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What IT pros should look for in their next job

Jun 27, 2014

Dear Annie: My mom sent me your article about why Millennials aren’t accepting job offers, because I am one of them. I just got a bachelor’s from a “big name” school, with a double major in engineering and computer science, and I’ve done two internships where I learned a lot about developing mobile apps. Before I even graduated, I got offers from every employer I applied to.

But so far, I haven’t accepted any, partly because I’m having second thoughts about the company offering the highest starting pay. I’ve spent a fair amount of time there, both in interviews and “shadowing” the CIO, but so far I haven’t met anyone outside the IT department. I really want to be involved in the business, and not get typecast as “just a tech person,” so the fact that the IT group seems kind of isolated from the rest of the company bothers me. But should it? And is it okay to ask about that? — Undecided

Dear Undecided: It’s absolutely okay to ask about that. In fact, you’d be making a mistake not to bring it up, along with a few other crucial questions. First, you might be interested to know that IT job site Dice.com reports employers plan to hire more entry-level techies in the next six months than at any time since 2011. But almost 40% of all new grads with job offers had not accepted any by the time they got their sheepskins, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers, so you’re not the only one hesitating.

Moreover, you’re wise to look carefully at more than just pay. Dice.com’s new hiring survey suggests that, among IT people looking to change jobs, 61% are asking prospective employers for more money than six months ago. Nothing wrong with that, of course. But when online tech community Wisegate polled hundreds of senior IT managers and CIOs in April, two-thirds said they plan to change jobs within two years—and most are using criteria other than money to choose their next move.

One of those is whether the IT department is, as you put it, “isolated from the rest of the company.” Says Sara Gates, Wisegate’s CEO, “You’re right to be concerned about that. You should ask whether you’ll have a chance to work closely with people in other departments and whether IT is involved in developing company strategy, or is more of an afterthought.”

She notes that almost nine out of ten (88%) of seasoned IT managers say that it’s increasingly important for techies to develop “soft” skills like understanding strategy, negotiating, leadership, and building relationships, so that they have a voice in where the business is headed.

With that in mind, the managers in the poll suggested asking interviewers questions like these: “What kinds of opportunities will I have to develop ‘soft’ skills, along with technical skills?”; “What peers in other departments, outside of IT, will I regularly interact with?”; and “In what ways does the IT department here influence business strategy?” If it still seems as if IT is indeed isolated from everyone else, “go with your gut,” Gates says. “Don’t take the job.”

Three other findings from the Wisegate survey about picking the right employer for you:

Go big. Startups and small companies have cultivated a reputation for being hotbeds of opportunity for techies, so “it’s counterintuitive that the bigger a company is, the more seriously they take IT, and the more IT people take part in setting strategy,” Gates says. But the poll found that, in companies with 5,000 or more employees, IT managers said their role is taken “very seriously” virtually 100% of the time—versus just 23% of their peers in enterprises with fewer than 500 employees who said so.

Look for up-to-the-minute technology. IT job hunters should ask questions “that help you get an understanding of how aggressive, or how cautious, the company is in adopting new ideas,” Gates says.

The answer to a query like, “Can you tell me about something new that’s been adopted here recently, and what steps you needed to go through for that to happen?” can speak volumes, she adds: “The interviewer should be able to tell you quickly and clearly about specific projects, like moving something to the cloud or how they’ve dealt with BYOD. Hemming and hawing or ‘We just don’t have the budget right now…’ are definite red flags.”

Ask about longevity. The IT managers in the Wisegate poll felt strongly that “a critical part of career happiness is finding a good match between yourself and the culture of the company,” Gates says. One way to quickly find out how your IT peers find the work environment is to ask how long the typical techie has worked there. “Ask how many have just joined, and how many have been there for several years, so you get a sense of whether there’s high turnover,” she advises. The ideal is an IT department where many staffers have been with the company for six to 10 years—a sign, Gates says, that “talent is willing to stick around.”

That sounds like a lot of questions but, especially since your skills are in demand, there’s no reason to hold back. “Find a job that’s going to serve you well in the future,” says Gates. “A good fit is better for everybody, so be discerning.” Good luck.

Talkback: If you’re in IT, what questions would you ask a prospective employer? Why? Leave a comment below.

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