The CIO's lament: 20-something techies who quit after 1 year

Harry Fox Agency's IT chief discusses how hard it is to retain younger IT professionals, especially Java programmers

Louis Trebino, CIO and senior vice president at the Harry Fox Agency (HFA) in New York City, is experiencing significant turnover on his Web development team.

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SUMMER 2012 UPDATE: Largest IT employment gains in 4 years reported

No sooner does he hire a Java programmer and train him in the company's music industry niche, than the programmer is recruited away for a higher salary. Indeed, everyone on Trebino's six-person Java development team has less than one year of experience with HFA, which is the nation's leading provider of rights management, licensing and royalty services for the music industry.

IT staff turnover — particularly among 20- and 30-somethings -- is making it harder for Trebino to respond to HFA's changing business model as the music industry moves online.

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IT staff turnover is "probably my most significant issue right now and has been for the past 12 to 15 months," Trebino says. "It puts us in a really uncomfortable position to have this kind of turnover because knowledge keeps walking out the door. We invest in training people and bringing them up to speed to where they need to be, and boom they're gone. That has been my biggest struggle and concern."

Can you keep your IT staff in 2012?

Trebino isn't the only CIO finding it hard to retain younger IT professionals.

"They are looking for much more aggressive career development opportunities and the ability to learn new things quicker," says Lily Mok, vice president at Gartner for CIO Research. "Traditionally, it took two or three years for a person to move up into the next level in an organization. They want to be on a faster track than that. They don't want to stay in one spot for more than 12 or 18 months."

Even when CIOs promote 20- and 30-somethings, they often don't have loyalty to the organization, Mok says.

"Don't expect them to stay with you 15 or 20 or 30 years...That's not going to happen," Mok says. "They will stay with you as long as they see certain things, including personal growth or personal value enhancement, whether that's financial reward or career aspirations. But only think about being able to retain them for two or three years. If nothing happens, they will leave after their first year of employment."

Network World spoke recently with Trebino about the turnover he is seeing among his younger IT professionals and the steps he's taking to retain these workers.

Here are excerpts from our conversation:

What trends are you seeing in terms of IT staff turnover?

It's been very mixed because I have two different development teams. I have the core developers, the RPG and LANSA developers, and they have five, 10, 15 years with the company. They are very well entrenched, they understand the music business, they understand the technology, and they understand how we relate to the music business. On the Java side, everyone right now has been here less than a year. We have excessive turnover for my Web-based team. It's a younger workforce. They have different needs, different requirements and different desires than our slightly older workforce. I'm seeing them being much more [transient.] It's much more challenging to get the newer generation of folks interested in trying to understand the business vs. looking only at the technology.

Where I think these guys would be very energized, they get almost disincentivized. The way our projects work, we bring in a developer to work on a module. These guys own a system from start to finish. To me, that's a great opportunity. You're getting to learn all the different pieces of something and you get to own something. But they're not always comfortable with the risk. I find more of a reluctance to jump in and figure something out, especially if they're inheriting somebody else's code. There have been a number of cases where we have had a system that runs into issues, bugs, defects or a major change requirement. We thought it would be a challenge for a developer to own it. But their first reaction is to want to scrap it and start over. There's a whole different mindset.

It's very interesting to me. Certainly, there's a different sense of expectation and entitlement. Lots of times, younger people coming into the organization believe they should be several pegs above where they are. Learning the ropes is not as interesting to them. The newer folks want us to provide them with immediate gratification.

Why are your Java developers leaving? Are they being recruited away?

It's a mix of reasons. The last two folks left after other people reached out to them with opportunities. Before that, we had people who were actively looking for opportunities with more flexibility and different responsibilities. Some left for more money.

What is your outlook for IT staff turnover in 2012?

There's a bit more stability, but I don't think we'll see drastic changes unless our business were to change. The new folks coming in all have similar mindsets and drivers. One of our newest and strongest Java developers is actually not in that younger generation. He is much more eager to learn and explore, and he doesn't get frustrated as quickly. We're looking at how do we change our project assignments and change our application owners because we're not going to change the personality of the workforce.

Do you find that younger IT professionals suffer from the not-invented-here syndrome?

They don't want to deal with something that's existing. Our systems are fairly large and complex. They've been built and evolved over a number of years. They're not off-the-shelf; everything is custom. Younger workers get frustrated by these applications. They don't understand why the program does this. They want to just write something fresh. But when we've invested in a system as large as this, we're not just going to scrap it. The crux of the problem is that they want to create and own their own application. They don't want to inherit and have to be responsible for somebody else's work.

What steps are you taking to improve retention of younger IT workers?

Where in the past we used to do single ownership on a project, now we're doing dual ownership on projects. We're teaming people up to look at our most key systems to make sure they are optimal. We're giving them latitude to create enhancements. We're trying to instill a different sense of ownership. They've got to take something that exists, but they don't have to live with it the way it exists. Secondly, we're working more closely with folks to determine their strengths and desires and align them to the right systems. Third, as new developers come in, we are teaming them with a business partner to help them understand the impact of their system on the business. We're trying to get them more invested in the strategy. We're trying to engage them in where the company is going.

When people leave is it mostly about money?

The official answer is that it's mostly about money. They say they love the work environment and they think the company is really good. But they feel it is a heavy workload and that they can do better. Years ago, when I was first out of college, IT guys worked round-the-clock. My guys work basically 9 to 5, so I find it interesting that people are complaining. The other big reason that people have left is flexibility. We have moderate flexibility. We do not have work-from-home arrangements all the time, only occasionally. The younger people want full flexibility.

When and how do you anticipate Baby Boomer retirements will impact your workforce?

I'm a few years away from that. But I have two of my folks who will be eligible for retirement first. Knowing that is coming is part of why we brought in the LANSA [software development] tool and why we're spreading knowledge around Cognos [business analytics] across the entire team. It's really about cross training. The other thing we are doing is evolving away from the old technologies.

Do you feel there is less loyalty among younger IT workers?

I do. They don't have the same notion that you go to one place and you stay there for five, 10 or 15 years. But the incentives to do that aren't there anymore because there are fewer pension plans and less profit sharing. Younger workers have shorter attention spans. I don't mean this in a bad way. I credit them for having the eagerness to move and learn and grow. It's a great thing for them. It's something we need to figure out how to harness.

Do you think you'll be able to keep your IT staff in 2012?

I do. I'm hoping the steps we are taking to adapt to the common personality traits of the younger workforce will help us retain them. The biggest point is to get them aware of and engaged in the new business opportunities here.

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