Luring the brainiacs

Recently, Nate Kassebaum was asked if he ever thought of plugging his considerable software development talents into a nice, steady job in the IT department of a corporation—you know, a company that's been around longer than the term "dot-com."Kassebaum didn't quite understand the question.

Recently, Nate Kassebaum was asked if he ever thought of plugging his considerable software development talents into a nice, steady job in the IT department of a corporation—you know, a company that's been around longer than the term "dot-com."

Kassebaum didn't quite understand the question.

It was like he'd never considered it before. But after he chewed on the idea a bit, the 20-year-old student and e-commerce entrepreneur had no trouble coming up with reasons to stay away from corporate IT.

"Well, we'd have had to find the right person to explain [our ideas] to," he mused. "Then we'd have to explain it. ... Then we'd have to convince them it was a good idea. ... Then they might just listen and take our idea."

No, said Kassebaum, he and his partners, one of whom is Jon Willits, wouldn't be heading down that road. So instead of pounding on corporate doors, the partners turned their vision into El Scripto—a tool that allows for advanced scripting, even by developers who don't know how to code. They not only kept their ideas out of corporate America, they kept their spunky energy out of it, too. They formed their own company,, in Omaha, Neb., which has recently been seeded with money from the University of Nebraska's Peter Kiewit Institute, a state-of-the-art computer and science facility in Omaha where Kassebaum is currently a junior majoring in computer science.

Alas, corporate IT loses out again. At a time when many CIOs say that a serious, persistent shortage of people with important IT skills is increasingly forcing them to consider alternatives such as outsourcing, whiz kids like Kassebaum aren't even thinking of donning suits and kicking back in cubicles in the IT department of a company that might not be exciting but can probably assure them of getting a paycheck for the foreseeable future. They're finding their way to Internet startups, consultancies, and hardware and software vendors, rather than corporate IT. Why? Kassebaum and his partners were reluctant to knock on corporate doors because, they feared, once inside, they would have encountered too many layers of bureaucracy, their ideas might have been swallowed up with no rewards accruing, and it all would have taken too much precious time.

Other reasons that prospective IT recruits are avoiding corporate America include chronic allergies to outdated legacy technology; aversion to sleepy regions of the country; and an entrepreneurial desire to build, invent and develop, rather than go to work at a help desk or get stuck maintaining systems—assignments often doled out to the new kids. Add to all this the glitter-rock twinkle of Internet startups, and there's precious little motivation for the best and brightest to work at, say, a dusty insurance company.

But fear not. It's possible for even old-line IT organizations to polish their bad reputations and begin to attract some of the young talent they so desperately need. Companies such as Control Data Systems Inc., for example, are borrowing ideas from startups about how to make themselves more attractive to the new generation of talent. The Minnesota company has figured out a way to recruit top talent despite being based far from the more glamourous Silicon Valley or the East Coast. Experts say that corporate IT can also look to the startups and emulate their nimble ways by such means as setting up separate benefits packages tailored for IT departments, partnering recruits with mentors who open up career paths whether those paths lie inside or outside of IT, keeping recruits constantly challenged with new technology, and getting prospects indoctrinated as soon as possible with internships that begin as early as high school.

A lot of work

While corporate IT is certainly capable of offering creative, innovative projects to young recruits, the profession has a lot of work to do to improve its image, say experts. "If you're young and trying to move your career, you're looking at a lot of Internet startups now," said David Foote, managing partner of Foote Partners LLC, of New Canaan, Conn., an IT work force research and consulting company. "I was on a train to the Hamptons last month. The entire car was full of recently minted MBAs, most working at Internet startups. That told me something there. They're looking for excitement and money. You won't find that working in the utilities business."

You don't have to tell that to Dr. M. Lewis Temares. Not only does the vice president of IT at the University of Miami have a tough time getting top graduates interested in IT as a career, but he would also have a tough time paying their salaries if he could attract them in large numbers. But that's OK—maybe Temares can't afford them after they've got their degrees, but while they're in school, he's got a captive audience in the form of willing participants in internships or part-time summer employment. "I get computer science, engineering or MIS students who are available that would like to work for what you and I might call decent pay for just being around, but [the pay is not good] by corporate standards," said Temares, in Coral Gables, Fla. "They do it for the convenience factor."

And according to Temares, plugging the students in on an intern basis where he can fit them has been a dream come true because of their knowledge and discipline. "Engineering students are more disciplined, they're brighter and have the highest SATs of anyone in universities."

