There is more to managing a successful IT department than developing and executing a sound IT strategy for hardware, software, networking and disaster recovery. Choosing the right staff is as important, if not more so.
So, how do you get the right people for the job?
Q. Should a candidate have appropriate experience, or is fresh enthusiasm more important?
Often experience or degree requirements are used to reduce the number of applicants, but this approach is inappropriate in a seller's market.
What certainly seems to be the case (though no-one has told school careers officers), is that the subject of a degree doesn't matter. IT managers and recruitment agencies agreed that a degree in computer science is no better than any other, except perhaps for specialist software engineers.
There was even a feeling that computer science might be a disadvantage.
Chris Underwood, London area manager of Nationwide Technology Recruitment, thinks so: "Computer science graduates are among the worst. They get taught out-of-date languages such as Pascal and Fortran. It's easier starting from scratch."
A few years' experience is generally considered more valuable than anything else. This is difficult for school and university leavers, but in practice many large companies feel the opportunity to mould an individual outweighs the cost of the learning curve.
Q. How much emphasis should be placed on technical skills?
In a recent survey published by Delphi Group (see charts on opposite page), it was demonstrated that skill shortages are adding 10% to IT costs, and things aren't expected to get better this year. This pressure makes it tempting to relax recruitment criteria, but that's a route to customer dissatisfaction and losing even more staff.
Technical skills may be a prerequisite, but there's more to consider.
Across IT, and particularly in support, there is an increasing demand for customer service ability. Tony Mudge, business service delivery manager at ICL Sorbus, says: "It gives the customers confidence: they get the feeling something is actually being done for them. With the right aptitude you can develop technical skills; customer service is harder."
Underwood emphasises the point. "The IT market is generally providing a service, not generating revenue. Someone the user base adores is worth their weight in gold. The techie in the corner is a dying breed."
Similarly, business knowledge is important. David Bevan, marketing manager at Hunterskil Howard, has no doubts. "More and more we are looking for business skills. With each package it becomes easier to use the technology.
Instead we need communications skills to get the user needs, and business awareness to translate needs into a system."
Q. Is it better going with a recruitment agency or recruiting direct?
While those recruiting straight from school or college have an automatic audience, there is still a heavy reliance on advertising and agencies to find recruits.
While agencies may give less dramatic exposure than advertising vacancies direct, a good agency will act as a filter. So, only appropriate job seekers get through. Agencies will, of course, extract their pound of flesh, but they are often the only practical route. John Paramore, recently business unit manager at an IT consultancy and before that MIS manager at a medium-sized engineering firm, says: "The trick with agencies is to have a decent job spec and not let them talk the salary up. Use a small number of agencies; it's important to build a rapport with them."
Today, the Web is also an option. But few prospective employees surf corporate sites looking for job ads, although job search pages are a different story. Bevan is enthusiastic. "The Web gives great opportunities. You can get an almost instant dialogue with the candidates. It also allows you to provide a lot more information, whereas a conventional ad would be constrained by budget."
Q. How to go about testing potential candidates
Tests can shortlist a batch of prime candidates or compliment an interview.
The best technical tests establish problem-solving skills and understanding rather than memory of facts. Recruitment consultancy The Mandelbrot Set uses a quick telephone questionnaire as a filter, but then combines elements of problem solving and quality control - perhaps a code review - with in-depth technical knowledge.
Where the job is customer-oriented it is crucial to establish how the potential employee will cope.
It's here that psychometric testing comes into its own. But such tests should not be limited to the non-technical: any job that involves working in a team or dealing with other people can benefit from psychometrics.
The joker in the pack is handwriting analysis. No-one I spoke to supported this approach, but recruitment agencies admitted that some clients (mostly in the City) use it. Handwriting analysis fulfils a similar role to psychometric testing, but it is hard to see why such a disputed technique is used in the face of the alternatives.
Q. What is the best way to conduct an interview?
With the candidates thinned out, you reach Bob Hoskins time - it's good to talk. There is no substitute for an interview. What is sometimes forgotten is that this is a two-way process. "We send people to some companies and all they get is a half-hour interview then a job offer. The appointments aren't being sold, but they need to be in the current climate," says Mark Alborough, manager of the PC LAN team at Times Computer Group recruitment.
It is important to present the interviewee with a good picture of the job and working environment. Ideally this will involve a visit to the site.
Crucial to a good interview is having the right people involved. There should be someone from the team the potential recruit may be working in, and ideally a customer too.
Bevan says: "If the job is user based, get users involved. For instance, if you can't get on with dealers in the City, you can't support them." It's not enough to shove a clipboard in someone's hands and expect them to be an interviewer, either. Sensible training will greatly expand the quality of information reaped from an interview.
Q. How do you choose between a straightforward, solid worker and an outstanding maverick?
It's not an obvious decision. Rebels are difficult to manage, but could be many times more productive than the average. Equally, the predictable plodder may be ideally suited to a job with limited opportunity for originality and flexibility. Having said that, as Tom Peters points out in his book Crazy times call for crazy organisations from MacMillan, there needn't be many such jobs.
