Attracting -- and keeping -- IT talent is an ongoing concern for NZ organisations, even if it was muted during the downturn. At a CIO roundtable sponsored by Absolute IT, ICT leaders from across sectors share insights on how they face this evergreen challenge. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

Panellists:

Mike Clarke, CIO, SKYCITY Entertainment Group

John Deane, chief technology officer, PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC)

Peter Ennis, general manager technology, TVNZ

John Pye, director of IT delivery, University of Auckland

Chris Robb, IT services manager, Genesis Energy and former head of software solutions, IAG

Andries van der Westhuizen, group IT transformation manager, Stevenson Group

Claudia Vidal, general manager - business operations, Auckland UniServices

Jason Pratt, chief technology officer, SmallWorlds

Noel Hassapladakis, business manager, Absolute IT

Chris Reid, principal consultant, Absolute IT

Divina Paredes, editor, CIO, moderator

Vera Alves, reporter, CIO

Key points:

• Rotating staff across units and projects, recruiting from outside IT, and long-term planning for major projects are key strategies

• Demand is strong for staff adept in newer technologies, and more so for those with interpersonal skills

• Organisations need to take in more IT interns and train staff - or continue to chase the same top talent.

Attracting -- and keeping -- IT talent is an ongoing concern for NZ organisations, even if it was muted during the downturn. At a CIO roundtable sponsored by Absolute IT, ICT leaders from across sectors share insights on how they face this evergreen challenge. Here are excerpts from the discussion.

The lowdown on the people front

Mike Clarke: New Zealand's got two challenges. One is that we're all on the same technology wave -- we're all doing virtualisation, increasing storage, increasing all of that capacity on demand. But on the other hand, we've got right next door to us, three hours away, a much higher paying economy [Australia]. During the recession, those planes were pretty busy taking IT professionals that way. Now [that] we're all opening up the purse strings a little bit and starting to do some things, we're finding an even more constrained supply of professionals.

Peter Ennis: There's always a market for good people. We're fortunate in a way that we've come through a recession, we're beginning to come out of it now, and there's been less mobility than there has been in the previous three years. The good people that you really want are the ones who've managed to stay in employment during that recession and they're also the ones you need to help grow your business out of the recession. We're seeing a shortage now in good contract people, so people who've been out there and have been contracting are really going into full-time roles or the demand for their contracting services is increasing.

Claudia Vidal: People have always been in shortage and the point is to take your time to bring into the company the right skills and the right fit.

John Deane: There are always good people out there but they're always few and far between. And in recent times you had to sift through a lot more chaff to get to the wheat but it is there and just like Claudia Vidal said, 'be patient, don't sacrifice your standards'. Backfill if you have to, temp if you have to, but when that one person comes along, for us it's not about skills -- it's about the attitude and how that fits with the culture -- [then you hire].

Chris Robb: We [at IAG where he was head of software solutions at the time] certainly feel that there is a skill shortage, not necessarily a people shortage. But we're talking at the high end roles like architects, senior tech design, staff domain specialists, people in the security space... I think we'll be competing against Australia increasingly for those high end skills. Our experience is it just takes one big project, we've got a couple of big ones coming up, and one of your competitors who are using the same technology, and it really can have a delay in recruiting.

Jason Pratt: You always need to be recruiting. So if you find a key person that you think you're going to need in four or five months, bring them on board right then and there... The benefit we have is we're a social games company so I can leverage that as far as getting good talent in the door. The majority of those we are hiring [are] straight out of the university.

Proactive stance

Chris Robb: We're doing a lot more in a long-term workforce plan so we try to anticipate over the next 12 to 18 months what are the technologies and skill sets we're going to need. That will position us better than our competitors... we're doing a lot because we really sense that there's going to be a big shortage over the next several years in certain areas.

Peter Ennis: We are being more proactive in this financial year than last year around professional development and training and investing in these people... We need to keep developing these people and we need to provide them with a toolkit that will benefit TVNZ but that benefits them in the future... If somebody walks out of our building and goes somewhere else and tells their new future employer what a great place TVNZ is to work, then we've lost a person but we're gaining our reputation.

Ensuring the talent pipeline

Mike Clarke: There isn't a great deal of transition for the young IT specialists to get into this business. They come out of the university with a set of skills but I don't think there are many of us who are putting a lot of investment into taking those people and putting them through a two-year [training] programme... There is no quick fix, you know. We have got to invest in young talent or we will spend that time chasing each other's people.

Jason Pratt: I'm a big supporter of life long learning and continuing education. You have to invest in your staff not only to get them to grow to meet the company's needs but also their own personal career needs.

