Enterprising Developments

What Geeks Want: 8 Tips for Retaining IT Talent

Joe McKendrick
Insurance Experts' Forum, November 26, 2012

One thing I've been trying to emphasize in many posts here is the looming challenge many insurance companies have in technical staffing. Insurers depend on IT more and more to deliver customer information and satisfaction through new channels, develop new and better targeted products, and fight policy fraud and abuse. Insurers need to work harder than ever to keep their IT talent, a difficult considering the allure of startup culture. To put it in stark terms, working at the next Klout may have more appeal to many than the tried-and-true insurance conglomerate with its rooms full of mainframes.

That's why Paul Glen's book, "Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead People Who Deliver Technology," is even more of a critical read than it was when it was first published back in 2003.

In his seminal work, Glen provides guidelines on motivating technical staff. Geeks tend to be highly motivated by intrinsic factors—creativity, intellectual engagement—versus the more extrinsic motivators applied to the rest of the business staff, such as salaries and perks. (Not to say technical staff isn't fully motivated by money, it's just that they seek more than a paycheck in their work.)

While Glen tends to be a bit stereotypical with the image of a tech professional as a game-loving antisocial type, there's no question they tend to be a special breed. Many go home and do even more of their own programming as a hobby—how many actuaries do you know that spend their evenings at home studying mortality tables? (When they're not preparing for the next exam, that is.) Besides, Glen's advice can be applied to semi-technical or even project-focused business teams as well. And, these days, everyone has a bit of geek inside them:

1. Select wisely: “Choose the right people to be on the right projects... Since you can't imbue geeks with internally generated enthusiasm, select for it.”

2. Manage meaning: “In their frustratingly ambiguous world of questions, assumptions and provisional facts, geeks constantly need to make sense of their environment and the meaning of their work,” Glen says. This meaning comes from personal values, which typically include “developing knowledge, creating intricate and beautiful systems and proving their potential.”

3. Communicate significance: “Convey the importance or urgency of a project.”

4. Show a career path: “Most geeks are motivated to advance their careers, but have little information on how to do it,” Glen says. Often, they assume management is the only route to career growth. “Help them to see how they can grow,to enhance the value they deliver in ways that are comparable with individual interests and skills, and then link that to current work.”

5. Projectize: “Projects help turn work into a game, and geeks love games with objectives that delineate goals and success criteria.”

6. Engender external competition: “Most of the highly motivated and productive groups that I've encountered have found meaning in battling some form of 'bogeyman,'” says Glen. “The joy of creation is considerably enhanced by the thrill of participating in the defeat of evil with ingenuity. A good competition also helps to develop group cohesion.”

7. Limit group size: “As group size grows, colleagues become less individuals and more an undistinguished mass of anonymous faces.”

8. Offer free food... intermittently: “Never underestimate the power of free food.”

Joe McKendrick is an author, consultant, blogger and frequent INN contributor specializing in information technology.

Readers are encouraged to respond to Joe using the “Add Your Comments” box below. He can also be reached at joe@mckendrickresearch.com.

This blog was exclusively written for Insurance Networking News. It may not be reposted or reused without permission from Insurance Networking News.

The opinions of bloggers on www.insurancenetworking.com do not necessarily reflect those of Insurance Networking News.

Comments (2)

I agree and got a kick out of number 5 and 8! Feed me and let me make a game out of my work - you will make this geek very happy. Many times I have found myself excited about a project that "seemed fun" to look up and notice I was the only one left in the office. Determined to figure out the solution first! I think geek competition is healthy and spurs innovation. I do agree with Joe above that it must be dutifully managed or the true goal may get lost in slick coding with new bells and whistles that adds little value to the original project. ;)

Posted by: Diane A | December 11, 2012 8:50 AM

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I think there are _some_ truths in this list, but we can put a finer point on some, and some are simply wrong.

Regarding "select wisely", although I agree with the sentiment generally, I disagree that you can not motivate technical staff. In fact, item number 5 actually hints at this. The key is setting up a system of motivation that is both easy to pick up, but complex enough to have various outcomes and generates interest. I suspect that this is why agile is all the rage these days -- it simplifies project management so that everyone is on the same page, but it also provides a great deal of external motivation. Geeks tend to be intrinsically motivated, so the way you externally motivate them is by appealing to this internal motivation -- "Wouldn't it be cool if...?" Motivation of geeks feels a lot like salesmanship. They don't adopt your way of thinking because you're the boss, in fact, they may slightly resent you for being so nontechnical (which they may subconsciously equate with absence of intellect) and still having the corner office.

Item 3 is actually embedded in agile practices as well, when the team gets past the storming stage.

I think Item 4 is less about career path and more about significance. Not all technical people are the same, and some have no real interest in "climbing the ladder". Rather, they want to be continually challenged with broader and broader technical projects. The important part is to figure out what your technical people see as the embodiment of significance, and provide for that.

You have to be careful with Item 6. Or rather, you have to be prepared for how competitive some technical folks are. Make sure you're monitoring their activities in pursuit of this agenda.

Item 7 is also embedded in agile practices.

I think Item 8 is not universal. For some teams that would be motivational, for some it would be seen as patronizing. Know your people.

Posted by: Joe R | November 29, 2012 8:38 AM

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