Hiring the right IT employee

After taking a long, hard look at commercial CRM packages for use in Humana Inc.’s call centre, the company’s executives found them too expensive. Then an IT analyst there came up with a creative solution based on in-house software, a few low-cost purchases and some custom programming.

Bruce J. Goodman, senior vice-president and chief service and information officer at the Louisville, Ky.-based health benefits company, says the system “was better tailored to our environment than some of the packages. And it easily saved us millions.”

He describes the analyst-cum-hero who figured it all out this way: “He was a thinking-out-of-the-box, be-creative, take-charge, deliver-what-the-business-needs kind of guy.”

That pretty well sums up what many IT leaders look for in their employees. Factors other than IT experience and technical skills are often evaluated before anything else. “We finally have CIOs who are thinking about behaviors as opposed to skills and knowledge,” says Linda Pittenger, president of People3 Inc., a Gartner Inc. company in Bridgewater, N.J. “That’s a major breakthrough.”

Patrick Clancy, director of IT at The New York Academy of Medicine, says, “I am impressed first and foremost by a person’s enthusiasm. I’m not talking about people just being bubbly in an interview, but about someone who really gets it about what IT does for an organization, and being excited about advancing the real mission of the organization. Almost never is the mission IT.”

Clancy cites creativity as a top criterion when hiring IT recruits. “What creativity really means is taking vague ideas that our users have and turning them into something that is doable and practical from an IT sense,” he says. “Those who get the big picture and are enthusiastic and flexible tend to be the ones who come through for you in the creativity department.”

Chris Laping, vice-president and CIO at GMAC Commercial Holding Capital Markets Corp. in Denver, evaluates recruits and new hires on five core values: education, experience, maturity, team fit and work ethic. “If you don’t exhibit all five of these traits, you won’t get hired,” Laping says.

Candidates at GMAC are evaluated by six- or seven-person interviewing panels that consist of both IT and business people. The input of the business interviewers is vital, Laping says. “We have a customer service orientation, so it’s really important to me that my customers like who’s here,” he adds.

Rob Rennie, vice-president of technology and CIO at Florida Community College in Jacksonville, Fla., says the most reliable predictor of excellence is IQ. “I don’t look for a particular skill set. I look for raw intelligence, problem-solving ability,” he says.

Rennie says he’s comfortable hiring people who don’t have an IT background. “I get people from entertainment and the performing arts,” he says. “They are very much problem-solvers.”

IT leaders who have especially able and productive staffs say they tend to focus on people rather than on job descriptions. For example, Laping says he enlisted the aid of a help desk technician to run cost models for him because the technician had a finance degree and strong quantitative skills. That employee was subsequently promoted to a business analyst position.

But despite the care these IT leaders put into making the right hires, mistakes happen. One hire of Laping’s failed later on the work ethic criterion. “This individual didn’t think it was their job to service our customers and said, ‘It’s not my job to be a service person.’ ” Indeed, soon it was not his job.

“The biggest mistake you can make is to find someone you like but the team doesn’t embrace that person,” Laping says.

Haste isn’t helpful, Clancy says. “The biggest mistake that I’ve made that’s come back to bite me was being in too much of a hurry — being in a hurry to sign someone before someone else does.”

Hiring Checklist

IT leaders say they look for candidates who:

– Know how to work well in teams.

– Show enthusiasm for the job.

– Can understand the business mission behind IT initiatives.

– Have a strong work ethic.

– Can think creatively to solve problems.

– Make a good impression with the entire IT team, not just the hiring manager.

– Make a good impression with the IT organization’s customers.

– Are highly intelligent and have excellent problem-solving abilities.

– Have relevant experience and education.

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