The choice may depend on company culture. The Mandelbrot Set's Peter Morris: "We have a laid-back, family culture. We would prefer not to take on someone who is disruptive. We don't want a prima donna who won't share with co-workers or clients."
Yet the company is happy with behaviour that wouldn't be tolerated elsewhere.
"We have no dress code, and we're fine with juggling in the office." The TMS model is a master of the back-of-an-envelope calculation, yet such a quick-and-dirty approach may cause friction in a corporate bureaucracy.
Delphi Group's chairman Tony Reeves encourages rebels: "If you have a fun atmosphere you can take on all types. We've got characters that take a hell of a lot of managing, but it's the outrageous people who really create the atmosphere. And productivity depends on motivation and atmosphere."
Most feel a good mix is the best approach. ICL's Mudge: "There's room for both. In a good team you can have some who are particularly gifted or flamboyant, even if they are harder to manage. To balance them you need people who may not be particularly dynamic, but go through the processes." A successful manager of rebels needs to be a leader they respect rather than a true project manager. This may generate a role for someone else to handle the details - a management double act. It may seem extreme that recruiting the best means reforming your management structure, but no-one said recruitment was easy.
Q. Popular perception dictates that IT is overrun by youth. But isn't older often better?
IT, particularly PC-based IT, has been a young person's game. Alborough admits there is a problem: "I hate to say it, but there are a lot of ageist managers." Yet it is feasible for someone approaching 40 to have spent their entire working life using PCs - it's a useless stereotype to categorise the older IT worker as a mainframe has-been.
Sometimes ageism stems from inexperience. Young managers can have difficulty coping with older staff.
Paramore says: "It's the Peter Principle. Lots of people in the 1980s were prematurely promoted into management roles. They're faced with an older person and don't know how to manage them."
In fact, there is an argument for discriminating in favour of the older recruit. Business awareness and customer orientation are skills that develop with experience. Just as DIY stores are using pensioners because the public find them more approachable, we may see a move to put older people on help desks. Bevan has another argument: "With the year 2000 coming along, some older people have the rare skills to fix the legacy systems."
There is only one genuine drawback to age. A well-functioning team socialises out of hours. Banter and play in the office are part of the team's strength.
This works better with a group that is of an age. There could be genuine difficulties introducing a 50-year-old to a young team without damaging that camaraderie and reducing productivity and the willingness to work flexibly.
Getting the right people and holding onto them is a business imperative.
Reeves: "Look at an individual's development. If employers don't take the time and trouble to get it right, recruiting is a wasted expense." The costs of poor recruitment are disastrous: projects failing, customers offended, staff leaving - costs that make the effort to fit the right pegs into the right holes seem very cheap.
SKILL SHORTAGES: WHERE ARE THEY?
Delphi Group's survey, researched by Graham Bannock & Partners, was taken among more than 3,000 of the UK's largest businesses in all sectors, including public authorities. It identified a number of prime shortages:
Oracle was the most sought-after technology skill among those surveyed. The year 2000 issue proved to be another big challenge. Two-thirds of businesses say they are wholly or partly unready for the problems that will arise. Of these, 70% have not allocated a specific budget to address the problem, and 44% anticipate diverting funds from other IT expenditure to cover the cost of the millennium problem.
PSYCHOMETRIC TESTS: BLACK MAGIC OR SOUND SENSE?
The increasingly popular psychometric tests may seem worryingly close to black magic, but in practice they prove remarkably effective. Psychometric testing aims to describe an individual's attitudes and responses in a measurable form.
One of the better known tests is the Myers Briggs Type Indicator. Based on Jungian thinking, this provides four axes of measurement, resulting in 16 combinations, each defining a particular type. For example, one axis is Extrovert/Introvert, another Thinking/Feeling. Once a team knows the types of its members, it makes it much easier for them to work comfortably together. As an ENTP (the four letters indicating the results on each axis), I might be irritated at the way that an ISTJ is obsessed with process and getting all the details clear, but knowing his profile makes it much easier to forget my irritation and get on with the job.
A balanced team needs a mix of types. Psychometric testing is an idea way to be clear whether an individual will fit in a team, or how he or she will react to stress.
Psychometric testing is not for everyone though. "Sometimes we have a psychologist sit in on the interviews," said The Mandelbrot Set's Dr PJ Morris. "This gives us the same level of feedback and helps us to tell whether someone is playing with a full deck of cards." Instead it uses a combination of preliminary telephone interview, questionnaire and written tests to help assess the in-depth technical knowledge of the applicant.
MICROSOFT: CHANGING ENVIRONMENT
"We look for people with skills in servers, networking, databases and development tools. Knowledge of Microsoft products is obviously desirable and we are very interested in applicants who are MS certified engineers.
But skills in other suppliers' technologies is valuable too, such as the equivalent CNE. (Certified Novell Engineer) programme.
"We look for ambitious team players who get excited at the constantly changing environment at Microsoft. As a group, the average age is between 27 and 30.
"We recruit usually directly or through agencies. But we do receive unsolicited CVs. Microsoft also has a staff referral programme. The selection process involves an all day session with technical assessment tests and interviews. The tests are designed to assess communications and problem solving skills of the candidates."
Tony Rees, business development manager, product support services, Microsoft.
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