Taming the Beast

Each year when Computerworld releases its list of the 100 Best Places to Work in IT, certain themes emerge that serve as valuable take-aways for any IT organization that's eager to recruit and retain the best employees. Perhaps because it's been top-of-mind with me lately, the theme that jumped out at me this year is the value that top IT shops place on collaboration and interaction.

I pored over our 2008 Best Places special report not long after having written last week about the need to challenge the notion that IT lends itself to a culture of isolationism. Citing reader comments posted on our Web site in response to an interview on the subject of why women leave IT, I suggested that there is a widely held conviction among IT pros that working in seclusion tends to be, as one reader put it, "the nature of the beast."

Yet when you read about the companies that IT employees see as the best places to work, you find that a culture that isolates individuals is inherently foreign to those places. Consider the following:

Julia King writes that Capital Group , No. 1 on the list, has a "highly collaborative, input-driven, collegial culture."

Robert L. Mitchell found that the IT department at Quicken Loans (2) has a "collegial family atmosphere," and that the culture is centered on team-building and favors personal interaction over e-mail and IM exchanges.

Thomas Hoffman writes about a "kind of kinship that exists among the 125 IT staffers" at Mount Carmel Health System (9).

A core value at VHA (12) is to encourage employees to be collaborative.

USinternetworking (48) has a high return rate among employees who have left the company for ostensibly greener pastures. Says project manager Bob Dorman: "I truly missed the camaraderie."

Aetna (78) has a team bonus program that enables workers to increase their bonuses based not only on individual performance, but also on their ability to work collaboratively in a team.

Steve Reed, a senior systems engineer at Publix Super Markets (79), says the long tenures of his team members have created a camaraderie that's "second to none."

Eighty-one percent of the 31,317 IT workers from this year's 100 Best Places who responded to the employee portion of the survey said they work in a team-oriented company or department.

Ninety-five percent of those respondents said they have good relationships with their co-workers.

Also noteworthy is that Marriott International (29) offers a leadership development program that provides ongoing mentoring. Such a program flies in the face of comments from other readers I cited in last week's column. "I have never, ever had a mentor," wrote one, who said he'd been in the software industry for over 20 years, and who added that he'd never had a role model, either. Wrote another: "If you need a 'mentor' in IT, you weren't cut out for it."

Really? Is that the nature of the beast as well? If you think so, you might consider what Xerox Chairman and CEO Anne Mulcahy has to say on the subject.

In an interview I conducted with Mulcahy earlier this month, she suggested that we need to think of mentoring in a nontraditional way.

"We've got to be broader and wider in terms of the people who we consider mentors," Mulcahy said.

"Mentoring can come from all sorts of sources ? your peers, people who work for you, can be great sources of learning and opportunity," she explained. "One of the most powerful ways for people to get promoted is for there to be a groundswell of people beside you and who work for you that think you're terrific. That's a lot more powerful than having one senior person whose radar screen you're on."

What it all boils down to is that you can tame the IT career beast, but you can't do it in isolation. Consider that a lesson learned by the IT pros who work in the best places.

Don Tennant is editorial director of Computerworld and InfoWorld. Contact him at don_tennant@computerworld.com, and visit his blog at http://blogs.computerworld.com/tennant.

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