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The constant hunter Featured

12:29pm EDT October 28, 2005

Steve McNear is on the hunt — not for lions or tigers or bears, but for people. Good people, the kind who pair strong technical skills with strong communication and client-service skills.

According to McNear, these people are hard to find. And as president and CEO of Quest Information Systems, an Indianapolis-based software integration, development and consulting company, he doesn’t just struggle with finding the right people — once he finds them, he must convince them to choose his company over all the other tech organizations competing for the same employees.

Smart Business talked to McNear about how he finds the best employees, keeps them motivated and ensures the lines of communication stay open.

What are the difficulties of hiring and recruiting talented employees?
It is quite a challenge. And that challenge is compounded by a timing problem — not a lot of people in the market fit us, so we look continuously.

We also work hard to create a culture that attracts people, and we market the company as a preferred place to work while the recruiting process continues. We’re always looking, recruiting.

Some of the best recruiting comes from employees. People tend to associate with like people. We offer a referral bonus program, and we’ve gotten great employees through that. Prospective employees go through several rounds of interviews, and we look for a consistent story and other things that are important to us.

We look for a degree in technology, knowledge and communication skills. We look for high integrity, treating everyone with respect, and someone who believes in individual responsibility and will take ownership of a problem.

How do you keep employees motivated and challenged?
We start when we hire people. Interestingly, the culture feeds off itself. But we try to hire people who are self-motivated, passionate about doing the right thing for the client.

Developing mission-critical software comes with highly visible and unique problems, and we need people who can make unique software. We’re always seeking new ways, looking at our mission, our vision. We recently brought in a consultant to inspire people, and people themselves are inspiring. It’s wonderful.

We also have a monthly quest for excellence. People are nominated by their peers and get recognition for their inspiration and contributions.

How do you encourage employees to keep a healthy work/life balance?
A lot of us come from big families with small children. We work hard to maintain a balance between work and life. Travel is sometimes involved, but we try to be sensitive.

It’s not as if we don’t get out of balance, but we work hard to maintain that [equilibrium].

As a company, we have social activities to maintain bonds. In smaller groups, [we] attend Indians baseball or Pacers games and go play pool. When we’re working hard on very large projects, we’ll bring in massage therapists or have a mixer from 4 to 5 on Friday afternoon.

We’ve also developed a culture team. Six or seven employees are nominated to serve, and that team works to identify social activities. They get a lot of feedback and use it to find activities that speak to a broad range of people.

How does your benefits package help you retain employees?
We have very competitive compensation, benefits perks and packages. Most of our employees are college grads who did very well and are in high demand.

That requires a competitive approach to attracting employees. The average compensation package here is twice the average in Central Indiana. Our packages are above industry standards and take a holistic view of our relationship with employees.

Money has to be there, as do benefits. We have to be competitive with Eli Lilly and bigger companies. If there’s anything missing, we try to supplement that with a high quality of life.

In such a fast-moving industry, how do you ensure employees are up-to-date on new technology?
The objective is for everyone to receive training and certification. For our part, we offer advice, provide support, purchase materials, send employees to training classes.

There’s also a lot of self-study. In our industry, individuals need to keep current — the industry changes so rapidly, we can’t insist enough that they keep current.

We also do a lot internally to keep current. For example, we offer brown-bag learning lunches where an expert conducts a brown-bag seminar. The company buys the lunches, and people get to eat and learn. We also offer a bonus program, which creates incentive to pursue self-study in a particular focus area to achieve certification.

Education is a never-ending process, in my mind. We strive for continuous improvement. We can never be good enough.

And not just technical proficiency — that’s easier to come by than other vital skills, like communication, writing, interviewing, interacting with respect and diplomacy. I’m not satisfied that we’ve done enough. We continually emphasize that we need communication to succeed — success takes different roles, depends on softer skills that you can’t earn certifications on.

Who gets involved in each client’s project?
Our job is to identify the client’s problem and design software [for it]. It takes a variety of roles for that to succeed.

Project managers create the project schedule and need to understand the capabilities needed for the project. We have software design architects, [people who can do] quality assurance testing and training. It takes a village, a broad range to talents. And for each of those roles, communication is the most important skill.

A lot of places, jobs that require technical skills also require communication with the client. And without team communication, you have potential for the old ‘telephone’ problem. Good communication skills are paramount and not given nearly enough emphasis.

In the industry, there is a natural aptitude for analysis, but those technical skills are teachable, so it’s important to focus on people that are good communicators.

What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned in your role at Quest?
I’ve learned many small lessons. I look at every situation as an opportunity to learn. I try to maintain a beginner’s mind about things — it encourages learning from everything.

But if I had to identify one lesson, I’d say this one is continuously being learned — communication. Every problem we’ve ever had always relates back to a communication issue. The problem is learning to communicate early enough and often enough to take what’s in people’s heads and draw it out.

HOW TO REACH: Quest Information Systems, (317) 806-8800 or www.questis.com