Hiding in Plain Sight

A colleague and I were chatting (okay…texting) this week about recruitment issues, and I was reminded of one of our challenges back in the Dot Com Era in Seattle.

I was Director of IT during the mid-to-late 90s at a couple of higher ed institutions in the Pacific Northwest, and it was at this time we were rapidly building out our campus infrastructure with fiber and ethernet, to provide Internet access to everyone, everywhere. Internet email addresses for everyone! A 56K Frame-Relay Internet (and primitive VOIP) link to our satellite campus in the mountains! It was quite exciting for me, as I’d come from Tulsa University where we’d done the same thing during the first half of the 90s. All of a sudden, public information officers were being tasked with building websites, and the world we know today was, for better or worse, coming into focus.

The Washington State Community and Technical College System, and the Higher Education Board were very egalitarian. We had state laws that mandated that any resources published on the Internet had to be freely accessible to any Washington State citizen. At the University of Washington, this was taken to mean that all university IP addresses were public addresses, on the big Internet. The approach commonly used now, where an organization has a small handful of “real” IPv4 numeric addresses and hides their entire organization behind a firewall and a non-published address space, was nonexistent.

It was about this time that our peers started…vanishing.

By that, I mean leaving their posts in higher ed IT and being offered OBSCENE amounts of money in the private sector. This was the earliest days of Amazon, the Windows 95 era for Microsoft, and the time when you could still find a decent house in the Seattle city limits for less than $400K.

We’d suddenly been spotted out there alone on the plains by the new apex predator of the Internet, the corporate headhunter.

We’d made it extremely easy to spot us. As good state employees, we had our entire employee lists (with email and phone) dutifully posted on our new websites, just waiting for that call or email to entice us away. Our developers and network managers were easy targets — they’d been learning great skills and they were loyal employees. But making significantly less than their peers in the private sector.

Like any good collection of management zebra, we’d huddle for our quarterly meetings at different locations around the state, clustering so the headhunters wouldn’t be able to detect where one of us ended and the next began. We weren’t immune to the calls, but being higher up on the food chain afforded us the opportunity to keep our commitments to our institutions easier. Much like today, we’d trade information: our quarterly meetings were financially sponsored by HP, who’d ask us to project how many systems we’d be buying in the next quarter in exchange for a nice dinner.

At the same time, we began discussions with our State Board: asking if an exemption could be arranged so they wouldn’t pick us off, one by one.

In no time, the word was given, and all our names, titles, etc. were removed from the web pages. Just the tech folk originally — it was slightly easier to make the case that us “backend” support folk didn’t have as much cause to be publicly identified and targeted. In the spirit of egalitarianism, no one’s departments or personnel are called out too easily today. The game is perhaps a bit fairer in that the headhunter now has to read newsletters and blog posts to suss out who does what.

The landscape is different today of course. Any employee can create a profile on LinkedIn, affiliate publicly with his company, and describe the cool projects they have worked on. The predator/prey relationship is more equal, which puts more responsibility on us, the leadership at all levels, to be fairer on pay and benefits. As I’ve always said: it requires us to find people who want to work for us. To work for an organization like ours. We cannot just give lip service to being an employer of choice — just because we say it over and over again doesn’t make it true.

Just ask any public school teacher in Oklahoma: one’s own personal passion for doing good for the next generation can only go so far, and eventually, they take the call from that HR person at a school district in Texas…

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