How IT departments ’employ for attitude’

LISBON – When you come all the way from Portugal from Canada, you assume (or at least I did) that technology professionals here might have their own unique challenges. Perhaps there are issues with the kind of products available to them, for example, or the lack of localized versions of software products. When our company hosted a couple of CIOs at a panel discussion this week, however, they might as well have been working in Toronto.

All their pressing issues sounded very much the same: they’re trying to separate the green IT hype from reality. They’re working on systems that will bring business processes together. They sometimes struggle to get business unit managers to listen to them. When the discussion turned to hiring, however, one of the CIOs said something that caught my attention. It’s not so much what he said that was unusual, but perhaps in the way he expressed it.

“I try to employ for attitude – we want a normal, smart person,” he said. “You want someone who’s open, so you can put him in different direction. The key part is he has to be flexible in his thinking.”
The CIOs added, as many of their peers do today, that they spend far more of their training and development budget on soft skills and project management than they do on vendor certifications or programming skills. But to employ for openness? I can’t quite imagine what that job interview would be like.

Of course, any time you bring someone in as a potential hire you’re looking for the potential signs of stubbornness, of an inability to effectively problem-solve or to resist change. Having hired a number of people over the years I can say only those who have no hope of landing a job betray those character traits.

IT managers certainly need to be flexible, but not only in their thinking. They have to be flexible in the time they a lot to projects and requests, in the approach they take to specific individuals in the organization and – it must be said – in the approach they take to various technology challenges. The best IT professionals are highly creative people, which usually involves a kind of open-mindedness. (In other cases, creativity is the flip side of a prima donna. I once was told that a developer working on a company project was “an artist” who worked in his own special way. “I’m an artist too,” I replied, “but I still meet my deadlines.”)

What worries me about that CIO’s comments is that it’s very hard to gauge an attitude until the candidate is already in the job. I’ve heard that most job seekers have 10 seconds before a potential employer forms an impession. For CIOs of this ilk it must be even less. So what can potential IT department staff do? One idea that immediately springs to mind is a case study. Not the canned, artificially sugar-coated stuff that comes from vendors and PR firms – we already have to sift through those for the genuine best practices – but ones that an IT manager could write themselves, that showed not only how they solved a problem or completed a project but that attitudinal approaches that contributed to his or her success. That’s probably going to be a lot more difficult than filling up a resume with all the programming languages you know, but it may be worth the extra effort. If CIOs are looking for openness, your career history better be an open book.

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