IT careers: How long should you stay in your job?

As paychecks grow, tenure shrinks among today’s top techies. And that trend is leaving many to wonder whether loyalty still pays

IT careers: How long should you stay in your job?
Linetic / Thinkstock

Over the past eight years, Michelle Ufford has had five different jobs at Web hosting company GoDaddy, including her current role as engineering manager. There once was a time when Ufford would have been considered hazardous to the workplace -- an IT professional with a penchant for tossing aside years of costly training for a technology du jour.

But gone are the days of retirement parties and gold-plated plaques. Rather, IT professionals like Ufford now switch jobs -- and employers -- faster than it takes ink to dry on a business card. In fact, Ufford says getting a taste of various positions -- and technologies -- has actually increased her chances of survival in today's cutthroat, highly competitive IT labor market.

"When you're in technology, you have to stay aware of the trends," she says. "If you have that awareness, you can make sure that you don't become obsolete, especially as technology changes over the years."

Ufford isn't alone in her nontraditional take on tenure. In a September 2015 Computerworld survey of 244 IT professionals, 46 percent of the respondents said that they feel more pressure to create some movement in their careers, either through a job change at their current company or by moving to a different employer. And 43 percent said that they believe the optimum job tenure for a technology professional -- the amount of time needed to gain experience and remain attractive in the job market -- is one to three years at the same company.

"The employee-employer relationship has absolutely changed," says John Reed, senior executive director at IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. "The days of Dad going off to work for IBM for 40 years and getting the gold watch are behind us."

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Big money, big moves

Helping to drive this shift is a strong job market that offers qualified IT professionals more options -- and more money -- than ever before. All of which is great news for restless IT workers -- and not-so-great news for talent-strapped companies.

"We're seeing pretty big churn in the marketplace right now, and part of that is people looking at their role or organization and saying, 'I've done all that I can do here. There's no next step for me,'" Reed says.

Computerworld Careers 2016 factoid: optimum job tenure Computerworld

Ron Gallagher agrees. A senior technical recruiter at Staff Tech, a recruiting firm in Folsom, Calif., Gallagher says IT professionals now spend an average of two to three years with the same employer. "They're staying less time now than they were before, and it's just because the economy has bounced back," he says. "There's more opportunity and, at the same time, good IT people are very valued. Overall, pay has gone up for IT roles."

Conversely, Gallagher says he's seen perfectly qualified job candidates with long tenures get overlooked because prospective employers "felt their knowledge was too focused on one set of technologies and wasn't broad enough."

Has loyalty lost its currency in today's all-about-me labor market? Not exactly, according to Craig Williams, head of IT at LinkedIn, the professional networking site.

"What people call loyalty has shifted," says Williams. "At LinkedIn, we've embraced a different way of looking at [tenure]. We're not hiring 'forever' people. It's a little different nowadays. We look at the fit and what they're looking to accomplish in their career."

The advantages of flitting

It's a new view of a candidate's worth that highlights the perks -- and pitfalls -- of keeping one's career in flux. "You can become stale if you stay in an organization for too long and only see things from one perspective," warns Reed. "To continue to grow and develop, you have to go to other companies, with other people, in other environments -- that's how you learn."

In fact, Reed says some top tech giants encourage employees to move on after a certain number of years in order to keep their human capital cache fresh. "There's this feeling that after a decade you may get settled in too much and that it's time to bring in new blood, new thoughts and new ideas," he says.

John Reed, executive director at Robert Half Technology [2014] Robert Half Technology

John Reed, Robert Half Technology

Trying out new roles every few years also makes for a more seasoned IT professional, according to Ufford. Over the years, she's had to learn everything from Hadoop to OLAP in order to satisfy the varying requirements of new roles -- making herself a virtual jack-of-all-tech-trades in the process. As a result, she says, "I can now take the more productive approach of objectively looking at the technologies I've worked with and applying the right technology to the problem at hand." (Hear more about Ufford's career path in this video, which is also featured above.)

Till death do us part

But IT professionals like Sheree Goldstein argue that today's movers and shakers overlook the advantages -- both professional and personal -- of staying faithful to a single employer. Goldstein is a senior business systems analyst at Kate Spade & Co., a position she has held since joining the company in 2007.