One of the things I implemented was a quarterly review process where we do one-on-ones with each of the technology team members to see where they're at in regards to their own personal career goals and what they're trying to do with the company. I find that to be quite successful. They set three or four goals, a couple of easy ones and a couple of hard ones, and you can help them grow in their career and also identify where they may potentially need training in.

Claudia Vidal: I have had good experience in the past with interns or graduate programmes, they can bring fresh ideas and a pipeline of talent. However, you need to make the time for coaching graduates and providing the necessary induction; and often when IT teams are under pressure to deliver with ever diminishing resources, it is very difficult to make that time available.

Chris Robb: We have just established a graduate programme [at IAG]. We're not competing on price or salary, we're competing on a structured career path for people.

John Pye: I don't think there's as many people going into dedicated IT courses as any of us would like... I'd love to get in the high schools and see if we can set up the vendor relationships with high schools and get people actually interested in what it's about at a much earlier level.

Jason Pratt: The way I encourage young people, is I explain to them, 'You could get a job in construction but there's only so long you can swing a hammer. You can get a job in retail but there's only so long you can stand up. Get a job in IT and as long as your brain doesn't turn to oatmeal, then you can work until the day you die'.

Claudia Vidal: There are actions under our control to attract and retain people. And yes, it has always been difficult to attract good people, and yes we are competing in a global market. However, how many secondary school leavers are drawn into ICT related disciplines?

New Zealand's economy is still predominantly based on natural resources, pastoral industry and tourism. We have not embraced the knowledge economy which is very suited to a small population such as NZ's, and it would shrink phenomenally our distance to global markets thanks to the internet. If there were demands and jobs created in the sector, wouldn't school leavers see the opportunities and the country have a larger pool of professionals?

Peter Ennis: It's sometimes hard to make IT sexy, but I guess it's around what you see it is that you do. There was a John F Kennedy quote that always stuck in my mind. He was being shown around NASA and he sees this guy sweeping the floor of the rocket assembly building and he said to him "what exactly is your role?' and he said, 'I put men on the moon, sir.'

He didn't see himself as a sweeper or a cleaner, he saw himself as part of a team that put men on the moon... Our mission is inspiring NZers on every screen. If I need you to come into TVNZ and ask anybody in the service centre, 'What do you do?', if the answer was 'I work in the service centre looking after the PCs for this bunch of ingrates', then we've failed. If they say, 'I work for TVNZ and we make great TV programmes and we do this and that', [we've succeeded in our mission].'

Jason Pratt: We're starting to look at a 80/20 policy -- 20 percent free time to pursue a project that would benefit the company. We're getting some good feedback from that. We're a games company and everybody has ideas as to what they think would be a great game. You don't want to say 'no' to that and you want people to be able to pursue that and set them up to succeed. So we say, 'Hey, that looks like a great one, why don't you spend 20 percent of your time over the next 90 days and we'll give it a shot and see how it flies?'

Chris Robb: We put a lot of emphasis on the way we work which is around collaboration. We're finding that people are more likely to stay and be engaged when they're working in a team environment versus being siloed and put in a box. They're more likely to learn and grow their career off others.

Support and branding issues

John Pye: We have these new inductee breakfasts and we'd say 'why are we here' and it's not about technology or about infrastructure or systems, it's about the university as a research based university and because of the roles that people who are in IT services play, there might actually be amazing [programmes] that the researchers can build off to make great breakthroughs.

John Deane: You've got to push people out of their comfort zone... We run a Toastmasters [programme] twice a month and [I] say to the team, 'get involved in that.' Now we've got two takers and one of them has decided to go off and do some elocution work as well.

Chris Robb: The tendency in the past [was] just to focus on the technical skills rather than the soft skills, so we've got quite formalised in including a mix of skills that you need for certain levels of roles -- you must have good communication skills, team building skills, negotiation or have some political savvy.

Andries van der Westhuizen: As soon as you've introduced that [training for soft skills] to people, they're always hungry to learn more. Especially if they want to move on with their career ... because if you want to become the CIO, you need soft skills.

Critical skills

Chris Robb: Test automation is an area increasingly that there is demand and more IT shops are automating their test and there's a real shortage. I think in some of the BI areas there's a real shortage in that as well.

Andries van der Westhuizen: It's more around the application space and it's those people that can bridge between the application and business value.

Jason Pratt: Probably the most challenging soft skills that we have is getting developers to actually vocalise and speak to one another instead of IMing or Skyping one another even though they sit right next to each other... you have to have people who can communicate with each other and understand all facets of the business.

John Deane: One of our biggest challenges is getting people who are bilingual, the ability to speak IT and business. That's a good soft skill.