concerns need to first examine their own hiring practices.
Less than a decade ago, IT was in a hiring frenzy. If you could spell HTML or TCP/IP you were virtually guaranteed a handsome salary and all the associated delights of the heady dot-com days. The IT HR process became mired in an alphabet soup of "certification surfing." If you had the right acronym or other chit on your resume, you were "in," despite your personality quirks, inability to communicate with other human beings, or eccentric behaviors. Hiring managers, of course, loved this process, since human resource decisions could be relegated to mining resume databases and a couple of phone calls rather than the tedium of interviews and due diligence.
As the dot-com bubble burst, the ensuing belt tightening left many IT staffers jobless. Young people that had been singing the praises of the IT industry were now its biggest detractors. From bitter laments to friends and family, to humorous websites mocking fast hiring and equally rapid "right-sizings," IT ended up with a lasting black eye. Peers of this generation and the universities that educated them are not quick to forget this span of a few years, where graduates were promised (and given) the world then cast aside with platitudes about unforeseen economic conditions and the wonders of outsourcing to placate them. While these companies did what they had to do, the certification and technology-focused career paradigm they fostered has left a lingering bad taste in the mouths of many who might have chosen an IT career.
With these memories still fresh in the minds of much of the workforce, the IT industry is largely back up to its old tricks, admonishing graduates to pursue the latest technologies and allowing HR to mine candidate databases for buzzwords as if the post-dot-com massacre never happened. CIOs have largely underestimated the savvy of new entrants to the workforce, and promises of a glorious career, if only you learn the tech du jour ring hollow. So what's a talent-starved CIO to do?
End Certification surfingWhile it's arguably very hard work, it's time to return to good old fashioned due diligence in the hiring process. While HR may tell you the best way to find five new developers is to check their certifications, a superior candidate is someone with a willingness to learn, an ability to communicate, and some technical savvy, most likely in that order. The large consulting firms have done a good job of this, hiring everyone from CS grads to history majors, based not on their coursework or technical experience, but on their ability to solve problems and learn rapidly.
The pace of technological change is likely to increase rather than decrease, and quickly hiring people with the tech du jour on their resume and firing them tomorrow when that technology is passé is more costly and time consuming than hiring someone with a willingness to learn. I'll take someone from the most esoteric non-technical field that can quickly learn and articulate problems for my organization over the most sterling technical certifications any day.
To maintain this learning ability, challenge your staff to acquire and employ new skills, both technical and non-technical. Seek input from your people and push them to interact with colleagues outside IT as peers, rather than a soldier blindly following orders. Perhaps most important, develop a culture that rewards excellence. Spend time evaluating your people and providing feedback and letting them know where they stand. High performers will not hang around if you tell everyone they are all equal and all doing "fine."
Offering opportunity and focusing on an ability to learn is hard work, but presents an IT career as a place where high performers can grow and excel, rather than empty promises of greatness that are erased during the next swath of layoffs. This process is going to take far more time, effort and money than certification surfing, but will serve to repair IT's damaged reputation, and more importantly deliver an amazingly capable staff that will be excelling while your competitors continue to hire and fire based on the latest buzzwords.
Patrick Gray is the founder and president of Prevoyance Group, and author of Breakthrough IT: Supercharging Organizational Value through Technology. Prevoyance Group provides strategic IT consulting services to Fortune 500 and 1000 companies. Patrick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.