CIOs take aim at Silicon Valley talent

Signs of a tech talent shift are under way, with IT pros increasingly turning away from Silicon Valley and tech stalwarts in favor of new roles outside the technology industry.

For Andreea Bodnari and Chris Jones, both of whom left Silicon Valley tech companies to work at healthcare organization Optum, the lure was not concern over mass layoffs in big tech, but the prospect of solving real-world problems and the opportunity to work on technologies that make a difference in people’s lives.

Bodnari, who previously worked at Google, says that while the search engine giant was a great place to build core technology, it felt more meaningful to integrate healthcare with AI. UnitedHealth Group, the parent company of Optum “was the holy grail of healthcare know-how and prowess,” says Bodnari, vice president of product at Optum.

Andreea Bodnari, vice president of product, Optum


Jones, who joined Optum from Meta in November 2022 as a senior principal applied scientist, says the move meant being able to leverage his expertise in responsible AI while making a positive, real-world impact in healthcare. 

Healthcare seemed like a better place to put his expertise to use “than the slightly ephemeral stuff I was working on at Microsoft,” says Jones, who spent a decade at Microsoft prior to his time at Meta.

Chris Jones, senior principal applied scientist, Optum


That sense of purpose and yearning to do meaningful work is the ace in the hole for Optum Enterprise CTO Francois Charette, who has hired a number of Silicon Valley technologists in recent months. Charette says that in his conversations with candidates, he is struck by how they are “really looking to make an impact on people’s lives” rather than just work on cool technology, he says.

Breaking the stronghold on talent

Historically, Silicon Valley and high-tech companies have had a leg up on luring top talent in part because they provided access to advanced technology, “but now, it’s basically used everywhere, so they’ve sort of lost their edge there. They’ll have to compete for talent like everyone else,” Charette says, adding that Optum’s mission of helping people live healthier lives “resonates extremely well for folks.’

It’s not just healthcare; other “traditional” industries such as insurance, transportation, banking, pharmaceuticals, and consumer products goods are all witnessing a surge in interest from tech professionals who no longer feel the allure of working at venture capital-infused Silicon Valley startups that promised innovative and challenging tech projects. Now, with the recognition that technology fuels all businesses, they can pretty much find those opportunities at almost any company.

You don’t always find a sense of great purpose working in Silicon Valley, observes Diogo Rau, executive vice president and chief information and digital officer at Eli Lilly and Co. “Any engineer throughout history has probably been motivated in large part by the impact they can have on society,” says Rau, who joined Eli Lilly two years ago after a decade at Apple. “It’s bigger than working on interesting problems. … Engineers throughout millennia want to do something that’s bigger than themselves and can last.”

Diogo Rau, EVP and chief information and digital officer, Eli Lilly and Co.

Eli Lilly and Co.

Rau hired a former Apple colleague who approached him and was incentivized by the offer to run the software engineering team at the Indianapolis-based Lilly after hearing about the types of projects he could work on. “I can tell you he didn’t come for the weather,” Rau jokes.

Perceptions are shifting

Lately, there is more receptivity to hearing about opportunities in other sectors for positions in information security, data, engineering, and cloud, observes Craig Stephenson,managing director for the North America technology, digital, data and security officers practice at Korn Ferry.

“The savvier CIOs are certainly trying to take advantage of the disintermediation in tech and recruiting the talent,” agrees Dennis Baden, a partner in Heidrick & Struggles’ Boston office and global managing partner of the technology officers and digital officers practice.

The tide is turning because of the large volume of layoffs and because engineering talent at big tech companies is more open to being scouted by other industries, Baden says. “Some of it is their equity is down and there may not be as much of an upside to staying.” Additionally, companies in other industries are demonstrating there are interesting and complex issues to solve as technology becomes more closely aligned with business goals, he says.

“There’s a world outside big tech and [a belief] that we can solve interesting problems and build cool software,” Baden says.

There are several considerations for tech professionals when assessing new roles and first and foremost is “the notion of impact or mission,” Stephenson says. “Individuals are looking to make sure they have a role that is socially responsible and globally responsible.”

While compensation remains important, the industry a company is in has become another consideration, as well as how the role is defined, the reporting structure and career path, he says.

And despite the uncertain economy, technologists, especially those with specialized skills, are still in high demand, and “established industries” are prepared to pay for talent with the skill sets and experience they need, according to Dice’s 2023 Tech Salary Report.

“This contrast between a rapid contraction in big tech and continued digitization initiatives across key industries sets the stage for an incredibly interesting year for tech hiring and retention in 2023,” the report notes.

Traditional companies let technologists be ‘rockstars’

XPO, a large freight transportation provider that handles more than 13 million shipments every year, is moving to the cloud and has a lot of initiatives geared at how to efficiently move freight through its network. All of XPO’s technology is proprietary and built in-house and CIO Jay Silberkleit has hired a lot of developers from Silicon Valley companies.

Jay Silberkleit, CIO, XPO

XPO Logistics

“What we see is if you have fun and interesting problems and a good work culture, that incentivizes the Silicon Valley technologists to want to move into other companies,” he says. “What’s important to them, and really, to all technologists, is they like to see … that the technologies they’re creating are having an impact on the companies they work for.”

Additionally, big tech companies have gotten so large, it’s harder to make an impact, Silberkleit says.

