Overworked, understaffed CIOs try to keep the peace

In this "doing more with less" economy, how can CIOs keep their overworked underlings from storming the IT Bastille?

Attention CIOs: your employees' resentments are growing with each new initiative you foist upon them; some may

even be agitating to unionize your shop. To avoid becoming a modern day Captain Bligh aboard the HMS Bounty, you will have to join your crew on deck, and let them know you're ready to share the burden of their increasing workloads.

Technology upgrades, once de rigueur at companies that called themselves "fast" in the 1990s, are crawling back after a long hiatus, only this time with fewer full-time employees than ever to implement them. And those technology specialists lucky enough to have a job must now work harder and longer than ever to avoid the axe.

About 55% of CIOs reported increases in their IT workloads over the past year, according to a survey of 1,400 midsize and large companies by Robert Half Technology (RHT), a Menlo Park, Calif.-based IT job placement firm. New initiatives were behind 46% of the increase, and more than one-third came from corporate expansion. "Many postponed projects -- database work and reports -- are back on the table," said Jeff Markham, San Francisco Bay Area metro market manager for RHT.

Markham also attributed the increase in part to what he called the Windows XP "upgrade craze," which has CIOs scrambling to upgrade to XP before Microsoft drops support for older version of its operations system.

Purse strings may be loosening for new projects, but this is a jobless recovery, and skeleton crews are shouldering the work. "[Our] esprit de corps and close sense of unity have been laid to waste," said Michael EraÑa, CTO at Philadelphia-based Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard Inc.

KPSI recently laid off nearly 40% of its core IT staff at a single location. "But unfortunately," said EraÑa, "the number of service requests has not decreased at all."

To avoid the perception that a caste system is at work in his department and to "stay in tune" with his staff, EraÑa participates in the daily triage of helpdesk calls at KPSI. He said he's averaging 60-70 hours per week on-site, plus the administrative work he does from his home office. And that is still not enough. "It's coming to a point where I will start to ask as much from the remaining people in my department in order to make some headway," he said.

Technology aids and contract labor can help full-time staff cover their peak production periods (EraÑa uses contract workers from companies like RHT). But CIOs can often stand to be a little more gracious, too. "Good, old-fashioned appreciation and small perks are either free or inexpensive, and go a long way in letting staff know they are valued by the company," said Autumn Bayles, CIO of Tasty Baking Co.

Tasty is also based in Philadelphia, where unemployment at the start of the summer was 7.8%, according to the Federal Reserve.

Not all CIOs are trying to rally their troops, however. Nor will their small perks be enough to feed a family. Workers need raises and benefits, which they say are being eroded by waves of H-1B immigrants and by the offshoring of development and other technology jobs to Asia and the former Soviet Union.

Employers like IBM Corp. are trimming benefits and creating quotas for the number of hours an employee must work each year regardless of the vacation time that's owed them. "If I take two days off, I have to work overtime the following week to make it up," said Linda Guyer, a project manager at IBM in Endicott, N.Y.

Guyer, who has worked at IBM for 22 years, is also the president of Local 1701 of the Communications Workers of America (AFL-CIO), better known as Alliance@IBM. Panicked by the growing offshoring phenomenon, 5,000 IBM workers and retirees, as well as independent contractors, have joined the union, and many more continue to sign up, said Guyer.

But managers may not have much to worry about: a union trying to stop the flow of technology jobs overseas, "is putting its finger in a dike," said Stephen Lane, an analyst for the Boston-based Aberdeen Group. "This is the globalization of technology, and coding is a commodity."

Many of Kvaerner Philadelphia Shipyard's developers may be gone, but its remaining IT staff are the strongest in their job classes, said CTO Michael EraÑa. But the remaining staff are struggling to stay on top of helpdesk calls, while at the same time moving forward with a database migration project.

The good news for CIOs, of course, is that contract workers are seeing their rates commoditized by the global marketplace. Service providers have also become more willing to negotiate with IT decision makers. "Hungry service providers are willing to help out and provide services to us cheaper than in the past," said Tasty CIO Autumn Bayles.

Since technology training budgets are also tight, EraÑa and Bayles recommend that managers cultivate their senior IT people as teachers, or turn to less expensive online learning options.

Sometimes, however, there is no pretty way to finesse the harsh reality wrought by budget cuts. "We're having to rethink our own existing processes to adapt to the change," said EraÑa. Instead of providing steady service, for example, KPSI now plans for "surge" service flows.

"Basically you let the low level service requests stack up," said EraÑa, "until you have a number that supports bringing in outside vendors or consultants to assuage the need."

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