Dream workers

And how can corporate IT get its hands on these dream workers, who'll work seven days a week because they're so driven? If you're nice to them early, they'll remember you. "If they've been trained at a corporate place during summer internships and the corporation then wants to track them down, the corporation's got them," Temares said. "They're loyal. They say, 'Just match [whatever a competitor is offering], and I'll stick with you.'"

But some groups are attempting to get to budding ITers when they're younger still. One, Applied Information Management Institute, in Omaha, Neb., has launched a program intended to expose students to IT as early as their freshman year in high school. One such initiative was sparked by a three-year grant to develop a curriculum in partnership with Central High School, in Omaha. Working with 100 businesspeople to determine what skills they thought should be taught in public education, AIM designed and implemented a computer literacy class that was taken by every freshman last year. AIM also runs one-week Cyber Camps for junior and high school students, where students learn how to construct Web pages.

It's important to teach children about IT as a career path early, according to AIM President and Executive Director Bob Sweeney, because all they're seeing on TV are doctors, lawyers, police officers and detectives.

"There are more doctors on TV shows than there are in the population at large, percentagewise," Sweeney said. Meanwhile, TV dramas underrepresent stay-at-home parents, businesspeople, farmers, construction workers and, of course, IT workers.

Besides being the career that glam-TV never sees, corporate IT can have an uphill battle when it tries to coax recruits into moving to certain regions of the country. This has been a problem for Control Data Systems, a systems integrator and business consultancy based in Arden Hills, Minn. "We have a hard time [recruiting] because Minnesota is considered to be the polar ice cap," said David Folsom, vice president and chief technology officer of the company.

But Control Data Systems has begun to funnel recruits into facilities that aren't located in "polar ice caps." The company has sites in most major cities in the United States, as well as in Asia and Europe. While the company certainly needs good technical people to do application and infrastructure development at its main office, it also needs people to do consulting and systems integration with customers at these remote sites. Thus, the company can still bring on new recruits who chafe at the idea of working in the Midwest.

And Control Data Systems is certainly patient. After all, an IT career in the Midwest starts to look a lot better when those same IT people hit the age of about 30. "That's when we start getting them back," Folsom said. "When they hit 30, they start thinking about families, about school systems, about the Midwest, and they start thinking about moving back."

Hot IT startups—the kind that tend to attract the best and brightest—already know how important it is to put themselves in hot spots so that their employees can benefit from a certain quality of life. That was the case at USinternetworking Inc., in Annapolis, Md., a year-and-a-half-old application service provider that leases enterprise resource planning software over the Internet.

Location, location, location

Annapolis had a lot going for it when it came to choosing a site for a startup, according to Brenda Woodsmall, vice president for human resources and staff services at USi.

One of the most magnetic draws was a work force of 6,000 people who left Annapolis every day to commute to the Washington area. Situating itself in the heart of this bedroom community meant that it could draw on that ample supply of employees, many of whom were fed up with the commute, Woodsmall said. This saved USi substantial relocation fees—putting its cost of hiring at about $4,500 per employee, compared with the high-tech industry's oft-seen costs of $25,000 to $30,000 per employee.

But it was Annapolis' lifestyle that really cemented the decision. USi from the start set out to take advantage of the city's water activities. To wit: All employees of the Internet startup have access seven days a week to the company's five powerboats and sailboats, which range in length from 23 to 26 feet and come stocked with all the cheese crackers, pretzels and sodas a hungry programmer can swallow. The boats are also equipped with fishing equipment and a teacher who will either navigate or instruct a willing landlubber and who will even clean up after a cruise. And did somebody mention jet skis? There are jet skis.

Hire en masse

But if your company is stuck in some sleepy burg, there are still other tactics that might help get your IT department some fresh blood. According to Vaughan Merlin, vice president of The Concours Group, a consulting and research company in Atlanta, companies should imitate Microsoft Corp., which, in order to satisfy its voracious need for talent, tends to scoop up all of the IT output of graduates for the academic year from a particular college.

Aventail Corp., a three-and-a-half-year-old company that makes extranet management and security software and has doubled in size over the last year to 116 employees, has used a few variations on this strategy. Recently, for example, Kathi Jones, director of HR and recruiting, learned of an Internet-based startup that was on shaky ground. Jones started talking to one of a team of engineers at the startup, and, like any good recruiter, one of the first questions she asked the engineer was, "Do you know anyone else?"

