NetApp’s job satisfaction secrets

by 04 Aug 2009

Network Appliance has a solid name in the IT infrastructure space but its accolades for being a “great place to work” have gained the attention of the broader business community. So how did they do it? Angela Priestley asks vice president Peter O’Connor and HR manager, Kim Nixon

Using the word “fun” in a conversation regarding the workplace might seem an unusual prospect. Sure, some workplaces can truly be a great place to turn up to every day, yet they are unlikely to also provide the necessary career pathways and the potential for strong growth to make the element of fun worthwhile.

But Network Appliance (NetApp) appears to have been making inroads into getting the equation right. The IT infrastructure organisation, which predominantly provides data management solutions to organisations, has proven its ability to bring fun, as well as career satisfaction, into its workforce by taking second place in BRW’s Top 50 Great Places to Work survey. Google took the top spot. In the US, it was placed as number one in a similar survey by Fortune magazine.

Matching up to Google on the fun scale appears difficult. Ever heard the stories about beanbags, ping-pong tables and a free cafeteria at the Google offices? NetApp are not quite at that point. The Australian division prefers a simple open- plan office structure where making the work environment a great place to be comes down to its people and culture. Its prime business, which revolves around storage infrastructure, does not sound anywhere near as glamorous as creating the algorithms behind Google’s ability to transform the internet. Still, NetApp is constantly nipping at the heels of Google in its ability to provide a happy workplace.

Kim Nixon, HR manager for NetApp Australia and NZ is proud of the result: “We’re so close to Google (in staff sat isfaction surveys) and yet we don’t have all those gimmicks,” she says. “It’s really just a good honest result for us.”

Hurdles requiring leaps and bounds

Such honest results – especially in Australia – are essential to the success of any organisation in the IT infrastructure space attempting to overcome the significant shortage of IT infra structure skills.

Finding suitable staff is a challenge that Peter O’Connor, NetApp vice president for Australia and NZ, makes no secret of. He says the severe shortage of IT skills in Australia pro vide many obstacles to NetApp’s growth locally. “That makes it difficult for our partners and our customers to achieve what they are setting out to do – it’s the same at our com petitors,” says O’Connor. “We all compete for a limited number of resources, which drives salaries through the roof.”

O’Connor believes the broad industry challenge of a small talent pool will require a significant investment in education. “The infrastructure industry is only going to get bigger and bigger,” says O’Connor. “I think to some degree the adoption of state-of-the-art infrastructure is somewhat held back [in Australia] because of the lack of resources that exist.”

Still, boasting accolades of being a great place to work and having a strong product set is the best means to fight a skills shortage. “People have seen the technology, and they are knocking down our door to work for us, as are the recruiters,” says O’Connor. All applicants might not necessarily have the right skills, notes O’Connor, but it’s still a benefit to know the organisation is sought after as a prime place to work.

Meanwhile, and possibly as a consequence of the skills shortage, O’Connor admits the organisation faces signifi cant challenges when it comes to work/life balance. It’s a problem that O’Connor puts down to the sense of cama raderie which staff within the organisation carry, and the attitude-type that the organisation looks for in new hires.

“Our technology is good and because we want to cover so many customers, sacrifices are often made that can include weekend time and evening time that should be spent with the family,” says O’Connor. “But we’re very conscious of this and we’re trying to skill up and look at different ways to expand our partner community and to be more efficient ourselves.”

A great place to work

Any organisation in the technology space which can over come the skills shortage and still see staff satisfaction levels heighten, despite challenges in ensuring work/life balance, must be able to provide some compelling reasons for staff to want to show up every day. NetApp’s equation for doing so appears relatively simple: O’Connor puts it down to cul ture, open communication and a superior product set.

Instead of rattling off trendy initiatives and programs, O’Connor and Nixon list more subtle initiatives that begin with just who is hired into the organisation. “The first thing a company looks for [in a new hire] is track record,” says O’Connor. “We don’t.”

