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Local companies offer incentives to attract technology talent

Ryan Kuphall center orders drinks during Norvax/ InnovatiInvasi2011 Zed 451 739 N. Clark St. Friday April 8 2011 Chicago. |

Ryan Kuphall, center, orders drinks during the Norvax/ Innovation Invasion 2011 at Zed 451, 739 N. Clark St., Friday, April 8, 2011, in Chicago. | John J. Kim~Sun-Times

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Updated: November 4, 2011 7:34AM

Chicago’s technology hiring is so harried and competitive, companies are dangling incentives to would-be employees ranging from free fully loaded computers to an expenses-paid workweek stay at a Michigan beach house, to Lollapalooza-themed parties celebrating client successes.

It’s all about creating a fun, engaged, inspiring and appreciative work culture, and showing employees that today’s small tech companies are here for the long haul, company leaders say.

The tech growth means new jobs with salaries averaging 64 percent higher than other private-sector wages — $82,000 versus $50,400 — with the highest-ranking positions going for upward of $300,000, according to data from Naperville-based TechAmerica trade association. Statewide, openings for software engineers and data, network and computer systems administrators are forecast to increase by a net 1,500 each year through 2018, TechAmerica reports.

Kcura, a legal discovery database firm headquartered in the Loop, this year expanded its health-insurance coverage — previously open only to singles — to include families.

“I would love to build a crazy-big software company in Chicago, and I want to attract great talent,” said kCura CEO and founder Andrew Sieja, 34. “We will have employees who will work here for 15 to 20 years, and they will have families.”

The profitable kCura has 135 clients and 130 employees, and is hiring 75 people this year in sales, marketing, engineering, software development and other areas. The 10-year-old company is expanding to a new Loop headquarters a third larger than its current 45,000 square feet. The current site features a game room, a cafeteria fashioned to look like a nightclub, super-fast computing speed, and training sessions led by world-class gurus.

Employees live by a code of seven core values that they created, aimed at keeping everyone on their toes and proud to be competing against the likes of Autonomy, LexisNexis, Thompson-Reuters, iConect, Clearwell Systems and Recommind, among others.

Employees are free to question and call out Sieja, who maintains an open-door policy.

“Sometimes it’s pretty uncomfortable for me, if [employees] come up to me and disagree,” he said. “But it’s cool and it’s making us be really effective.”

Sieja knows more than most the role of scrappy street fighter. He grew up poor, with an eccentric single mom who moved constantly, resulting in his attending seven grade schools and five high schools. His move to Chicago came at age 15.

“I have this chip on my shoulder,” Sieja admits. “When prospective customers or people in the industry asked how we would compete with billion-dollar rivals, part of it is, ‘Yeah? Why not? I can totally do it.’ ”

Sieja, a computer programmer who quickly climbed the ranks at Siemens AG and at Internet consultancy Lante Corp., started the company at age 24. Sieja struggled through times of borrowing money to operate, but righted kCura in 2007 when he decided to focus on selling the firm’s proprietary document-management system.

Norvax, a 10-year-old health-insurance buying platform firm in River North that operates as, is adding 50 employees — primarily Java software developers — to its 150-person work force.

Norvax is offering new employees any fully loaded, customized tech gadget or computer of their choice, a free workweek, all expenses paid, at a beach house off Lake Michigan, and will give $3,000 to any new hire who quits within the first 90 days of employment. The latter is modeled after a program at Zappos, which pays new employees $2,000 to quit if they don’t like what they see.

The concepts fit with a “work hard/play hard” culture that enjoys happy hours as much as pulling overnights on projects.

Norvax’s “Innovation Overnight” contest gives employees 48 hours to design any innovative solution they like and compete for prizes and bragging rights.

“It’s tough to find good technology people,” said Norvax co-founder and President Brandon Cruz. “Great people have great ideas, and we want to make sure we provide the best environment possible to leverage everyone’s creativity.”

Indeed, Chicago tech companies are driving the local economy by hiring people who can handle desktop support, network and systems administration and a variety of related IT work, said Randy Wolf, regional vice president for staffing firm Robert Half Technology.

“We are seeing companies restart projects that they put off two years ago, with particular demand for virtualization and website design because of the growth of e-commerce,” Wolf said. Wolf had no local numbers, but a national survey shows a 7 percent increase in Information Technology hiring this summer, up from 5 percent a year ago.

Ed Longanecker, TechAmerica’s executive director, said Illinois must compete for the high-quality tech jobs with every other state, and benefits from local and state politicians’ willingness to support the next generation of tech leaders.

Employees at fast-growing Chicago daily-deal site Groupon — some of whom could become millionaires by cashing in their stock —are encouraged to post words — one week a verb, the next a noun — on an entry wall to show off their creativity. The company expects to hire 50 engineering and product-support workers in Chicago. Inside the cavernous, loft-like space, some employees go barefoot, others sit on inflatable bouncy balls, some spring to their feet in a jig or to shout about an accomplishment — and all are surrounded by homemade drawings, pictures of Star Trek heroes and images they find inspiring.

At Web games developer Zynga, founder and CEO Mark Pincus rewards employees with a no-vacation policy — workers take vacation as they please — and rewards employees quarterly with Academy Award-like statues for being “rock stars” in product management, game design, statistics and engineering excellence, along with a “Green Beret” award to a person or team who parachuted into a crisis and saved the day. Zynga gives its “Atlas Award” to unsung heroes who keep the company running but who never get the spotlight, and rewards one or two people each quarter with the “Spirit Award” for embodying the company’s values of loving to play, being a meritocracy, owning one’s outcomes, moving at Zynga speed, making decisions for the greater good and innovating on “best of breed” mechanics.

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