"When I need something done, I know who to go to, and that makes a really big difference," she says. Short-term employees, on the other hand, "miss the opportunity of really learning a system and having relationships that you can't make if you've only been there for a short time."

Another advantage of sticking it out with the same company: seeing the fruits of your labor. "I can make a recommendation for something to happen on the POS system, for instance, and if the developers like the recommendation, they'll put it in place," says Goldstein. "That's one of the values of being with a company long enough: trust and accomplishment."

There's even a personal upside to workplace loyalty. In an era of beer cart Fridays and New Age team-building exercises, long-term employment can help foster truly meaningful bonds among co-workers.

"I know my business associates and, over time, have built up a stock in showing my integrity, showing my technical knowledge, showing my ability to work with them. And I've developed friendships -- not only business relationships," says Goldstein. Yet for all the perks of sticking around, she adds that loyalty is a commodity "that companies aren't honoring very much anymore."

One possible explanation for loyalty's market devaluation is that remaining with the same people and projects for years on end can actually backfire. "Your legacy follows you," says Ufford. "I've occasionally been called upon to troubleshoot something that I wrote seven years ago either because the [new] person was out ill or things have changed, and so you never really get away from that. It's beneficial for the company, but you never get to just walk away or wash your hands of something."

Recruiters' views vary

Interestingly, opinions on how long an IT professional should stay in one job are slightly more mixed among recruiters than they are among workers. For example, says Gallagher, "there are a lot of recruiters out there still looking for longevity and not wanting to see someone jumping ship every year or every six months." Part of the reason is that training people can be costly, and employers want to see returns on their investments.

Holding a job for a long stretch of time can also speak to an IT professional's integrity. "Many employers look at your level of commitment," says Reed. "What is your track record of staying with an organization and developing in an organization? When things got tough, did you bail or did you stay with it? Companies are looking at things like that, so [jumping from job to job] can cause some employers to cringe."

Computerworld Careers 2016 [charts] Computerworld

For Williams, the key to assessing an IT professional's track record is discovering the motivations behind the career moves. For example, factors such as mergers, acquisitions, downsizings, personal illnesses and family emergencies can create gaps on a résumé and mistakenly appear as red flags. "It's important to know the story," he says. "During an interview, I'll say, 'All right, tell me about your story -- why did this happen? Were you a victim, or did you work yourself out of a job? Or did you not move intentionally?' I'll really dig for information."

But the process doesn't end there. Williams says once an IT professional has been hired, he'll encourage the employee to map out further career objectives and share those goals with senior management. It's a compelling retention strategy at a time when there's little optimism around employee longevity. In fact, according to a study by IT staffing firm TEKsystems, less than 15 percent of both IT leaders and IT professionals expect individuals to stay at one organization for more than five years.

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"If you're more mature in your career and you know what you're looking for, it's important for you to define it and have it be known," says Williams. "What we try to do is help our employees figure out what they want to do. Sometimes people need a little nudge or a little help verbalizing their thoughts, and then we help with putting a plan together with their experience and training."

Ufford agrees. "You need to have open, honest dialogue with your managers," she says. "If you do that, then you can be upfront about projects that you're interested in, or new technologies. So having a strong relationship with a manager is huge."

Change brings innovation

That's not to suggest, however, that companies are looking to stretch out the tenures of each and every employee. Rather, despite losses of institutional knowledge and the cost of training new people, a fluid workforce can have a positive impact on a company's bottom line.

"New perspectives, new people and new experiences can absolutely lead to new ideas, concepts and innovation," Reed says. "The counter to that is that it can also be very disruptive to the business."

The trick is to shuffle the right people into the right positions at the right time. While nearly half of all IT professionals are likely to jump from one project -- or company -- to another within a three-year period, Williams warns that only a chosen few are really built for a transitory career.

"Ideally, we'd all like to think that we can move people 100 percent into other roles, but we probably only have a certain percentage of people that are really able to transform and move into new roles," he says.

And companies need both types of people. They will "always need good block-and-tackle people who are in those roles and are really good and are going to perform well," Williams says. "But you also need some star players on the team who are mobile and who are going to help call the shots and read the situation and adapt. You want to work on building those people up as much as you can and move them around."

With a little planning -- and luck -- the end result is a workforce that's anchored by hard-working, loyal employees and fueled by those whose careers are in constant flux.

This story, "IT careers: How long should you stay in your job?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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