Management: What Motivates Your Techies?

Opinion: Your IT staff may include some of the most driven professionals you've ever met. So how do you get them to stick around?

By Charlie Schluting | Posted Jul 25, 2008
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Charlie SchlutingOpinion: Members of your IT department’s technical staff are somewhat unique. Understanding what motivates them spells the difference between IT systems that work, and IT systems that are amazing and truly innovative. Of course, that also dictates how effectively the company as a whole can operate.

Techies are not so different from other employees; it’s just that the things they hold most important are very, very important to them. Even in the post dot-com era, they know there are greener pastures. If employees are underpaid, work in poor conditions, or are unchallenged, they will tend to either settle in and skate by doing the minimum amount of work required (rare), or they will spend their time at work updating their resume.

Money

Systems administrators, network engineers and programmers have all dedicated years of their lives to learning their trades. Some went to college, others didn’t, but they all spent an extraordinary amount of time honing their skills. Many started tinkering in their homes, learning the fundamentals with Linux every night and weekend throughout high school and college. The level of dedication in the IT fields is unrivaled.

There are certainly varying levels of skill and it’s up to you to determine who your most skilled team members are. In the end, your IT staff will feel more appreciated and work harder if they make the industry average for their position. If they make a tad more, they’re likely to both work hard and not look for greener pastures, if all the other retention aspects are satisfactory.

IT folk, as mentioned, highly value their skill sets. It’s important to recognize the high-performing employees and reward them. It’s equally important to not reward the non-performers. Remember, performance reviews and salaries are not confidential, no matter how strongly a company insists they are.

Benefits, including vacation time, are also important. Try to be as flexible as possible with work hours and scheduling vacations. When employees feel that their manager is concerned with their quality of life, they tend to be very loyal.

Challenges

Every technical person has to deal with mundane tasks; that’s part of the job. When the mundane becomes the norm, however, they feel underutilized. Every few years your employees will become experts in a few new areas, and at that point the work is no longer fun nor is it a great learning experience. They need something new.

Without at least 25 percent of the work being research into new technologies or new skill set areas, employees quickly feel burdened by the daily grind. They got into this work because in the beginning there was so much to learn, and as they learned they realized how much more there was to still learn.

Google has the right idea: Let your employees work on whatever they want for 20 percent of their work week. Many of Google’s innovative services came from an employee’s 20 percent time. That’s only one out of five days. If you have a bored employee, you probably only get a full one to two days’ worth of actual work out of him in a given week anyway. Think about it.

Professional Development

Did I mention that IT staff like to learn? This varies from person to person, but the majority will enjoy any opportunity given to them.

Industry related conferences are probably the best form of professional development. Employees can attend talks and learn how other companies have solved problems they’re facing. Everything you’re currently doing has already been done by another IT group, guaranteed, and there is much to learn. Every employee should have the opportunity to attend at least one conference a year.

Certifications, training programs, tuition reimbursement for college courses, and even the purchasing of books for employees all go a long way toward showing the employee that you value them, and their hard-earned skills. Don’t worry; employees won’t jump ship as soon as they obtain a new certification. They will feel valued and will enjoy working in such an environment.

Help your employees develop a professional development plan. Show them that ascension within the company is possible, where appropriate. Reiterate that the company is willing to invest in them, beyond just their salary.

Involvement

IT staff often feel that their concerns go unheard. “I could have told them this project was going to fail; they don’t understand that the technology can’t really do that.”

It is very important to involve as many technical people as possible when planning projects and new initiatives. They often bring new insights to the table, but the most important benefit is that they will understand why something is being done.

IT is always becoming more involved with the business itself. CIOs are generally accepted and part of the rest of the C-level crowd. Involving your technical staff in the decision process, therefore, provides them with three important advantages:

  1. They had a part in the project, so they are less likely to hamper its progress if they disagree with it

  2. They feel their voice has been heard, and that the technical considerations have been fully thought out

  3. They have been provided another professional development opportunity by being exposed to upper management and the decision process

In the end, these tips for retaining IT staffers are not that different from other employees. Just remember that these things are all much more important to the typical IT employee. The order of importance is often monetary compensation first; then professional development, a challenging environment, and having a voice can come in any order depending on the individual.

While some of these things seem obvious, recognize that it’s really about identifying the differences in what motivates certain types of employees. A high-performing IT organization is a hive of innovation and fun, which trickles down throughout the rest of a company, both in terms of morale and profitability.


When he’s not writing for Enterprise Networking Planet or riding his motorcycle, Charlie Schluting is the Associate Director of Computing Infrastructure at Portland State University. Charlie also operates OmniTraining.net, and recently finished Network Ninja, a must-read for every network engineer.

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