Instead, O’Connor says the initial interviewing process revolves around evaluating whether or not a candidate is going to be a good cultural fit, and what they can possibly bring to such a culture. “If they pass that test, then we look at what kind of track record they may have had and how successful they may have been in other companies.”

From there, O’Connor says the company pitches open lines of communications that begin with the New Hire School, where almost all new hires are sent to NetApp’s US headquarters to receive training and meet and greet with the executive team.

“The first day is spent meeting all the key executives of the company, including our CEO and chairman as well as the founders,” says O’Connor. “And that’s not just a one- hour meet and greet, it’s pretty much a six-hour meeting where they sit and have lunch with all the new hires from around the world and the executives to talk about all kinds of stuff – including a frank conversation about where our company is at and where it is going.”

The emphasis on communication is paramount to the oper ations of the Australian offices, which are built entirely on an open-plan structure that O’Connor says everybody – no matter how senior – adheres to. “I sit at what is probably the smallest desk in the office,” he says. “That way staff always know when I’m here. There’s no making appointments to come and see me, you just come and voice your opinion.”

It’s those voiced opinions that form a vital part of NetApp’s development and seem to be a strong reason for staff satis faction in the business. O’Connor says the business is con tinually reinventing itself, and staff are expected to contribute. “There is no standing still,” he says. “A lot of our staff are included in the conversations around the way we build our go-to market strategies, the different pathways to market that we deploy and the partners we want to do business with. It’s a very collaborative, a very involved type of atmosphere.”

O’Connor says the opportunity for promotion and trans fers also assists the company in coming up trumps as a great place to work.

Pay well, play hard

Nixon says that with a strong benefits package on offer for employees – including stock options and bonus schemes – it’s rare that she would ever come across a new employee dissatisfied with their pay. “The majority of the time peo ple are very happy with what we put on the table for them and they appear to be happy before they’ve even started,” she says.

Meanwhile, on top of the regular four weeks’ paid annual leave a year, NetApp provides staff with a fifth week to do community service. “It might be lifesaving, gardening, meals on wheels, building a website – like some of our guys have already done for the Lighthouse Foundation in Australia – it could be a whole host of things, as long as it satisfies a broad criteria of community service,” says O’Connor.

On top of training, a cultural fit and the fifth week of annual leave for community service, O’Connor says com petitive benefit packages make for a simple recipe for success. “Recruit the right people, train them extensively, and give them everything they want in terms of the skills-set to do their role,” he says. “Provide good benefits, and then, more importantly, make it a fun place to work.”

And of all those elements, O’Connor believes fun is the vital component. “We spend a lot of time together,” he admits. “But we’re not a religious sect or anything like that, we just like to spend time socialising, have a few beers, and go offsite a couple of times a year.”

NetApp’s growth in Australia

NetApp is a global organisation with about 8000 staff around the world. Peter O'Connor joined the local division as vice president for NetApp Australia and New Zealand in 2006. Since then, the local base has tripled in size, growing from 50 to 150 staff and a customer base of about 900. NetApp's Australian and NZ division is predominantly made up of sales staff, system engineers, marketing and professional services - who handle implementation work and project management. Recently, NetApp unveiled its new office in Melbourne, with space for up to 70 more staff. At a time when many tech companies are struggling to survive the global recession, NetApp continues to thrive. O'Connor's next move is to make headway with new clients in government organisations, a position that will require the organisation to drastically increase a strong base of local support staff

The IT skills shortage

A shortage of skills is one of the biggest challenges facing information technology organisations, even as Australia looks to be emerging from the economic downturn.

According to the Claruis Skills Index, a survey conducted by KPMG, there is demand for 193,000 IT jobs in Australia in 2009, a figure that has declined only slightly from the 197,000 positions available in September 2008

Most of the full-time positions, according to the study, tend to be infrastructure-related, while there is an especially strong demand for business intelligence, CRM and data warehousing skills in line with the move by organisations to do more with their IT infrastructure with less.