The power of money

“Everybody needs money – that’s why they call it money!” exclaimed an exasperated Mickey Bergman in David Mamet’s lost 2001 classic, Heist.

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By  Imthishan Giado Published  September 21, 2008

“Everybody needs money – that’s why they call it money!” exclaimed an exasperated Mickey Bergman in David Mamet’s lost 2001 classic, Heist.

Bergman’s wounded reply was directed at a retired jewel thief who refused to partake in a soon-to-be messy bullion robbery, but I can imagine that more than a few CIOs in regional enterprises have expressed similar sentiments when faced with balky employees.

The problem is extraordinarily simple and yet enormously complicated. The region has finally managed to cultivate a small but growing amount of local talent who are capable of performing the entire spectrum of roles within the complex world of an IT department.

It’s something that the region’s education supremos have been working for decades through government-sponsored initiatives and it’s only now starting to bear fruit. In a part of the world where nearly every single external function – from pumping gas to cleaning the streets – is performed by an expatriate, a native who can perform the same tasks is worth his or her weight of gold.

And this is quite simply because such a phenomenon portends a future where enterprises doesn’t have to depend on imported talent but simply pluck the crème de la crème from the region’s finest universities to slip smoothly into the role of IT professionals. These young men and women should be trained – nurtured even – to be creative, independent and strong-willed, with the ultimate aim of being able to forge the long-term direction of organisations, without constantly referring to Europe or America’s IT playbook.

Except that this isn’t what happens. Nowhere close to it, in fact.

What actually occurs is that if an individual is recognised to have a strong aptitude for IT, they promptly get poached by the nearest government organisation, where they end up in a crack team of worker bees to slave away contentedly on a fat wage for the next 20 years.

Worse still, they might end up being promoted – which can lead to an inexperienced trainee being in charge of crucial IT decision making, responsible for allocating millions of dollars in budget and training a whole generation of IT professionals without the air miles to do so.

Think I’m being alarmist? As evidence, I need only refer to the subject of last month’s cover, Srood Sherif, CIO of the National Bank of Abu Dhabi who revealed some extremely disturbing facts about employee retention during our discussions.

First, his youngest trainees tend to last less than six months. Not because they’re inept, but rather because NBAD’s high standards ensure that only the best and brightest make it into his IT department – and then promptly get poached either directly by the government or one of the many quasi-government organisations in Abu Dhabi.

Second, they’re not leaving for a few dollars more. On the contrary, in their new jobs they’re easily drawing double the pay they received a trainee – that is, if they’re not the recipients of a titled position.

For Srood and CIOs of his ilk, it’s a ruthlessly no-win situation. Focus on cost cutting to meet restrictive 2008 budgets and long-standing employees will walk because their compensation isn’t at market level, while there’s no chance of attracting young talent that can eventually be molded into the correct positions.

On the other hand, invest in providing a quality working environment with the best equipment and understanding experienced managers and you’ll satisfy long-termers and attract top-notch talent – the latter of which is quickly headhunted to meet the desperate need in government firms for native IT professionals.

As Sherif noted, salaries have become a moving target and it’s simply impossible to keep raising compensation ad infinitum, as you’ll only end up causing long terms to leave – putting you in even more of a pickle.

In my opinion, Srood’s regional peers are the ones who should really be worried. If a bank as well funded as NBAD can’t match the packages available to local talent – what chance do lesser enterprises have? And what does this mean for efforts in the region to increase the non-expatriate content of their workforce?

Considering that GITEX Technology Week is just a few scant weeks away, I reckon CIOs will be nervously be looking at re-arranging their strategic initiatives for the rest of the year to compensate – and big technology purchases may well be accelerating right towards the bottom of the list.

Imthishan Giado is the deputy editor of Arabian Computer News.

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