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How to find great developers

Joel Spolsky writes about finding great developers. Internships are a terrific way to scope out a candidate and also get them passionate about your company. Previous blog post about career aside, I do really like IBM and I *am* really curious to see how far we can take social software – and one of the reasons why I’m crazy about that company and all the cool people in it is because I’ve seen it from the inside, thanks to the IBM Toronto Centre for Advanced Studies.

Check out the essay.

More thoughts: One of the things that frustrates me about the
Philippines is that we’ve got this entire chicken-and-egg problem in
the schools. Few companies do on-campus recruitment for challenging
internships, so students don’t get motivation or experience – which is
why few companies bother to do on-campus recruitment or R&D.
Programming competitions help, I guess, and we do still manage to find
a couple of geeks who learn about open source and end up teaching
themselves. Still…

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Gen Y Perspective: Why Gen Y Won’t Stay at Jobs that Suck

In yesterday’s talk by Bea Fields on managing Gen Y, one of the listeners asked how much of a fun circus work would need to become in order to attract and retain younger workers. The well-known and much-criticized Gen Y tendency to job hop makes Gen Y retention a key issue for companies around the world. Here’s my Gen Y perspective on this issue: when work-life balance is important and career plans are chaotic, it just doesn’t pay to work at jobs that suck.

Why do people work at jobs that don’t make them happy? There seem to be three main reasons:

  • They need the money or the health insurance.
  • They don’t care about the sacrifices they have to make.
  • They see it as a stepping-stone towards a bigger opportunity.

Let’s look at those three reasons from a Gen Y perspective.

Do they need the money or the health insurance?

Many Gen Yers still live at home, so they have less financial pressure. Others live on their own or with friends, but aren’t carrying mortgages or supporting families. True, many Gen Yers experience financial pressure from student loans, credit card debt and other obligations, but most can get by.

What about health care? We’re in the prime of our lives, and most don’t need to worry about losing insurance coverage. Life insurance and family insurance needs are low, because we typically don’t have any dependents. That means we can shift jobs without worrying about not being covered in the meantime.

Why else would people take jobs they weren’t happy in? They might not care about the other sacrifices they need to make, such as working long hours and living under high stress.

I know many Gen Yers who work overtime and weekends, but I also know many Gen Yers who prioritize work-life balance and who make time in their lives for other things. If their jobs don’t allow them to have the kind of life they want, they’ll look for other opportunities. They know that for every company that talks about company loyalty and retention but then turns around and expects an unsustainable pace of work, there are also companies that walk the walk and are really interested in improving workplace flexibility–not just for senior employees, but for everyone.

Why would people work so hard, anyway? The answer is related to the third reason why people stay in jobs that don’t make them happy. They see those jobs as stepping-stones to greater opportunities.

It used to be that you would “pay your dues” in a boring, thankless job, eventually rising in the ranks and gaining a cushy position. Not any more. After rampant downsizing (I mean, “right-sizing”, or “resource actions”, as IBM likes to call it), the failure of even supposedly rock-solid institutions (hello, Fannie Mae!), and the un-cushy-izing of formerly cushy positions such as partners in law firms (who are now subject to the threat of de-equitization) is it any wonder why many people–Gen Y, especially, as we’re making these entry-level decisions–no longer believe in long-term career planning and in paying your dues in a thankless position?

Lesson One in Daniel Pink‘s unconventional career guide The Adventures of Johnny Bunko is: “There is no plan.”

There is no plan. If there can be no neat plan from getting from point A to point B, if being the office gopher won’t get you to the corner office, if you can burn yourself out because of overtime and high stress but still be laid off because of unpredictable market conditions, then it makes sense to take a step back, invest in yourself, and do work that creates value and make you happy.

Gen Y knows this: your employer pays you, but you ultimately work for yourself. You are ultimately responsible for developing your own skills, finding your own opportunities, and making the life that you want.

Gen Y challenges for recruiting and retention, such puzzling issues for HR departments all over the world, are really just logical reactions to the realities of the marketplace. It makes sense to pick jobs and organizations where you can create value, learn, and enjoy working. It makes sense to contribute and learn as much as you can, then move before you get moved–whether it’s to another job in the organization, or to another organization entirely. It makes sense to make sure that there’s something in it for you.

Does that mean that Gen Yers are mercenary? No. In fact, money isn’t the biggest reason why Gen Yers leave organizations. Gen Yers are looking for opportunities to make a difference, to grow, to connect, and to work with people they admire. Dot-com-like perks like foosball tables are fun, but they don’t make up for opportunities to make a difference.

The organization that can quickly tap new Gen Yers’ passions and skills, move them into a position where they can contribute in a meaningful way, and help them build the social networks that will make them even more productive–that’s the kind of organization that will be able to easily recruit and retain Gen Y, because that’s the kind of organization that understands what matters.

Stitching together a semi-rotational program; training is not the limiting factor

Choices

At an external networking event a few years ago, I talked to an up-and-coming MBA grad who told me about the rotational program he was in. He was scheduled to spend one year in one department, one year in another, and so on. I envied how he was being groomed.

