Strategic CIO // Executive Insights & Innovation
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10/21/2010
12:40 PM
Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Innovation Mandate Gets Glenn Beck Shout-Out

The Fox News commentator, citing InformationWeek Analytics research, says the U.S. has gotten soft. But are we underestimating just how technically strong we really are?

Byrne says that over the last four years, as Overstock.com has gone from having seven software developers to more than 100 and on its way to 150, it has deployed a recruiting team nationwide to find top notch candidates. "To get the kind of engineers we want," he says, "we have to hire senior people. These are people who have five to 10 years of experience. Today you have to go to the senior level to get somebody who has the full skill set that we need. I don't think that was true a decade ago. …I'm not talking talent that's super rarefied, where they would otherwise be professors. Yet we have to have an extraordinary recruiting effort to hire 10 new developers. We've gone through everybody in Utah, everybody in the Rocky Mountain Range, and we now go all over the country."

As I argued in a column a few weeks ago, the "hunger" among employees to grow and advance (and kick their competitors' arses) needs to be nurtured and rewarded. Not that we must show all tech pros a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow (though stock options and IPO opportunities would be nice), but we need to show that we value top technical talent through our hiring, training, career development, and other business practices -- the kind of commitment Byrne seems to be showing at Overstock.com. Are employers themselves hungry enough to invest in their people to drive long-term innovation rather than just cut corners to extract short-term profits?

Erik Brynjolfsson, a professor at the MIT Sloan School of Management and director of the university's Center for Digital Business, maintains that people will gravitate to those industries and professions where they see the most opportunities, but that they won't linger in one place for long. Consider the IT profession during the last decade, when pros flocked en masse to flighty dot-com jobs, only to return to more stable financial industry jobs when B2B came to mean "back to banking," only for some to then seek higher ground during the financial industry turmoil of the past couple of years.

Brynjolfsson told my colleague Brian Gillooly that there's an "emerging consensus" following the financial industry collapse that too many "super-smart" people went into trading, merchant banking, and other lucrative financial jobs at the expense of engineering and other technical fields that create more national wealth over the long term. "But that’s correcting as people leave that [financial services] sector and look for things to do in other parts of the economy," he says.

Meantime, U.S.-based businesses shouldn't underestimate just how technically advanced they and their people are relative to those in other countries, he says.

"When I give talks in Europe and Asia, the predominant mindset among managers is how we [Europeans and Asians] can be more like American managers," Brynjolfsson says. "So there's still a sense that U.S. techniques, while far from perfect, are more likely to take advantage of technologies that improve businesses. Companies like Harrah's and Cisco are pretty sophisticated vs. the average European or Asian company. But you can't be complacent about that. To the extent that the competition gap has been closing, though, is a matter of other countries catching up than it is about the U.S. slipping."

Rob Preston,

VP and Editor in Chief, InformationWeek
rpreston@techweb.com

To find out more about Rob Preston, please visit his page.

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