When hiring a member of the IT team, weeding through all of the candidates out there is a tremendous challenge. Particularly if you are a smaller organization, it is likely that a non-technical person is doing the interviewing. In that case, it is very difficult to determine whether or not the person you are talking to actually knows their stuff. Even someone with a very technical background can be fooled by an impressive resume and a smooth talker.

“IT people are weird. I should know — I’m one of them,” says Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. “They are the hardest to hire and even harder to retain, and are sometimes hard to fire, as many of them make themselves indispensable as they convince management that their skills are unique. Many of them have technical egos that are larger than life.

“At Cal Net, we have roughly 35 talented IT engineers that we had to hire, train and retain. And we’ve had to let some go over the years. We would like to think that we have this down to a science.”

Smart Business spoke with Schuler about the best process for hiring and retaining the right IT people.

Should IT people be interviewed differently than other potential hires?

Like with any position, you should be screening for the personality traits. An egocentric IT person is the last person you want on your team. Some interviewers are naturally talented at sniffing this out. For others, I would recommend a personality profile. In my opinion, personality is more than 50 percent of what you should be screening for.

Another of the most important traits is good communication skills. We have all experienced the IT guy who wants to sit in a closet somewhere to minimize his contact with humans. If they do make enduser contact, it is usually a painful experience, as they will say the least amount possible so that they can head back to their cave. You should have the expectation that your IT person will be able to communicate as effectively as anyone else in the organization.

How should a company screen an IT person?

Start with, ‘Tell me about your IT environment at home.’ If they give you an answer along the lines of ‘I have three physical servers, running seven VMs for testing, and I’ve got my own mail server running Exchange, and I’m running VDI for my primary workstation,’ then that is a good first step. They view this as their ‘sandbox.’ If they respond, ‘I’ve got a laptop at home and I try to stay away from the computer as I get enough of it at work,’ then they probably aren’t a good technical fit. You want your IT folks to be passionate about technology, and most of them do their best research and learning at home, after hours.

The second easy way to screen is to have a short technical quiz that can be administered by anyone. Feel free to email me for our quiz.

Last, and perhaps the most time-consuming and difficult process, is to put them through a technical lab. We require that our new hires come in and build a network in an eight-hour time period. We have a point system that scores the candidate, as no one ever finishes the lab. This gives us an excellent assessment as to what they do know, and what it is that they need help with. Depending on what you are looking for, there are companies that will administer these sorts of labs for you. If you are testing on Microsoft infrastructure skills, we can administer this sort of lab.

What are some of the challenges of retaining IT people?

In general, IT people are motivated by advancement and the quest for knowledge. In organizations where there isn’t any room to move up nor is there anything new to learn, IT people will stagnate and usually move on.

Good IT people are always looking to explore and learn the latest and greatest technologies. Just as they have a sandbox at home, they want to work for an organization that invests in IT and gives them an opportunity to learn.

Good IT people are also looking to move up the food chain. While some IT folks are motivated heavily by pay, many are more motivated by an increase in title and responsibility.

How can these challenges be overcome?

Quenching the IT person’s quest for knowledge isn’t always the easiest thing to do. There are two ways to attack this. First of all, if you hire someone who is a master of all of the technologies that you are currently running, you’ll get someone who can hit the ground running, but you will also get someone who becomes bored quickly. On the other hand, if you hire someone with like experience and aptitude, but not exact experience in the technologies you are running, you will give someone an opportunity to learn. You will obviously have to weigh the business risk in doing this — and while they are learning you may want to supplement their skills with a consultant — but it can be well worth it in the long run. In short, I recommend slightly ‘under-hiring’ for the position.

The second way to attack this is to give your IT person some latitude when it comes to decision-making. If they want to implement a new technology that is reasonable from a cost standpoint, and delivers business value, I would err on the side of letting them do it. Even small concessions can give your IT person a sense of worth and something new to learn.

Last, in terms of advancement, don’t ‘over-title’ a person. Don’t call your lone IT person ‘IT director’ right away. Create a career path: network administrator,  senior network administrator, IT manager, IT director and so on. Even very large IT organizations should be using this model. Look for increases in responsibility along the way, along with small increases in pay. Thinking out a career path before you hire someone will go a long way in making sure that they hang around for a long time.

Zack Schuler is the founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.

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Published in Los Angeles