Careers: Interviews
Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology

This week, Stephen Ibaraki, I.S.P., has an exclusive interview with Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology.

 

Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of information technology (IT) professionals on a project or full-time basis.

 

A graduate of Northern Arizona University, Ms. Lee has been with the company since 1995 and has more than 15 years of experience in information technology consulting services. Ms. Lee is a spokesperson, author of industry articles and frequent public speaker on IT staffing.

 

In her role as a nationally recognized authority on IT careers, Ms. Lee has guest hosted several live events on web sites such as Monster.com, Techtarget.com and CareerPath.com. In addition, she is currently providing career insight and advice to Network Computing and Certification Magazine readers.

 

With more than 100 locations in North America and Europe, Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of IT professionals for initiatives ranging from web development and multiplatform systems integration to network engineering and technical support. Robert Half Technology offers online job search services at www.roberthalftechnology.com.

 

Discussion:

 

Q: Katherine, considering your very busy schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you in this interview. Thank you for sharing your deep insights, and experience with our audience.

 

A: Thank you and I'm honored to have the opportunity to address your readers.

 

Q: Please detail the services you provide to both organizations and professionals?

 

A: Robert Half Technology is a leading provider of skilled IT professionals on a project and full-time basis. Our combination of online candidate sourcing and personalized service enables us to identify and provide the talent our client’s need -- when they need it most. 

 

To help us attract and retain the most qualified professionals in the technology field, we offer sophisticated online job search services as well as other career resources. Our consultants can build their own home pages, select preferences for job searches, receive automatic notifications of new positions meeting their criteria, and update personal information.

 

Robert Half Technology is also committed to the professional development of our consultants. In addition to mentoring opportunities, we provide them with the resources to continually enhance their technical skills through our INFINITY Advanced Technical Training Program. This includes 24-hour online access to educational software courses covering everything from Java and XML to the latest networking technologies.

 

Robert Half Technology is a leading resource to our clients and consultants on hiring and employment trends. Our annual Robert Half Technology Salary Guide provides data on average starting salaries for IT professionals in Canada and the United States. Our extensive research on workplace-related topics, teamed with decades of experience, makes us a frequently cited career expert in national business and trade publications worldwide. 

 

Q: Detail the techniques that businesses can employ to keep valued employees.

 

A: Firms should be focused on retaining their best employees in any employment market. The most successful companies think about employee morale and retention issues all the time -- not just in a hot hiring market. When the economy does pick up and the job market offers more options, staff who have been overworked and not recognized may seek employment elsewhere.

 

Companies that show consideration to employees during economically challenging times create a more loyal and productive workforce. As a result, they’ll have a competitive advantage as the economy rebounds.

 

Even in down economies when budgets may be extremely tight, there are a number of low- or no-cost practices employers can employ to keep their staffs happy.

 

The following are examples of everyday, low-cost retention practices that we recommend to our clients:

 

Encourage balance. Make sure employees take breaks throughout the day and use their vacation time to avoid burnout.

Be realistic. Tasks and deadlines should be achievable. Evaluate whether staff members have the necessary skills for upcoming projects; offer training as needed.

Share the vision. When assigning tasks, explain how they support larger business objectives. Employees should organize their activities based on these priorities.

Solicit ideas. Ask staff members to brainstorm creative ways to solve everyday challenges. Having a say in the outcome of a project motivates employees to do their best work.

Bring in support. When full-time employees are at capacity, consider bringing in professionals on a project basis to augment their efforts.

Recognize value. Thank them for their work, and acknowledge their contributions.  This doesn’t have to cost a lot of money -- recognizing accomplishments at staff meetings and providing small rewards like movie tickets or a gift certificate let staff members know they are valued. 

Develop leaders. When people perceive that there’s room for them to grow and advance at a company, they’ll stay longer. Provide challenging assignments and leadership opportunities so they can broaden their skills and make meaningful contributions. Offer a formal mentoring program to help you identify and groom workers at all levels.

 

Q: What are your predictions about retirements and their impact on organizations?

 

A: As many research studies have reported, a large percentage of the working population will reach retirement age in the next 10 years. The immediate concern presented to employers as this trend takes affect is that they may loose talent critical to the management of their internal infrastructures.

 

Fifty-five percent of workers with mainframe and enterprise data center skills are over the age of 50, according to the Association for Computer Operations Managers. The retirement of these workers can lead to a critical loss of knowledge of legacy platforms.  With fewer educational institutions offering coursework in mainframe-based systems and applications, there will be a much smaller talent pool familiar with these technologies.

 

That’s why firms need to assess their situation now to ensure the appropriate knowledge transfer to junior employees. The more proactive they are about cross-training staff, the lesser the impact the Baby Boom retirement will have on their IT department. 

 

Q: And IT professionals, what can they do to stay employed? From their perspective, what is the hiring environment today and where do you see it going in the future; what strategies can they use to obtain meaningful employment? What qualities are companies looking for in candidates and how can candidates effectively prove that these qualities exist in themselves? Do you see a change from the past to the present and into the future?

 

A: Information technology cost-cutting efforts and widespread staff reductions seem to be easing, and employers are cautiously optimistic. As companies execute new initiatives to remain competitive and prepare for future business growth, the long-term hiring outlook appears stronger.

