Graduate+ Recruitment - The IT culture club

How do software firms such as Oracle keep their most gifted and ambitious engineers? By letting them work the `loosey, goosey' way, says Roger Trapp
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The Independent Online
Computer software company Oracle has a problem many other organisations would die for. It is struggling to manage rapid growth. As senior executives acknowledge, it is "a better problem than lack of growth". Nevertheless, the success and popularity of a sector that has seen the likes of Microsoft, Intel and Oracle itself take the place of such behemoths as General Motors and Exxon as the world's big recruiters has created a demand for information technology professionals that universities and colleges are hard pressed to meet.

But the number of students entering the market with the appropriate skills is not increasing. Blaming the Anglo-Saxon antipathy to engineering, Oracle's chief financial officer, Jeffrey Henley, says that companies are increasingly looking offshore for talent. This year in the UK alone, the company - which with the combative, larger-than-life Larry Ellison at the helm is a fierce rival to Bill Gates's Microsoft - is aiming to recruit 1,000 people, 200 of whom will be graduates.

Compounding the problem is the fact that, while the casual and flexible working methods associated with Silicon Valley-based companies (Oracle started there in 1977) look attractive to many, they do not suit everybody. Philip Crawford of the company's UK division - which has seen revenues grow from $50m when it went public in 1986 to more than $5.5bn last year - stresses that software is the "dynamic part" of the computer industry. Accordingly the engineers working in the field are rather like Hollywood animators in their ability to blend mathematical and artistic skills. "You have to build a culture that accommodates them." This entails casual dress, flexible hours and maybe even having beds beside desks so that engineers can stick to their task when the going gets tough. And it is all founded on a belief that, if you hire the right people, they will be more productive if they are handled in what the Americans call a "loosey, goosey" way.

But sometimes people who do not possess the self-confidence and motivation the company is looking for slip through the recruitment net. The tell- tale sign is somebody complaining that they have been there a month and have not been given anything to do, says Mr Crawford. The sort of people Oracle and its competitors are after see a space and flock to it, he adds. "The atmosphere is not sterile."

Unfortunately, for such companies creating such a stimulating environment is still no guarantee that people will stay. In Britain the staff turnover rate is about 7 per cent, but it is higher in the United States, where the close proximity of so many like-minded organisations has created a buoyant seller's labour market for those with the right skills and attitudes.

Sometimes a pay rise will persuade people to stay, says Mr Henley. But since many of them are lured to start-up companies, where there is the prospect of making significant sums of money through stock options, the company resigns itself to "a certain degree of turnover" on the grounds that "you just know that if you hire ambitious people you're going to lose some".

But he and Mr Crawford agree that there can be a silver lining to this particular cloud. "Even if you lose people to customers or partners, it's amazing how many stay within the wider `Oracle economy' - and that's not that bad"n