Niel Nickolaisen, SVP & CTO at a 90-year-old manufacturing company in Salt Lake City, shares how he competes with start-ups for the technology hires he needs.

O.C. Tanner (OCT) has been in business for a long time – this year marks our 90th anniversary. We’ve experienced a number of revolutions and evolutions to our business model during that time. In fact, we are undergoing a big transformation right now. 

Historically we have been manufacturers of custom products, competing against companies like us. A few years ago, that started to change. Software companies were added to our list of competitors  - in the battle for IT talent. Our new “competitors” think from an entirely new perspective and at a much faster pace. We realized that we needed to change our focus to be able to survive and thrive in this new world. 

I suppose our story is not too different from what is happening with just about everyone in our technology-driven, fast-paced world. And in this world we now compete head-to-head with everyone else who is trying to attract, retain and develop IT talent. To make matters worse, we are headquartered in Salt Lake City, Utah, which is one of the country’s hottest high tech hubs, with lots of tech companies and start-ups hungry for IT talent. 

Three years ago, no one thought of OCT as a technology company. To the vast majority of the technology talent market, OCT didn’t exist.

In order to win the technology talent wars, I knew we’d have to change the perception about OCT,  so I gathered the team to brainstorm about what we had to do to attract the people we needed. We agreed to take an experimental approach – we would try a number of our initial ideas, measure the results, and then keep the ideas that worked best. This is my report – three years into our efforts – of what has worked.

Building Our IT Employer Brand

We had to build a brand for IT at OCT. Being honest with ourselves, we admitted that we know nothing about branding. But the marketing department at OCT does, so we partnered with them to develop our IT brand. 

We defined our core competencies and our market differentiators and then worked out how we would build both practices and messaging around what we do better than anyone else. With that done, we had to take our brand to the IT talent market. 

How did we do that? We got really active in the IT community. 

Some members of our IT team were already active in user groups, but we expanded participation in those and added more groups. We volunteered to host the users group meetings, and for certain, critical IT skills, we signed on as the title sponsor for the events. It is amazing what a $2000 - $5000 annual sponsorship will buy in terms of user group influence. 

We have been able to share what we are doing with our products and technology and describe our culture (one of our key differentiators) to our target audience. At a minimum, the members of the user groups start to think differently about OCT. Even if they are not interested in looking at our job opportunities, they speak highly of us to their IT co-workers and colleagues. 

User group support is a bargain. We pay less for all of our user group sponsorships than we pay for a single recruitment fee. 

We have also invested and participated in the broad community efforts to expand the IT talent pipeline. We are sponsors of Women’s Technology Council and participate on their board. This raises our profile as a technology company, and connects us with a wide range of IT leaders who start to think differently about OCT. We participate in SheTech Explorer Day, an all-day event that uses games and competitions to encourage female high school students to pursue careers in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM). 

We have worked closely with our local colleges, universities and technical training providers to build an IT skills apprenticeship pipeline. From our apprenticeship program we get access to new IT talent but that is not the only reason for our doing this. Through this program we interact with faculty and student leaders who get to know us, learn the types of things we are doing and then tell others about us. The goal of our community activities is to build that brand we have worked so hard to build, define and protect. 

One more thing – lest you think that our motives are not pure when it comes to our involvement with the community. OCT has had a deep and abiding passion for helping good people get on, and stay on, the IT career track, even before we started this branding initiative. Now we just make sure we link our branding to everything we do. 

Opportunities to do cutting edge, interesting IT work

One element of our branding is that we do meaningful, interesting work. So we must make sure we keep that brand promise or we will have a credibility gap. Now, to be honest, a lot of the work that we need to do might not, initially, sound that interesting. For example, we have to modernize our legacy products and that can be pretty mundane and boring work. 

But, can we do that modernization in a compelling way? Of course we can. Rather than doing the incredibly uninteresting work of just rewriting old code, we can do our work in a way that sets us up for both the present and the future by shifting to a micro-services architecture. All of the cool technology kids use micro-services and we do as well. The people modernizing our legacy products are on the leading edge of micro-services / API-centric thinking and tooling to get this work done. 

We have focused on being really good at things like agile, lean and DevOps and have achieved a high level of innovation in those areas. For example, four members of our DevOps team have developed some application- and deployment-level security tools that we are now patenting. 

We experiment with things like machine learning, social graphs and behavior analytics. If the work will align to our product, IT or company goals, the team is free to try it out. 

All of this helps make the case of our brand and gives those involved with the user groups and the broader IT community something to talk about when people ask them what we are up to at OCT. 

We still have a long way to go to win every head-to-head competition for IT talent, but we have turned the corner in changing how people think about IT at O.C. Tanner.Cement factory2.jpg


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