 

In fact, technology investments initiated during the Internet boom of the late nineties are nearing, or have reached the end of their product life cycles and will require updates soon. A number of firms are moving forward with systems upgrades that were previously on hold, particularly those designed to enhance customer service or achieve greater operational efficiencies.

 

Technology spending -- and subsequently hiring -- is currently focused on initiatives that provide an immediate return on investment. Network security concerns also continue to be a priority for businesses of all sizes. There is strong demand for IT professionals who can manage everything from assessing potential network vulnerabilities to integrating virus protection, intrusion detection and other components into an enterprise-wide security strategy.

 

Firms currently hiring technology staff are taking a very thorough approach to evaluating candidates, requiring prospective candidates to meet all job specifications before arranging an interview. Managers are carefully reviewing their hiring profiles to ensure new staff members will be able to make immediate contributions. To provide needed flexibility in managing human resources, businesses are also bringing in specialists on a project basis who can assist with expanded workloads.

 

While technical certifications can also influence the hiring decision, managers are applying even more weight to a chronicled history of successes. Firms want to see how candidates have contributed to previous organizations and how they can transfer these achievements and add value in a new environment. Hiring managers seek those individuals who are able to tie a firm’s technical capabilities to its business needs.

 

Q: Since you have a reputation for staying attuned to market trends, what are the hot job areas today, in two and five years?

 

A: There are a number of issues that are currently driving hiring across the country.  Based on requests we're receiving from our clients, firms are tackling issues including the following:
 

1) Hardware upgrades -- spending on the hardware side continues to increase as companies must replace older/non-functioning desktop systems.

 

2) OS upgrades -- As support for older versions of Microsoft begins to expire, many firms will need to upgrade their operating systems.

 

3) Viruses and worms -- The continuing epidemic of high-profile, destructive viruses is driving demand for network security professionals who can protect a company's information systems, e-mail specialists to assist in the restoration of Exchange Servers, and help desk and tech support professionals to handle increased call volume and assist with the installation of patches and upgrades.

 

4) .NET development -- Companies looking to speed up development time and unify systems are transitioning to .NET.

 

5) Sarbanes-Oxley -- While Sarbanes-Oxley is financial legislation; at its heart it's about ensuring that internal controls are in place to govern the creation and documentation of information in financial statements. Since IT systems are used to generate, house and transport that data, companies are starting to build the controls that ensure the information stands up to audit scrutiny.

 

6) Additional legislation -- We continue to hear from our clients about the burden being placed on their systems from government legislation such as CFR 21, HIPAA, Patriot Act and Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act.

 

Q: Please provide an assessment of training, what are the types of training programs, and pros and cons of each?

 

A: There are a wide range of training programs that can help an IT department remain agile with technology. Here are a few of the most popular:

 

Topic-specific workshops are typically run by training companies and are held at a public site, such as a hotel or conference center.

 

Off-the-shelf non-classroom training programs -- such as CD-ROMs or videos – are very inexpensive when compared to other options. They provide an opportunity for individualized learning, but they may not be effective for those who aren’t self-motivated.

 

Interactive distance learning is administered to groups of employees who are receiving the training through a high-tech delivery system, such as the Internet, company intranet or teleconferencing. These programs offer a great deal of flexibility.

 

Q: There are so many sources of information to both organizations and job seekers. What are your top recommended resources for both of these groups?

 

A: We always recommend that our consultants and account executives participate in local industry associations and user groups. In addition to being great forums for professional networking, they're also an excellent source for the trend information required to keep pace with developments in a particular specialty.

 

In addition, there are a number of online resources for IT professionals, including Techtarget.com and Techrepublic.com. Both feature a wealth of targeted editorial content, valuable downloads and links to additional useful sites.

 

Q: As the executive director, what are your top ten qualities and processes that make for great leadership?

 

A: Most of the great leaders with which I've worked possessed several of the following key traits and I try to keep them top of mind in my role at Robert Half Technology. 

 

1) Integrity -- via commitment and example rather than by directive.

 

2) Having the right people is paramount -- you cannot be a great leader without a great team. You must be able to recruit, hire, train and retain individuals with the integrity, judgment, energy and drive to get the job done.

 

3) Trust -- your team must have the confidence that you, as their leader, will act in the best interests of those who follow you.

 

4) Listen -- true leaders make themselves accessible and available.

 

5) Driven to produce results -- zero tolerance for mediocrity or just being "good enough."

 

6) All the great projects, ideas and strategies are worthless if they cannot be implemented.

 

7) Clearly articulate your purpose, goals and objectives. Keep It Simple Stupid - the KISS principle - keep it simple but keep saying it - be consistent in your message

 

8) Be positive and passionate - people need to know that you believe that they can achieve anything, that they can be "great" and that the company can be great. A team will draw strength from this.

 

9) Praise publicly, criticize privately.

 

10) Have fun!

 

Q: What drives you to do what you do?

 

A: To be a part of building an organization that lives beyond me -- to create something so enduring that when myself, and others, look back we can say with pride, "we were a part of building something truly special."

 

Q: Thank you again for sharing your years of successful leadership and wealth of knowledge and experiences with our audience.

 

A: I thank you, again, for the opportunity to share some of my thoughts with your audience.

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