“A lot of people are leaving these companies to go to more traditional companies where they can be rockstars and have a massive impact,” he says. “They want to prove themselves and show that tech can change a company and be a differentiator for them.”

There has been a paradigm shift, and regardless of the business unit, individuals with deep tech savvy are now required throughout organizations, says George Thomas, CIO of JLL, a global commercial real estate firm.  

George Thomas, CIO, JLL 


Another factor driving “curiosity” from Silicon Valley talent to work in traditional industries like real estate is that “we are increasingly competitive now” from a salary perspective, Thomas says. These tech professionals also have a desire “to balance their career progression with work/life balance … one could argue that’s a challenge” in Silicon Valley, he notes.

Traditional organizations also have large amounts of legacy systems and some technologists want the challenge of being able to modernize them, Thomas points out. “I call it the ‘blue ocean curiosity.’” Candidates he has spoken with also care about diversity and inclusion as well as companies that are committed to reducing their carbon footprints.

Making an impact is very important to modern tech professionals, Thomas says. “I think we’re ready for them.” At the same time, he says the level of interest in working in more traditional companies is “much more than I’ve seen in previous years.”

The lure of applied AI

Across the board, CIOs and other IT leaders are hiring software engineers, machine learning engineers, data scientists, digital project managers, and cloud professionals, and many are, in fact, offering them the opportunity to work on impactful and innovative projects.

At Proctor & Gamble, CIO Vittorio Cretella is focusing on cloud-native development and says IT has deployed about 180 apps from their Kubernetes platform, an increase of 76% in the past few months. Applied AI is another area of growth, and the company’s AI factory is in the process of deploying algorithms “so the teams of machine learning engineers who work on [them] know what they’re building are cutting edge,” Cretella says.

Vittorio Cretella, CIO, Proctor & Gamble

Proctor & Gamble

While he isn’t looking at Silicon Valley technologists exclusively, “it’s a natural component of the talent pool we target,” he says. “We offer them the unique value proposition of working in a digitally-savvy, large CPG company so they can keep working on leading-edge technologies, but also see how their work … produces a positive impact on consumers around the world.”

Another draw is the opportunity to gain experience working in a variety of businesses across a portfolio of 65 brands, Cretella adds.

P&G is applying AI at scale and automating the machine learning deployment process, he says. Product lines include an intelligent toothbrush that interacts with consumers with embedded AI. “These are large-scale applications of AI technology where our employees can see the results of their skills being applied and providing benefits to consumers,” which can be inspiring to technologists, he says.

He believes job stability is another lure. Unlike the peaks and valleys the tech industry has experienced, P&G is committed to hiring for the long haul. “We hire for careers and that’s a time horizon that’s much longer than any economic cycle,” Cretella says. “We hire for the job that needs to be filled today while understanding what skills will fuel the future. Technology underpins everything we do … and we make a commitment with recruits to provide them with a long-term career” as well as job security, flexible work arrangements, and skills development across all brands and geographic locations.

Saving people’s lives

Reducing friction for patients and providers and reducing the burden of disease are two areas of focus for Peter Fleischut, group senior vice president and chief information and transformation officer at NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital. There are also more people using the hospital’s portal than there are doctors using electronic records. That has meant a need to hire a lot of machine learning specialists and web and application developers “who have the ability to do what’s been done in other industries and apply that to healthcare,” Fleischut says.

Peter Fleischut, group SVP and chief information and transformation officer, NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital

NewYork-Presbyterian Hospital

One tech professional he hired away from Silicon Valley started his career as a data scientist and then began medical training to combine the two disciplines, he says. When he talks to candidates, Fleischut says he doesn’t promote IT projects as much as emphasizing a need to change how the organization works and takes care of patients.

“The exciting thing we can offer is we fundamentally save people’s lives every day,” he says. In addition to the opportunity to work at a large health system with hospitals throughout greater metropolitan New York, Fleischut believes there are many people who are driven by “the altruistic nature of our mission,” which the organization “has been pretty direct about.”

Working in a non-toxic environment

Like Silberkleit from XPO, Eli Lilly’s Rau has “made a conscious shift” to bring more tech development in-house, saying it is more costly to hire contractors, projects take longer and “at the end, you don’t retain the knowledge. My view is anything that’s strategically important, that’s something you need to do yourself and don’t give it away.”

Yet, he admits that the company hasn’t done a great job of selling its purpose in its recruiting efforts. Rau attributes that to a deeply ingrained culture that everyone takes for granted.

“Everyone takes a lot of pride in what they do here in the technology world, even if they’re a couple of steps away [from] getting people medicine” that will improve their lives, he explains. “It’s a different sensation from just solving cool problems.”

Beyond that, Rau believes that having a good environment to work in is extremely important. The phrase he heard when he worked in Silicon Valley and continues to frequently hear from friends there, is “toxic work environment,” he says. “It’s almost jarring because I don’t hear it anymore here at Lilly.”

That has caused Silicon Valley to “lose some of its luster,” Rau says. “If you’re a good engineer, why put up with that and be in an environment where you’re seeing bad behaviors from your boss or colleagues? Life’s too short to be in that [environment].”

Rau also speaks from personal experience. When he worked at Apple, “I was averaging one [expletive referring to a contemptible person] per week. … I’ve been here a year and a half, and I haven’t met an [expletive] yet.”