Keep your tech employees happy

Keep your tech employees happy

Now that the job market is showing a pulse again, Midwest technology CEOs and managers are beginning to worry. They’re wondering: Which employee is going to surprise them with a resignation letter any given Monday and start the clock ticking on a two-week notice period?
Nice as it is to see the economy showing some life, it’s also disconcerting to a manager who’s on the hook to deliver a new product, manage a complicated integration project or just keep the firm’s engine running. This manager may be thinking that one of his or her top people could be job hunting at this very moment.
With headhunters looking a little more chipper and people starting to complain again about the difficulty of finding good employees, that’s why it makes sense to focus on how well your environment supports your technology people. Is it easy to work for your company?
In other words, does a job with your firm or in your department simply require a smart person to show up and do his or her best work or are there needless complications that get in the way and could easily tick people off? If so, now is the time to jettison them.
We’ve been through several years when the answer to the question “Are we one of the better employers in the area?” was “Who cares. No one’s hiring. Where are our employees gonna go?” Those days are slipping away.
Test your shop against the following list of five not necessarily obvious keys to keeping your technology people comfortable and engaged (or at the very least not actively driving them away):

  1. Let them do their own job.
    It’s a funny thing. Though most companies won’t spontaneously ask an HR person to go handle a sales call or ask a marketing person to design a circuit, we often thoughtlessly ask an “available” technology person to do sales work, tech support or work on some IT issue.
    After all, the technical person is technical, so if there’s any whiff of information technology in the request, it seems reasonable to ask any old techie to pinch hit. I disagree.
    In a tiny start-up, people expect to wear all possible hats, but at a certain company size, you have to let a person do what he or she was hired to do. Consultants are everywhere. Call them when you need them.
    Don’t expect a product developer to be a part-time network engineer, part-time sales engineer and part-time call center dude or dudette (or whatever tech role you’re short of at the moment).
  2. Make rules about important stuff only.
    If your technology people stay in their cubes with little or no customer contact, why tie them to some dress code that’s meant for customer-facing employees?
    If they write code, create technical documentation or do lots of other things that aren’t necessarily linked minute to minute with other daytime business functions, why nail them down with “standard working hours”?
    In other words, to keep technology people happy, grade them on the important stuff rather than the random corporate silliness that has nothing to do with their real contribution. Yes, this takes a little creativity, but it makes all the difference in signaling “we are smart enough to manage you” to technology people.
  3. Buffer them.
    Technology people are not babies or rare flowers needing to be kept away from sunlight. Still, don’t create an environment where a period of intense (and profitable) concentration is likely to be broken every few minutes.
    As much as possible, both the physical workspace for technical people and the cultural environment should promote innovation and not impede it. In other words, don’t stop a person who’s in the tech-creative zone in order to force him into a mandatory all-employee health-plan-update meeting.
    Give him the information online, and if he’s interested, he will read it.
    Don’t pull him into every marketing meeting that is scheduled (unless he wants to be there). The biggest part of your organization’s technology investment is the people. Do you really want that investment sitting around in a conference room watching a PowerPoint that describes a new dental plan?
  4. Tell them what’s going on.
    Analytical people tend to like to know a lot about their situation (such as why a particular path was chosen, how their piece of the project fits into the whole and why one feature was chosen over another).
    While this is a generalization and it’s not always the case, I’d err on the side of communicating too much versus keeping techies in the dark. They can yell when they need to, but until then, keep them up to date with company news, upcoming developments and likely changes in direction.
    It’s insulting to be kept in the dark. Still, it’s a common problem for companies that view their tech staffs as little more than software or hardware-producing units who might as well be on Mars rather than the corporate headquarters.
  5. Manage the workflow.
    I mention this item last because it’s such a pervasive issue in technology groups. It’s up to the management of the organization to keep life as a techie from being a lifelong sentence to a nights-and-weekends chain gang.
    As one Midwest techie said to me: “You can’t live your life in burst mode.” Let up on the pressure when a big initiative is done. Don’t jump right into the next crisis (or you’ll train your techies to ignore your panic entirely).
    Remember the boy who cried wolf? Tech managers (and vice presidents over them) fall into this trap all the time: “Hey, guys. Thanks for the great new rev. Now let’s jump on that other six-months-behind project and give up sleep until it’s into production.” Enough already.
    By now we know that the company isn’t going to fold if your technology folks don’t work every night and weekend. Be honest and respect your techies enough to distinguish true crises from manufactured ones.

All this comes on top of the obvious must-haves of fair pay, ethical managers, a safe and reasonably well-equipped working environment and the presence of smart and qualified teammates.
With those basics and the five techie imperatives above, your group will have an excellent shot at keeping the troops in their seats as the job-market tide rises. In fact, the implementation of a couple of these notions could make your organization a techie magnet when you go into hiring mode yourself. Wouldn’t that be a nice feeling?

Liz Ryan is the founder of ChicWIT (Chicago Women in Technology) and founder of WorldWIT (World Women in Technology). She can be e-mailed at Her column Nine2Five, which appears on ePrairie every Friday, is designed to keep you up to date with career trends and advice related to working and managing organizations in the post-bubble technology world. This article has been syndicated on the Wisconsin Technology Network courtesy of ePrairie, a user-driven business and technology news community distributed via the Web, the wireless Web and free daily e-mail newsletters.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.