Deliberately moving through different departments helps you build a wide base of experience and a diverse network. The formality of the program means that the frequent job shifts won’t be taken against you, as they might in an organization that values depth and specialization. Management development programs like that are essential for cultivating people with a broad understanding of the organization. Without sponsors or organizational backing, most people would find it difficult to shift from one part of the organization to the other.

Rotational programs and other leadership development initiatives tend to be offered only to high-potential people, where high potential is not only based on performance, but also velocity. When I was starting at IBM, my eldest sister advised me to find the fast track, get on it, and stay on it. While not entirely following her advice—I’d pick coaching people on collaboration over working tons of overtime on well-understood projects, even though the first doesn’t show up on my metrics and the second doesn’t—I’ve also nudged my manager about some of the development programs I’ve seen. I’ve volunteered for things like the Technical Leadership Exchange and the Take Two women’s leadership program. I read as much as I can, as widely as I can. I learn from people all over IBM.

Envy is a surprisingly useful driver as long as you don’t let it consume you. This reminds me of the invitation-only web development course I heard about when I was in high school. I wasn’t invited—me! and I’d done well in our programming competitions!—so I talked my way into it. It reminds me of how I envied the courses that students in other universities got to take, so I read through the online course materials and learned whatever I could on my own.

It’s not about the world being unfair, and it’s not about other people receiving opportunities that you have to make for yourself. It’s about looking around and saying, “Hey, that’s a great idea. How can I borrow part of that idea and make something for myself?”

Back to rotational programs. I don’t know what fields need to be set in my record for me to show up on HR’s radar (in a good way), but I’m not going to worry about that. I don’t have to wait for permission to learn as much as I can from other parts of this huge organization. I probably have the perfect starting point, actually. During my graduate studies, I learned about research. In Global Business Services, I’ve learned about development and consulting. In my Innovation Discovery engagements, I’m learning about marketing and sales. From our clients and experts, I learn about strategy, operations and finance. I help people in communications and learning and IT. I can take free online courses in almost any area. I don’t have the depth that comes from everyday delivery, responsibilities, and war stories, but I’m learning from people who do.

This matters because there’s tremendous value in being able to break down silos and work across organizational boundaries. The more we can reach out and tap the talent throughout IBM and the world, the more powerfully we can work. If we can learn from different parts of the organization without a formal rotational program, then that broader understanding becomes available to anyone who wants it. If we can influence and inspire without formal authority, then other people can learn emergent leadership too. If we can figure out this different way of working, we can share it with other organizations and influence the world.

I don’t have an executive sponsor or an HR program shaping my career path, but I have many mentors and role models, including some who take a chance on me and give me opportunities beyond my level. That’s enough to make a difference. The limiting factor here isn’t training. It’s my time and energy. There’s so much more to learn.

If you’re waiting for training—or an organizational blessing—look around and see what you can do with what you have. You don’t need a rotational program or a classroom course. Think about what’s really limiting you, and find out what you can do about it.

Thanks to David Ing for nudging me to think about this!

Poach my assistants, they’re awesome

Most companies try to be hush-hush about good people. That makes sense. You don’t want to train people and then have them headhunted away from you. Hiring can be expensive and distracting.

I want to see what happens if you turn that upside down. Other people have been asking me about my delegation experiments in scheduling, data entry, and other areas. I’m really happy with the virtual assistants I have. I wanted to them to find as much work as they want doing the kind of work they want. I’m happy to recommend the people that I like to the people that I like.

Will this come back to bite me? Maybe. My assistants’ workloads may get to the point where they don’t have time to work on my tasks because the tasks they do for other people are so much more interesting. My first reaction is to think of this as a bad thing, but when you dig deeper, it’s not actually that scary.

I’m reminded of something that I read in the E-Myth Enterprise:

People-oriented companies depend on "good" people to produce results, where "good" is defined as experienced, successful, self-motivated—in short, people who can be depended upon to produce good results. Someone is always shouting, "Find me someone who knows how to get the job done!" in a people-oriented company.

Process-oriented companies depend on good processes to produce results, where good is defined as the process’s ability to produce the very best results in the hands of inexperienced (or less experienced) people than the competition needs to produce the same results.

(p116, The E-Myth Enterprise: How to Turn A Great Idea Into a Thriving Business – affiliate link)

I don’t want to rely on just working with good people. I want to build up good processes that can harness good people. If I get to the point where I need to hire someone else because my assistants have become integral to someone else’s business or life, that’s not so bad. I’ll get more experience in hiring. Each person gives me another opportunity to improve my processes and learn from somebody new. I actually enjoy the hiring process, although it also makes me feel mixed emotions – such a candy store of talent out there! I don’t mind doing more of it.

It’s not like the churn that happens when you burn people out and discard them. I want to get to the point where working with me is an excellent launch pad, and where I have great onboarding and offboarding processes to make it even easier.

If any of my delegation experiments sound interesting and you think you might want to invest in trying that out too, talk to me. Share what you’re learning and what you hope to learn. If you sound like an okay sort of person – I don’t want to waste my assistants’ time in interviews or have them burned by someone who doesn’t work out – I’ll introduce you to the appropriate assistant, and both of you can see if it’s a good fit. =)