Why “nice” is an underrated skill in the world of IT, and what it can do for your business Featured

2:40pm EDT June 15, 2011
Why “nice” is an underrated skill in the world of IT, and what it can do for your business

There are a lot of skills companies look for in IT people. Smart, analytical, experienced. Windows, Cisco, Dell.

The one most often overlooked is Nice.

When I started Ripple, it was in no small part because of the way IT people were acting. Busy, smug and secretive. So I set out to build an IT company with a culture of being nice, friendly and approachable. Pretty regularly people will say to me “well, that’s neat, but does it really matter?” Yes, and it’s a meaningful IT skill.

Here’s how I know. After we engage with a company, we suddenly start getting a deluge of weird, semi-easy requests. Not right away after we start, but about a month after we begin servicing a company (as it turns out it is after they realize that we are nice, friendly and approachable). Things like random pop-ups, people having to reboot twice and other annoyances. For a long time it was kind of a mystery for us, until we started asking people about it. What they told us was quite illustrative.

“I hated calling our previous IT guys, and this was just something I could live with.”

In a 50-person company we’ll spend weeks cleaning this sort of thing up. Things that are not hard from a technical perspective, and things that are not causing a work stoppage (yet). Often in companies that had had access to professional IT help. Competent IT help. But since the issues were not work stoppage issues, the friction of having an unpleasant experience outweighed the benefit of having a smooth work experience. Think of it as a Smug Tax.

These are things that eat up 5-10 minutes a day per person, which adds up to about 20 hours per month in that 50-person company. Those “little” problems would often turn into big problems down the line, eating up even more time and productivity. The difference between nice IT people and not-so-nice IT people is the difference between people calling to get problems fixed or just suffering through them. The cost of suffering through them is not just an issue of morale; it is an issue of dollars.

So how do we quantify the IT skill of Nice? We’re an IT company, so we have a process for it!

1. Nice is a value we nurture, develop, hire and fire for.

If it’s not something that is valued at least as much as hard skills, it will never catch on.

2. We test for Nice.

We have used a variety of work aptitude profiles over the years, but the two we like the best are Criteria and The Berke Assesment. At Ripple, we are looking for traits like empathy, cooperativeness and patience.

3. We interview for Nice.

In interviews, we don’t just probe for IT skills and problem-solving ability; we push people to see how they will act under pressure. IT people are under pressure all of the time, and people with short tempers and dismissive attitudes make people recoil — and live with their problems.

4. We never fall in love with a resume.

Falling in love with a resume means falling in love with the IT skill set. Falling in love with a skill set before understanding temperament will lead to hires that fail the Nice test.

5. We ask our grandmother.

Not literally, but we ask ourselves: If this person was working with my grandmother — who knows nothing about computers and has unending questions — would this person make her feel good? Or would this person make her feel stupid and small? We love our grandmothers and we love our clients. We don’t want either of them to feel stupid or small.

When someone has the hard skills, plus the Nice skill, they are a complete IT asset. Without Nice, they are incomplete.

In the end, treating Nice as a nonnegotiable IT skill makes moral sense and financial sense. Nice is a killer IT skill.

Mike Landman is the founder and CEO of Ripple IT, an IT company that makes IT run smoothly for companies with less than 100 employees.