IT Jobs: Hiring Strategies For Sweet Home, Chicago

Chicago's not Silicon Valley or New York -- and many people like it that way. Recruiters and hiring managers in Chicago share creative strategies to attract and retain top talent.

Kevin Casey, Contributor

May 8, 2014

8 Min Read
(Image: <a href="" target="_blank">Eric Ward</a> on Flickr)

EHR Jobs Boom: 8 Hot Health IT Roles

EHR Jobs Boom: 8 Hot Health IT Roles

EHR Jobs Boom: 8 Hot Health IT Roles (Click image for larger view and slideshow.)

Write down a list of major US technology hubs and you would probably start with the San Francisco Bay Area and Silicon Valley and work your way down from there: New York's Silicon Alley, the DC metropolitan area's mass of federal agencies and contractors, Seattle, Austin, Boston, and so on.

It would probably be a while before you jotted down Chicago. It's not exactly a small town, but the Windy City's not often thought of as a tech hotspot either. Plenty of tech and Internet firms call the Chicago area home, though, from Groupon to Hostway to CDW, not to mention Fortune 500 concerns like McDonalds, Allstate, and Walgreens. Yet recruiters and executives there say geography can play a factor when trying to lure the best and brightest IT pros, whether fresh-faced graduates or seen-it-all veterans, to the shores of Lake Michigan.

Some audience housekeeping first: If you think the IT talent shortage is a load of you-know-what, you should probably stop reading now. All three executives we spoke with say their underlying challenge is finding the right talent, period.

"There's a shortage across the whole United States when it comes to tech talent, and I don't think Chicago's any different," says Chris Jenkins, HR director at kCura, in an interview.

[For more advice on recruiting top new talent, see IT Jobs: How To Hire New Grads.]

kCura's been on a hiring binge. The e-discovery software firm hired 153 people last year and Jenkins expects a similar total of new employees by the end of 2014. The firm has already brought 83 new full-time employees on board this year. Its staff will soon cross the 400-person mark. More than 70% of kCura's hires this year have had some sort of technology function. That reflects the overall staff DNA, which is 65-70% technical in nature.

Attracting tech talent to Chicago -- and keeping homegrown talent home -- has gotten easier lately, according to Jenkins, thanks to increased investments from large companies and startups alike. But the Midwest region can add obstacles to an already challenging recruiting and retention landscape.

Campus recruiting is an enormous part of kCura's HR strategy, and Jenkins gives high marks to the University of Illinois's engineering and computer science programs, for instance. At least 90% of kCura's campus hiring takes places within a three-hour drive of Chicago, which includes a wealth of universities. Part of the pitch must address geography, because many of the top graduates there decided long ago it was Silicon Valley or bust. Trying to change their minds is a bit like trying to persuade an aspiring filmmaker not to move to Los Angeles.

Figure 1: (Image: Eric Ward on Flickr) (Image: Eric Ward on Flickr)

"We spend a lot of time trying to convince students to stay in the Midwest; a majority of them do go out to the Bay Area," Jenkins says. "We try to get them [to our offices], we try to get them on a tour, we try to get them meeting our engineers, seeing the culture, and do whatever we can to get them to stay in the Midwest. But that is a struggle with students -- they might just want to move out of the Midwest for a couple of years and give it a shot."

IT jobs site earlier this year noted that while IT talent wars are fought coast-to-coast, "recruiters and hiring managers are now suggesting that the Midwest is the toughest region for recruiting technology professionals."

Gabe McDonald, branch manager in the IT division of Chicago-based recruiting firm Addison Group, says the problem has been compounded by companies finally kicking off technology projects that were mothballed during the economic downturn. As a result, everyone's looking to staff up at the same time.

"If one client needs a Java developer, there are likely six to seven other firms within the Chicago area all looking for the same skill set," McDonald says via email. The recruiter added that employers looking to scrimp on salary or unwilling to make rapid hiring decisions are the ones likely to lose out on in-demand talent. "These developers and engineers go quickly, so hiring managers need to determine exactly what they’re looking for and be ready to pull the trigger when they find it."

Jonathan Ozeran, VP of product at mobile health startup Zest Health, agrees the Chicagoland hiring picture is competitive. The firm's current and future hiring plans essentially read like a list of negative-unemployment job categories: mobile development, data science, software engineering, and so forth. Yet he sees Zest Health's location as a plus.

"Being in Chicago is an advantage for us," Ozeran says in an interview, crediting the company's heavy involvement in the growing tech and healthcare entrepreneurship communities there as the primary

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reason why. "It's a necessity to further our community [and] have great talent stay here rather than go elsewhere."

Ozeran believes a burgeoning startup scene will help do just that and offer an appealing alternative to flocking west. "Lots of folks want to stay here, and they want to find people they can work with and have some of that immersion that they expect to have in the Bay Area," he says. "There's just a limited volume of companies [in Chicago] that can provide that for them." He also notes Chicago has a significant urban-suburban divide. It's tougher for startups and other employers to sell long hours when Joe and Jane Software Engineer must keep to a commuter train schedule, especially because the location lacks that "immersion" offered by the famed corporate campuses of Silicon Valley and elsewhere.

He points to several factors that can sway a talented IT pro to stay in the Midwest and, in particular, take a chance on a startup. While some other locations may offer a higher starting salary or greater equity position up front, he has heard from several people -- especially younger people -- that the economic upside or brand prestige offered in other locations doesn't always pay off. He describes the feedback from several people who'd left Chicago for theoretically greener pastures: "I don't want to spend six months doing QA work and not seeing my code in the hands of my customers or users. I want to be committing code on day one. I want to learn best practices versus waiting to learn them. I want mentors who are going to help coach and advise me both in the community and day-to-day at work."

He adds, "I don't know that they're getting all of those things [by relocating]. The problem is they're getting high-dollar amount and equity figures to be lured out there. I don't want to say it's a bait-and-switch, but not all of them are as favorable a story as you might think."

Similarly, Ozeran believes tech talent ultimately wants to work on compelling products and problems, another key part of his recruiting pitch. kCura's Jenkins agrees -- he says the inherent complexity of his firm's cloud system keeps engineers and other staff constantly challenged.

Given its hypergrowth, kCura takes other strategic steps to recruit IT talent in the Chicago area. Like Zest Health, the firm is very active in the local community: sponsoring hackathons and other events, working with the Illinois Technology Association, and making investments in STEM education in the Chicago public schools, among other efforts. Jenkins's team also runs an aggressive employee referral bonus program: "We kind of create a recruiting culture here and ask everybody to be a recruiter -- don't just rely on the recruiters to do the sourcing," he says.

He says kCura also prioritizes creating a workplace that not only attracts people, but also keeps them there, fostering regular feedback from employees on what's working well and what's not. "I think that goes a long way," he says. Recently, the firm took steps to address the major "knock" on working there -- that there was little work-life balance. As a result, the company is rolling out more flexible policies on hours and working remotely.

Meanwhile, he sees Chicago's space in the technology universe growing -- though that won't necessarily slow the chase for top talent.

"We have startups that have kind of grown up a little bit and we've had some large organizations that have moved here, which we definitely welcome as an organization," Jenkins says. "The more tech companies we have here, the more likely the tech talent is likely to stay in the Midwest."

Can the trendy tech strategy of DevOps really bring peace between developers and IT operations -- and deliver faster, more reliable app creation and delivery? Also in the DevOps Challenge issue of InformationWeek: Execs charting digital business strategies can't afford to take Internet connectivity for granted.

About the Author(s)

Kevin Casey


Kevin Casey is a writer based in North Carolina who writes about technology for small and mid-size businesses.

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