How IT staffers keep pace at fast-growing organizations

Smart management tactics and agile processes give IT staffers the strength and stamina to support mushrooming business needs

How IT staffers keep pace at fast-growing organizations
Sergey Nivens

In the past five years, Darren Tedesco's IT staff has grown from about 100 employees to 250 today. And while that's a lot more people to manage, Tedesco, managing principal of innovation and strategy at Commonwealth Financial Network, isn't complaining. Those additional IT staffers are helping keep up with the firm's overall growth spurt, which includes a 15 percent bump in total headcount last year alone.

Tedesco says the company's rapid expansion meant business-as-usual wouldn't fly. He says IT policies, procedures and personnel had to change in order to keep up with the significant uptick in demands coming from the business. So Tedesco shifted management tactics, allowing his workers to better seize the opportunities and cope with the challenges that come with hypergrowth.

He organized staffers into smaller teams, with members following scrum methodology to gain agility. He decentralized most decision-making, giving IT workers the responsibility to handle all issues except high-risk ones, which he trained staffers to escalate. And he made sure teams had plenty of opportunities for communication and collaboration by combining business and IT office space and promoting more interactions.

Darren Tedesco

Darren Tedesco, Commonwealth Financial Network

"We were starting to experience some growing pains. And we realized if [we stayed the same] we were not going to maintain the agility we had and stay on top of the competition," he says. "So we formulated how to grow in an efficient manner and keep working without any red tape. You have to hire great people, and you have to have the right processes to make sure people can thrive."

CIOs across the spectrum say they're dealing with a rapid pace of change in their IT departments. Indeed, many are hiring staff and seeing budget increases to meet rising demands for new technologies and functionalities. However, CIOs at rapidly growing companies are contending with that scenario -- and all the pros and cons that come with it -- on overdrive. That type of growth, they say, requires a different type of leadership and management to successfully navigate.

Creating manageable action items

"You have to keep a balance between basic management and your growth [strategy]," says Bill Weeks, senior vice president and CIO at SquareTwo Financial. The company recently grew its overall staff by 32 percent, expanding from 315 employees to 416 in just one year.

Weeks uses several tactics to keep the balance between basic management tasks and handling demands resulting from rapid growth.

First, he focuses on recruiting and retention so he can ensure he has the high performers he needs to deliver on an escalating list of tech-driven projects. He says he looks for IT workers with communication and collaboration skills as well as strong business acumen.

Weeks also uses agile and scrum methodologies, along with the corresponding iterative approach to development, which he and other CIOs say are critical when growing rapidly because they allow IT teams to keep up with the constant flow of demands.

"We do have situations where we have a lot of work to be done and there is an overwhelming feeling, so we have to break it down. We do that really well with scrum," Weeks says. "We break it down, figure out how we can get those little pieces done [and] in what time."

Maintaining communication and trust is also key, Weeks adds. Yes, he says, that's paramount in any company, but he and other CIOs say it's even more critical to be transparent at fast-growing companies because miscommunications and the consequential mistrust that arises dramatically slow IT and project production -- at a time when speed is essential.

The benefits of getting bigger

CIOs at fast-growing companies say they also have some unique advantages and benefits stemming from that growth.

Because of their companies' overall success, they say they have more funding, more projects in the pipeline and more projects using cutting-edge technologies -- all of which are necessary to stay even with growth.

And, they say, their plethora of tech-driven projects helps them attract high-performing staffers because they tend to seek out organizations that offer work with cutting-edge technologies.

Additionally, these CIOs say they can offer recruits and employees alike more opportunities to develop new, in-demand skills as well as move up the career ladder more quickly than they could elsewhere -- both of which are selling points to many top technologists.

"We are investing in our group and in our people, tools, technologies and training at a pace that's faster than market average," says Troy Cardinal, CIO at the audit, tax and consulting firm RSM US LLP, which has had three consecutive years of double-digit percentage staffing growth.

Cardinal adds: "Our people would say that's really fun, really exciting. They enjoy having access to that. And the kinds of things we're working on aren't just break-fix, support and maintenance. We're working on transformative technologies."

Troy Cardinal, RSM US LLP

Troy Cardinal, RSM US LLP

The flip side to that, however, is the constant pressure -- pressure to keep adding new skills, to deliver new technologies quickly, to innovate at a rapid pace while maintaining an expanding infrastructure.

IT leaders say this can add more stress to jobs that even in companies without any growth are already pressure-filled -- what with demands for 24/7 operations and support in addition to laundry lists of new capabilities sought by business partners.

"In our environment, there's a lot more pressure to deliver than in environments where the pace is much slower. We turn things around very quickly because of the pace of the business," Weeks says.

Cardinal says it's akin to building a team with the stamina to run multiple marathons per year. "We're trying to be career marathoners. As we build our stamina, our aim is to be able to keep pace with the growth of RSM and take on a few large-scale projects each year," he says.

But, as anyone who has trained for such events knows, there's a lot of work and pain that goes into it. And not everyone is cut out for such work.

"We're working harder than we've ever worked, and that's a challenge. And you can't be here and expect a 9-to-5 job," Cardinal says. "It's a wonderful opportunity, but with it comes sacrifice. But the people who work here want to work here."

Hard-charging technologists wanted

Given the speed of evolution, CIOs at fast-growing companies say they need people who can adapt quickly, pick up new skills easily and grow as needs change.

"You have to develop a culture of change and what that means is you have to have a staff that is not only OK with change but enjoys change," says Mike Peterson, senior vice president of IT and CIO at CHG Healthcare Services. "They have to be excited and be energetic and keep up with technologies."

Mike Peterson, CHG Healthcare Services

Mike Peterson, CHG Healthcare Services

According to Peterson, CHG Healthcare Services added about 250 employees in 2015, bringing its total to about 2,000, and plans to add another 250 or so in 2016. He says the company is doubling in staff size every three to five years. To keep up with that, the IT department has grown from 38 IT employees in 2006 to 98 today.

Those team members have to pivot fast, Peterson says. He points to his department's recent move to an Adobe content management system (CMS) because his team leaders felt it was more nimble than the company's old system. The three technologists tasked with this project had just a few weeks to learn the new Adobe product via online and on-the-job training as they continued to maintain the old system and readied for the switchover.

Peterson admits that tasks like that make the work environment fast-paced and fun, but also stressful and that, too, takes managing.

"As a leader at a fast-paced company, you have to stay ultra-close to your people to manage that stress level to make sure it's not negative," Peterson says, explaining that he tries to build a people-first culture that respects personal time and scheduled vacations and that keeps hours in check by discouraging a lot of overtime.

Sometimes, managing all that growth means making bold, and unexpected, moves.

Take Tedesco's plan for the next year or two: He expects to slow hiring for his IT team even though the company itself is still projecting significant growth. Although it may seem a little counterintuitive, Tedesco says shifting focus from rapid hiring to more moderate hiring gives him and his team the time and space to ensure that personnel and processes are working to their full potential in the current environment.

"Instead of, say, hiring 50 net new people a year like we did, we're going to hire just about 20 people this year and 20 next year," he says, adding that this will ensure everyone has a good handle on their current roles and responsibilities as well as future requirements before returning to full-steam ahead.

"Because when you grow so quickly, so fast, you need to pause to catch your breath," says Tedesco. "When you introduce a lot of new processes and you're hiring a lot, it can be hard to manage. So we want to make sure everyone is up to speed, is comfortable, and tweak processes to make sure everything works well."

This story, "How IT staffers keep pace at fast-growing organizations" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.