The engineer did. Like a string of pearls, one engineer led to another, who led to another, who led to another, until Aventail had taken five of the team's seven members from the startup, which is now in the process of closing its doors.

Jones didn't stop there. When Aventail tried to recruit a reluctant 19-year-old user-group surfer late one Internet night, the Ohio native cast a leery eye at the Seattle company. Unlike others who flock to the coasts, this recruit wasn't so sure he wanted to move to a town where he didn't know a soul.

No problem, said Jones. She offered to move a buddy to keep him company. Any buddy, his choice, and Jones would help his buddy find a job in Seattle. The prospect, whom Jones declined to name, is now trying to decide who to import to keep him company.

Experts say these are all options open to large corporations and that if an IT department can emulate a small startup's familylike atmosphere, it should have no problem finding recruits. All it needs is a little creativity.

Or if you're looking to emulate a startup like Aventail, you need a lot of creativity. Witness the feat of an HR pro: One beautiful day in Seattle last summer, Jones took her customary walk around the third floor to say hello to the engineers, who were working hard to ship a product. "The engineers said, 'We haven't had any sun; we haven't had any exercise or home-cooked meals for weeks,'" Jones said. "I said, 'Everyone meet me at 12 o'clock on the roof. Follow the signs in the stairwell.'"

The engineers followed the signs, walked up four flights of stairs to the roof, and there they were met by Jones, who greeted them with homemade cookies and a barbecue. "They had to walk up four flights of stairs, it was sunny on the roof, and they got homemade cookies," Jones said. "They got everything they asked for."

And with a 95 percent retention rate in its IT work force, you can be sure that Aventail has got much of what it's looking for.

Plug them in, keep them wired

Plugging in new recruits is half the battle, particularly if a corporation is seen as behind the times. Can corporate IT shed that stodgy image so it can attract the best and brightest IT recruits? Yes, say experts, and what's more important, it can do a better job creating a vibrant work environment and retaining those recruits. Here's how:

Ditch the cookie-cutter corporate policies: This could mean setting up HR benefits that differ from the organization as a whole, with separate compensation and bonus structures, flexible work hours, and an HR expert familiar with IT hiring. Or it could be as simple as putting a couch or a water cooler in an office to encourage sociability and break up traditionally long workdays.

Open up the road ahead: Empower all employees to make decisions in their own career paths. Set up mentoring with experienced professionals from management or technical positions and make sure those mentors lay out growth paths for people, even if that means making it easier for recruits ultimately to move to non-IT roles such as sales or development.

Don't forget the importance of snacks: Learn from Internet startups, practically all of which create a homey atmosphere by keeping the pizza coming and the refrigerators stocked with cookies, crackers, chips and soda. According to Dr. M. Lewis Temares, dean of the University of Miami's College of Engineering, this approach also works when you're recruiting at colleges: At the college, students come to Lunch with the Leaders programs for the free food, then stay to listen to a corporate pitch because they'd feel guilty if they didn't.

Get out of Nowheresville: Nothing against the Midwest, but if your headquarters are in Minnesota, you might want to do what Control Data Systems Inc. does: The company, based in Arden Hills, funnels younger recruits into positions located at facilities on either coast or in Asia or Europe.

Source: PC Week reporting

What do kids want?

Certain things attract the best and brightest IT graduates like moths to the flame. According to high-tech students and the deans, professors and career counselors who work with them, this is the bait:

  • Hot tools: Whether it's working with Java, Web-enabling legacy applications or switching on a business with e-commerce, recruiting is easy if a company has cutting-edge technology.
  • Continuing education: Nobody wants to be the department's dinosaur—that's why experts say that guaranteeing constant access to training is vital to IT recruits.
  • Quick access to knowledge: Gen-X will not suffer long waiting periods to ramp up their skills.
  • Glamour: Three words: Internet, Internet, Internet. Three more words: startup, startup, startup.
  • Location: Seattle; Boston; New York; Silicon Valley; Annapolis, Md. Practically any location on either coast hooks young IT workers much easier than the Midwest.
  • Impact: Entrepreneurial graduates don't see themselves as system maintainers. Rather, they want to build, invent and develop, because those are the high-visibility activities that have the most effect on the business and reap the greatest rewards.

Source: PC Week reporting