How to Retain and Improve Your IT Staff Simultaneously

By Bruce F. Webster  |  Posted 2008-10-31

Last week, I talked about how to help retain your IT staff by aligning their personal goals with those of your IT department and the organization as a whole. Now I want to talk about a simple technique that will not only help you retain your best IT engineers and managers, but will also improve them as employees.

That technique? Educate them.

Before you roll your eyes and click to the next tab, hear me out. I’ve been working out in industry for 30 years now, and I’ve observed two major truths: IT workers don’t know enough about the past, and they very much want to learn more about the future. If your firm invests in both directions, you will have more successful projects and more qualified IT engineers and managers.

Curiously, many organizations are very resistant to such efforts. Their usual arguments are that the first effort takes too much time and the second effort just encourages the IT workers to leave. They are quite wrong on both points.

Let’s take the first issue: learning from the past. Philospher George Santayana famously wrote, “Progress, far from consisting in change, depends on retentiveness. . . . Those who will not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” There are few areas of human endeavor where that is so true as in IT project management.

It is my experience that vast majority (I suspect around 80 to 90 percent) of IT engineers and managers have never read more than one or two (if that many) of what I consider to be the must-read works of IT project management. As a consequence, major IT projects costing millions, hundreds of millions of dollars, or even billions of dollars struggle or fail for reasons that have been well-known and well-documented for decades. Many of these failures were avoidable or could have failed faster – thus costing less money and time – had those on the project actually read some of these books.

So read some of these books as an IT organization. Pick one of them, buy copies for your entire IT staff, and assign everyone to read it during the next month. Then hold a meeting or two to discuss how the book applies to what you’re doing. Repeat.

Frankly, there will likely be upheaval at first, because you’re going to flush out risks and issues that up until now have been swept under the rug. But you will also send a powerful message to your IT staff: that you are serious about IT project management and success.

Now on to the second issue: looking to the future. A major concern – perhaps the major concern – of your best IT engineers and managers is the fear of becoming obsolete. Some new technology, programming language, methodology or operating system comes out, and they want to learn about it. More than that, they want to be sufficiently familiar with it so that they could work with it if necessary.

So help them. Have as a staff benefit – possibly tied to performance and/or position – a certain annual budget for travel and registration for technical conferences and/or training seminars of the employee’s choice.  If you’re worried about the employee using the benefit and then leaving, set forth a pro-rated reimbursement schedule – say, over a six- or twelve-month period.

Now, the usual argument against such a benefit is, “If I train the employees in these technologies, they’ll just leave for a better job elsewhere.” This ignores several truths.

First, if you don’t provide such an opportunity, then your best people will almost certainly leave in order to learn those new technologies elsewhere – leading to what I’ve termed the “Dead Sea Effect” (your best employees depart, leaving behind the less talented IT workers). 

Second, if you don’t provide such an opportunity, your IT group as a whole will stagnate due to the lack of new ideas, practices, and technologies, regardless of whether anyone leaves. Finally, if you do provide such an opportunity and your people leave anyway, you almost certainly have other problems within your IT group (or your organization overall) – which is valuable feedback.

Study the past; learn about the future. If you do that as an IT organization, you will constantly improve as an IT organization. You will attract and keep great personnel; you will reduce overruns and failures; and you will be in a position to leverage new methods and technologies as appropriate. Those organizations that do neither will find themselves stuck in the tar pits of IT.

Think of it as evolution in action.

Bruce F. Webster is an international IT consultant. You can reach him at or via his websites at and

© Bruce F. Webster 2008