- Bill Ziemer, a technical support operator, knew he wanted to be a programmer.
So Ziemer took DePaul University's entrance exam for its career change programme. He passed the tough test and then spent eight intense months in the Chicago-based school's IT training programme. The kicker? He did all this with the blessing of -- and at the expense of -- his employer, United Stationers Supply.
"I'm now in a position I thoroughly enjoy," says Ziemer, who finished the DePaul programme in January 1999 and filled an entry-level programming position. United Stationers is apparently pleased too, having promoted Ziemer to senior programmer.
In addition, Ziemer is now working on a master's degree in computer science -- again at the company's expense -- and says he hopes to move into project management.
What's more, Ziemer's isn't an unusual case at United Stationers, a company that's exceptional at creating IT careers where none existed. Approximately 20 IT staffers have launched their careers on the company's dime via the DePaul programme, estimates Ergin Uskup, senior vice president of MIS and CIO at the Des Plaines, Illinois-based wholesaler of office supplies and equipment. Many of those people have come from other units within the company.
"It's good for MIS and for the company as a whole, because we can provide challenging opportunities for our people," says Uskup.
Creating such opportunities for personal and professional growth is what career development is all about, say CIOs at the companies identified by Computerworld as the Best Places to Work. These employers combine career planning, mentoring, training and education to support their IT employees' aspirations.
"The days in which people stayed in one company for 25 years are gone," says Art Data, vice president of IT at International Truck and Engine in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. "Career development is the IT employee's insurance policy. If we can give them that comfort level, we get higher retention."
Development for dollars
CIOs at the Best Places to Work in IT agree that career development efforts depend on the willing participation of IT employees. Many CIOs say the keys to active employee involvement are creating formal career plans, evaluating progress against those plans regularly and then rewarding growth with promotions or greater responsibility and salaries to match.
Still, Best Places employees typically decide for themselves how aggressively they want to develop their careers. An exception is at TechieGold.com, where career development is absolutely required -- and rewarded.
"We're looking for people who want a career," says Frank Mahon, director of information systems and technology at the Boston-based online IT job search and career counselling firm. As a successful dot-com, TechieGold has the freedom to look for candidates who can help the business grow, and who in turn can see their careers advance through the opportunities offered to them.
"We're investing in our people, and that encourages loyalty," Mahon says. "We give them every opportunity to come up through the ranks. They see those promotions and know these efforts are real."
For example, from his position in business sales and training at TechieGold, Kevin Joudrey saw how the firm could improve its website. So in addition to his sales and training duties, Joudrey began developing specifications for an enhanced web interface and eventually worked with IT staff to implement his suggestions.
"I realised I wanted to go down that technical road," he says.
Joudrey is now a quality assurance specialist in TechieGold's IT department. He's not stopping there, though: His current quarterly project is to learn ColdFusion and use it to recode a portion of the company's website.
A foundation for growth
Most Best Places take a more moderate approach to career development. In part, that's because it's less critical for them to wring every drop of potential out of every IT employee. Dot-coms often need IT employees with several layers of competencies simultaneously, rather like desktop printers that are also faxes and scanners.
All Best Places for career development share these characteristics: They tell IT employees what career opportunities exist, explain what skills they'll need to grasp those and then work with employees to create personalized paths for attaining those skills, supporting their journeys with training, mentoring and frequent feedback.
For example, The CIT Group Inc. has defined "bands of competencies" that detail the skills the company expects IT professionals to have at various stages in their careers. The lower bands emphasize technical skills. Increasingly, strategic business and soft skills, such as communications, negotiation skills and budgeting, are required as a person moves up the bands. The detail of each band enables supervisors and professionals to see exactly what's required for a person to reach the next level and to create a plan for getting there.
"When you reach a new band, you'll find a new set of expectations for deeper or different competencies," says Bob Plante, executive vice president and CIO at the New York-based financial services firm. However, he notes that the roles and responsibilities linked to the various bands are flexible.
"We strive to accommodate an individual's strengths," Plante says. Like other Best Places, CIT offers dual career development tracks for IT professionals who want to remain technical specialists and for those with management goals. The company provides a range of career development resources, from tuition reimbursement to stints in business units.
IT professionals and their managers jointly determine annual job and career goals and then track progress toward those objectives quarterly, adjusting activities as necessary. In a programme still being rolled out, IT employees can also use a web-based survey tool to get unusual "360-degree feedback," Plante says. An employee may ask up to six peers and managers to rank the skills and abilities most important to them in IT colleagues, to better evaluate his own career development.
"Opportunities are here for a person with initiative and drive," says Rick Clark, vice president of front-office technologies at CIT. He began his career at CIT more than 15 years ago as a senior programmer/analyst and rose through the ranks by volunteering and being drafted for a wide range of highly visible projects. Now he's growing his own staff of programmers into management roles.
Best Places CIOs emphasise that frank, frequent communication between an employee and his manager or mentor about career development activities is critical. International Truck and Engine does this particularly well with its IT Professional program.
This recently revamped intranet-based program requires a manager and an employee to each complete an assessment of the employee's competencies in technical ability, project management, innovation, effectiveness, communications and process skills.
"You manage yourself," says Rosa Garcia, a database administrator and team leader at International Truck. "If you want to progress, you assess yourself, and the company helps you grow."
The self-assessments can also be ammunition for promotions, says Dennis Harvey, team leader for the enterprise data warehouse. "For two years, I thought I was ready for advancement," he says. Using the latest version of the program, he was able to convince his manager of that. "This program was the catalyst," Harvey says.
Harvey and Garcia both say that the program works because it's simple, specific, and easy to use and apply — and because management actually relies on the information it gathers. For instance, Garcia says, the program's assessments made it clear that she relies on leadership and communication skills in her work. Previous employers hadn't recognized or rewarded her for those abilities.
"I've always had those skills, but it's only since joining International Truck that I've been given opportunities to advance on them," Garcia says.
Employees notice such commitment to their careers, which in turn inspires them. "We have a climate for performance here," says Garcia, who notes that even ambitious employees sometimes get stuck in a comfort zone.
"We're given encouragement to try new things, and I like being pushed a bit," he adds.
Watson is a freelance writer in Chicago.