Solving IT Talent Crisis Requires Self-Service Tools & Culture Change

Martha Heller is CEO of Heller Search Associates, an IT leadership executive recruiting firm. Martha is a frequent keynote speaker at IT industry events and author of two books: The CIO Paradox: Battling the Contradictions of IT Leadership, and Be the Business: CIOs in the New Era of IT.  We chat with Martha about how CIOs are pushing tech work into the business, the IT skills they need most, and what they need to do to attract and retain women.

OpsRamp: With technology changing so quickly, how are CIOs and CXOs managing talent to keep pace?

MH: CIOs are giving more responsibility for technology delivery and support to the business. Technology is becoming simple enough, with robotic process automation (RPA) and data visualization, for example, that IT can install those tools on people’s machines and say, “develop your own solution.”

All those little RPA tasks can create a lot of noise for IT and keep them from working on bigger picture items like, how is technology changing the business? Of course, IT has to put in the guardrails on security and architecture, but once they do that, they can keep pace by not having to touch every single demand of the business.  

The next area is Agile development, where you don’t have to go back to the drawing board all the time to add or change requirements. You’re developing technology with business partners instead of doing it alone and throwing it over the wall. The third area is the concept of product management versus project management. This is a cross-functional group of product managers, business managers and IT, all focused on developing a capability such as sales forecasting or customer acquisition. They have a common goal, such as improving website conversions by 30%. By everyone working in lockstep together, you don't waste a lot of time as in traditional project management, where you may never see the ROI. 

Listen to Martha’s ideas for keeping pace in IT:

What about low-code tools? Is this going to help with the talent crunch?

MH: CIOs will need fewer product managers and fewer developers, because with low code, no code and self-service tools, development is much easier work. Some CIOs today don’t want to be in the business of development or delivery at all, but solving business problems. So while the actual technology skills they need are decreasing, CIOs really need people who understand the inner workings of the tech org and the business. By the way, this is bleeding edge stuff, but the shift puts a premium on people who can set up that kind of environment and have real knowledge of the business. How can we use technology and data to stay competitive? The low-code movement puts a bigger premium on business acumen, communications and influencing skills.

At the entry and mid-level, what skills are CIOs having the most trouble finding right now?

MH: Data science, information security and business acumen. As important as the ability to put on-prem services into the cloud is, that’s not the hard part.  What’s difficult is putting the business framework around the cloud strategy so you know what value, cost savings and performance improvement you are striving for. The skillset I find that CIOs need is not so much understanding the technology of the cloud, but how to change the culture of the on-premise IT organization into one that is cloud based, and how to achieve ROI. 

At the other end, how are IT director and executive roles changing?

MH: The most important thing that CIOs are doing today is changing the culture in IT. We no longer want to say to the business, “Hey give us the order and we’ll fill it.” It’s about reaching across the chasm and talking about business and tech problems and solutions.

One CIO I just spoke with is putting in a long-term incentive plan so that when IT managers deliver a tool, they get a bonus and another bonus a year later if the tool is having business impact. That’s great for retention, and if the manager is getting half the bonus for outcomes, she is going to pay close attention to what users need. CIOs are doing a ton of programs to make IT more integrated with the business.

Another critical area is data.  It’s not enough to put in a data lake. If no one is using it, and changing the way they work, you have failed as the CIO. I see CIOs working on changing the culture to become a data-driven org. 

Finally, CIOs need to focus on bringing the digital consumer experience to employees. The next generation of workers will expect to download an app to their phones where they can connect to the tools they need in their new job. They expect more of a Facebook experience as an employee.

How about IT infrastructure skills. Are these now as important as development skills? 

MH: They have always been as important. Even though infrastructure is considered a commodity and businesspeople value developers more highly, if your infrastructure suffers, all those apps suffer, your customers suffer and your costs spike. The big difference is that the skills themselves are no longer reconfiguring servers and network architecture. The infrastructure role is changing and these people now need to manage cloud resources and achieve value from the cloud.

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A perennial question in the industry is, how do we get more women in tech? And, do CIOs and IT managers really care?

MH: Yes, CIOs and IT managers really do care. When we are asked to do a search for a CIO, we are almost always asked to have women in the candidate pool. And organizations will consider women who may have less experience. When push comes to shove, however, they hire the most qualified person regardless of gender and ethnicity. If CIOs really want to bring more gender diversity to their organizations, they have to change the culture. TIAA has a whole women mentoring program with an array of global and regional meetings. They have a big program to attract women and to change the culture. There’s an opportunity to create an environment in IT which is so supportive of women that it's actually better and different than the gender-biased society in which we all live.

But the fact remains that there’s still not enough women in the pipeline.  How do we change that?

MH: The good news is that you no longer have to work in the IT organization to work in the technology field. If I’m a woman with tech or development skills, I can go to Silicon Valley and work in data science which is the big new thing. And data science is not always sitting in the IT department. If you have technology interests today, you can go into marketing, product development, or business operations.

CIOs can help the cause of getting more women interested in technology by putting a lot of resources into making the culture more friendly to women and providing the necessary air cover. The upside of this is that you get a more diverse team, which is more productive and successful, and that’s been proven out many times.  But getting there is more challenging. It has to be wholesale comprehensive change. 

Next Steps:

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