A Response to “I Can’t Keep Programmers Around”

Although Project Management is a cross-industry profession, I spent many years in the IT industry and I maintain an interest in it. Meaning I read a number of trade magazines (mostly online now) in an attempt to keep up.

One of the online magazines I read is CDN or ITBusiness.ca . Today, I ran across an article “IT pros lament: Low pay, no perks” which was a follow-up to an article in the US version of their sister publication NetworkWorld called “The CIO’s lament: 20-something techies who quit after 1 year”. Unfortunately, this article needs to be in CIO magazine. But of course, it wouldn’t be as contentious there.

It seems that Louis Trevino, the CIO and a senior vice president of Harry Fox Agency in New York is having a problem with turnover. He has a large staff of iSeries programmers that have been around for some time. But he now has a smaller staff of java programmers. These web developers are all 20-somethings and have been jumping ship in record numbers. In fact, he can’t keep them on board for more than a year.

Given the topic, I couldn’t help but toss in my two cents. In the hopes that my own customers and readers might learn something from my reply, I repeat the response here.

I was going to reply with a “wise up stupid!” remark but decided that there were enough similar comments in the original article that repeating the obvious was a waste of my time. So I’m going to focus on education, which I’m going to address to Louis Trebino (and hope others will apply it to themselves).

1. You are in the middle of a recession (it ain’t gone, folks, sorry!). If you are losing people now you are in worse shape than you think you are.

2. The IS/IT industry (yes, there are two separate industries whatever people try to think) are both service industries. Forget the industry your employer works in — if you are in either version of the IT profession YOU need to educate yourself on the service industry. (Professional Services is a sub of the service industry but there are others – Appliance repairs, Construction, HVAC, Plumbing and so forth.) Take an entrepreneur to lunch and pick his brain about their industry. (Warning — the service industry has a low entry threshold so you may need to talk to several people before you find one that truly knows the industry.)

3. In any service industry, there are three rings of employees. The inner ring are masters, the middle ring are journeymen, and the outer ring are wanderers. The inner ring tend to stay because they are well paid and well rewarded. They also carry the organization’s knowledge. They tend to be older and more stable. The middle ring may change from time to time but again are reasonably well paid and rewarded. They look when they’ve learned everything they can and are always open to new opportunities. However, people don’t stay in the middle ring — they either move into the inner ring or out. The outer ring flit in and out of the organization. They are often new to the industry, still learning and looking for a better situation. Either they move into the middle ring quickly or they leave. Live with it.

4. Your job as manager in a service industry is to balance the three rings. Too many in the inner ring and your costs will be too high. Too many in the outer ring and your labour costs may be low but your recruitment costs (and other costs associated with your service quality) will be too high due to the turnover. Too few in the inner ring and you won’t have the depth to fix problems so they stay fixed.

5. Now out of the service industry in general and let’s deal with IS (aka IT Development) in particular. A study by Barry Boehme in the 1970s (and since repeated by others) showed that there is up to 5x difference in efficiency between a senior programmer and a junior. That’s 500%.

6. It’s obvious by your reference to 20-somethings and to the fact your team has less than a year’s experience that you tried to save money by hiring the outer ring. Saved money, did you? Sorry, take another look. You’ll find that quality, customer service (i.e. costs of dissatisfaction) and recruitment costs are all higher than they should be. And you have no excuse for being surprised.

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