Learning the e-ssentials

My father always told me that college should be about obtaining a liberal education, not about training for a career. So I majored in English. I never questioned my decision until two years ago when I received a phone call from an old friend.

“IT’s the NEW economy, stupid!” he said, using his best James Carville accent. “We are experiencing a technology revolution and you had better join it now or you will regret it for the rest of your life.”

“Very clever double entendre, Darin,” I sneered. “Did you learn that in one of your political science classes? I never expected you to lecture me about information technology.”

That friend, Darin Gilson BA’92 BS’92, was leaving a very successful career as a management consultant to join an IT start-up and suggested that I do the same. In my mind, we were the last two people who should consider such a thing. He graduated in political science and economics, and I have degrees in English and Italian. To me, Java was more a beverage than the driving technology behind the Internet, and C++ was less a computer language than what my GPA surely would have been had I attempted to study computer science in the first place. But there we were, ready to join the Internet revolution. “I really am stupid,” I thought to myself as I contemplated my friend’s words. “I think I am going to do this after all.”

Two years have passed since that conversation and the start-up we joined is not such a start-up anymore. We have seen tremendous success for such a young company, but when I am honest with myself, I realize that our success has less to do with the MBAs, JDs, and English majors on staff than it does with the very talented engineers we have attracted. If the rest of us have contributed in any meaningful way, it has been by creating an environment that attracts and retains the electrical engineers and computer scientists that are the core operating system of our organization. But we are not alone out there.

Companies of every size and shape are desperately wooing computer engineers. High salaries, signing bonuses, and stock options are standard fare. Free meals, elaborate and entertaining work areas, and other perks like dry cleaning and doggie day care are also becoming common. So great is the demand that teenagers are able to turn computer skills into summer internships that demand travel and executive perks. For companies that depend on brilliant people with high-tech experience, attracting and retaining top talent has become an art.

While finding the talent requires primarily time and money, we have found that keeping talent has more to do with supporting an environment that fosters creativity and a sense of personal ownership in one’s work. By fostering creativity, I do not mean encouraging some abstract expression of the creative process—I mean empowering technologists to apply knowledge and imagination in the development of something new and valuable to the marketplace. Many people have the wrong impression of engineers. They are not the stereotypes we see in films like Revenge of the Nerds or unkempt mathematicians that live like hermits. Just as visual artists, musicians, and poets create beautiful works using the mediums of their art, the best technologists are true creators who use languages and technology platforms to answer riddles, solve problems, and give life to digital masterpieces that serve the broader community.

Recently, I met with an acquaintance working in Silicon Valley and shared with him a story about a rewarding experience I had working with one of our clients. It involved one of our engineers flying to the client site and working unceasingly until he had found a creative solution to their problem. My acquaintance could not appreciate the idea that our engineering team felt so personally invested in solving the specific needs of our customers. He doubted that there could be something more important to an engineer in today’s competitive market than money. He never really grasped what I understood to be a basic human desire to create and contribute in a meaningful way. “I don’t know anyone in this industry who wants to do good,” he said. “I just know people who want to do well.” With this attitude, it is no wonder that he sees the turnover he does, while our company has maintained a nearly perfect retention record since opening our doors. What we are paid to do must be in line with what is important to us as individuals and as members of a larger community.

I have learned a lot over the past two years. Knowing what I know now, there are times when I wonder if my father would have expanded his philosophy to include computer science in his liberal education equation. My degree taught me that words can move people’s souls. Now that I am working in the IT industry, I have learned a bit about other languages that move people’s minds.

IT is the new economy, and maybe, given what I’ve learned, I’m not so stupid after all.

—Andy Cooley BA’92 is senior vice president of marketing for Campus Pipeline.

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