Building Tech Talent Through Extensive Professional Development

Technology Staff Editor
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The best way to understand someone's position - whether it's their take on a particular topic, or their role within an IT enterprise - is to spend some time in their shoes. Literally.

That's exactly the management strategy Sun Microsystem's CIO, Bill Vass, takes when it comes to professional development within his IT organization. The requirement that every new staffer rotate into a variety of different IT roles is a strategy Vass learned during his seven-year Federal career stint that included serving as CIO at the Pentagon and the Department of Army.

Simply, anyone hired into Sun's IT department, which numbers about 400, is given a choice of two professional development tracks. One is the 'specialist' track, geared toward helping an employee develop a plan to specialize in a particular technology such as operations (OPs), enterprise resource planning or honing a tech skill such as service- oriented architecture. The second track puts the staffer into the Information Management Group (IMG) within Sun, focusing on more of a generalist role that can directly lead up to the principle, director and vice president management levels within IT.

The Program's Goal
No matter what track an employee initially chooses, they'll experience work time in the other track's areas as well.

So while someone may yearn to be a director at some point, they won't get to that level until they've worked months as a software developer, network architect and in the operations unit—the latter which requires being on call 24x7 with a pager alerting staffers about operations issues that need fixing.

Conversely, if someone wants to be a SOA expert, they'll also spend time working in IMG and other 'specialty' areas as well.

"The goal is for the employee to know what it's like in all the different IT functions and gain experience in all the job role facets to become a well-rounded employee. It is the best process for understanding what the various tech roles require and how they interrelate," explains Vass, who spent his first year and half at Sun working different operations roles as well as IMG positions before moving into the top tech leadership job. In fact, Vass still wears his OPs pager today, as it provides "a good pulse" on what's happening with operations.

"With 350 offices in 120 countries, and over 300,000 IT devices in play, there is always at least one not working properly and things break all the time. Having the pager and being aware of what's happening provides of understanding on how my OPs team is being punished at any given time."

The ultimate reward from spending time in both career tracks, says Vass, is that employees gain a real sense of what they want to focus on, which boosts career skills and professional aspirations. For the company, the professional development strategy creates a deep skill pool of professionals who can step in where needed. The talent pool has a clear understanding of how all the IT units interrelate and interact with other business units, and, perhaps most important, how they're all connected to each other.

"No one is ever stuck in any one track, they can move from one to the other if they discover their initial track choice isn't what they want. And they also spend time out of the IT department, rotating into jobs within other business teams such as product development and even sales and financial roles," notes Vass.

"It's all about helping IT professionals understand why and how things work outside of each particular tech unit. What we hope is for our people to have the opportunity to move up and around the tech organization and be provided with new challenges," he adds.

For example IT professionals are encouraged and required to step out in customer facing experiences, making tech presentations to clients and interacting with customers to shore up business skills and understand the sales role. Vass himself still does such customer facing presentations.

"You have to make time for it as it's very important for IT to interact with customers. To be a success in IT you have to be a success in the business side of things. Technology is there to advance the business, it's not there for technology's sake," he says.

The Employee Experience
For Bob Worral the professional development experience provided an "appreciation for the issues, challenges, and opportunities in each of the major areas of IT." He adds that it also let him "walk in the other person's shoes" when evaluating IT initiatives.

A Sun employee for 15 years, the VP/IT Strategy, Architecture & Governance rotated into an operations role for five years, gaining increasing levels of responsibility and eventually leading to the VP of Operations role. He began his Sun career as an IT Business Engagement Manager, a role responsible for representing IT to business partners.

"After the operations rotation, I rotated into the applications development space for a little over two years where I supported the application needs for our sales organization. From there, it was on to governance and SOX compliance and then that role was broadened to include the Strategy and Architecture roles as well," he explained.

While he couldn't name a negative aspect or part of the role rotation experience, he acknowledges that for those who don't like change, or for those that want to make a career in one specific role, it can be a bit distressing.

For Leslie K. Lambert, who joined Sun before Vass and currently serves as VP, IT Service Management & Software Engineering Practices Group, the professional rotation experience has been "an absolutely, incredibly wonderful ride." She joined Sun over 14 years ago as a manager, in the Engineering Support Organization, New Product Introduction Team.

Lambert rotated through all of the major functional areas of IT including IT operations, IT architecture and IT applications development. Under the direction of Vass she has continued to rotate through different areas of the organization and has seen first-hand a number of her colleagues find success through the program.

"My entire experience at Sun has been chock full of many different types of roles and opportunities, including the chance to report to and be mentored by more than 20 different top senior Sun executives," she says.

The lone negative aspect was that two of the rotation roles required relocating her family from California to Massachusetts and then back again two years later. But that drawback was clearly overshadowed by the positive aspects of the program.

"The sheer variety and the increasing levels of complexity, difficulty and responsibility that came with each successive role enabled me to develop an incredible degree of understanding of Sun's overall business. It has also given me multiple opportunities to utilize my MBA education," says Lambert.

In her jobs prior to Sun no company had offered such development opportunities, she adds. "At each of my previous employers there was little opportunity for rotational assignments across the company. It was more often a situation of being penalized for 'getting out of your box.' At Sun I have found that you can make your job as big as you want as long as you deliver on what the company needs from you and your organization. These are the 'wow factors' for me and what has kept me working at Sun."

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