Dear Career Coach:
How would you recommend a small business owner hire his first IT employee and start building an IT department? While I feel comfortable defining the scope of the projects that we would like to accomplish over the next three years, I do not feel that I have the technical skills to qualify a candidate.
As the owner of a small business with approximately 50 employees that is growing and expects to employ 150 in 12 months, I have historically assumed the responsibilities of application development, network management, and systems management… While I do have an undergraduate MIS degree, these functions are not my primary responsibilities; nor do I feel have the current technical skills appropriate to the task. Our growth requires bringing IT professionals in-house.
So how does a small business owner bridge the great divide between IT professionals who are seeking career opportunities and those of us out here in the small business community that need to bring them onboard?
Career Coach: Gary Bronson
I think there are a few issues that should be addressed separately when filling this type of role:
Determine whether your first step needs to be to add a member to your management team or whether you just need to offload some technical tasks. This will depend on the core specialty of your business and where your growth in employment is expected.
Determine what responsibilities you would be able to keep and what responsibilities you must offload now to continue to be successful in your business. Since you have been carrying on these particular tasks, Id recommend that you phase in these responsibilities while you establish the trust and validation you are looking for. You dont want to jeopardize your operation by handing off critical responsibilities to someone who is learning on your nickel. It is often difficult to find that experienced IT generalist who can manage IT, keep current on new technology, implement the most cost effective solutions and perform routine IT tasks and who is willing to come aboard for the amount of money you can afford to pay.
Get a bid or two from an outsourcer to handle those responsibilities. You may want to look at outsourcing the small projects that require current IT skills and focus on bringing in someone who is more adept at basic IT skills and who can focus on keeping your business up and running. It may be beneficial for you to understand the cost difference between bringing in staff or outsourcing so you can make the conscious decision on controlling this aspect of your business.
Once the actual role is defined, the decision on who to bring in should follow the same logic you used to fill other jobs in your company. How do you trust someone with whom youve never worked with before? Going through an interview process will reveal a persons communication skills, but it wont give you a guarantee on the persons work ethic or loyalty. Nor will it answer how long the person will stay with you. You need to check references on all new hires. Validate credentials. Hire an expert in the field to assess the candidates technical expertise.
Gary Bronson is IT enterprise operations manager at Washington Group International, in Boise, Idaho.
Career Coach: Randy Dugger
You are in that gray area of what to do. Should you hire someone or outsource your IT department needs? When I was the IT director at a drug company, I went through almost that same scenario.
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Based on economics and what we wanted to accomplish, I choose the outsource route. While some may say its expensive, I say you are only paying for what you want and it gives you time to reflect on the skill sets you want by observing how well the outsourcing company does the job for you. With outsourcing you are isolated from personnel, vacation, sick time and training issues. However, the real keys for a good outsourcing relationship is knowing what you want, putting limits on what the outsourcer can do into a good outsourcing contract, and ensuring all data collected in the job belongs to you.
When you hit around the 250-300 employee mark, then it makes sense to bring things in-house.
If you decide to hire someone, make sure you have clear in your mind what the responsibilities, technical knowledge and real-life experience of this person should be before you place an ad and start interviewing. Keep it realistic, and look at the potential of the person for the future and not what he or she knows now. Remember, one of the signs of great managers is they hire people smarter than them! I would recommend that if you get to the interview stage, contact some other IT friends/owners that you know so they can help in the interview process, too.
One final thought to consider: What is the core competency of your company? Is it providing a product, services or something else? Is providing internal IT services something you want to divert energy into? Or should you let someone else help you out whose core competency is IT support?
Good luck in your decision and do let us know what you wound up doing.
Randy Dugger is the former director of IS for SEQUUS Pharmaceuticals, Inc. (now part of Alza Corp.) in Menlo Park, Calif. Currently hes the CEO of Dugger & Associates LLC, a San Jose, Calif., consulting firm specializing in Microsoft SQL Server and Exchange and in assisting small-to-medium-sized businesses with IT services and training. Randy also is a member of the eWEEK Corporate Partners. He can be contacted at [email protected].
Career Coach: Kathi Sigler
I wonder if you should consider outsourcing or hiring someone as a consultant first, which would let you get acquainted before committing to salary, benefits, etc.? Many times we hire someone on a contractual basis for some specific tasks for a limited amount of time. We do this in IT quite a bit because of the highs and lows of programming, network support, etc., that occur because of the cyclical nature of our semesters and our windows of opportunity for major programming, installation and refresh jobs.
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This gives us a chance to have a very specific task accomplished in a very limited time frame. It also gives us a chance to try out the consultant or contractor. In this way, when we later have openings occur, we can suggest that a successful contractor/consultant might want to think of coming to work for us on a full time basis. Conversely, if the contractor does not perform well, we have limited our liability, and we havent gone through the hiring and training process that is expensive to us for our FT employees.
Dr. Kathie Sigler, is President of the Medical Center Campus at Miami-Dade Community College in Miami, FL. She can be contacted at [email protected].
Career Coach: Jorge Abellas-Martin
I believe you are fully qualified to select your first IT employee. If your skills for gauging people in interviews are up to speed, I doubt that you would do worse than any of us in making a good hire. At the end of the day, when you are dealing with a small company–or even a small IT department–specific technical skills are not that important. What is important is hiring people who can think for themselves and who, when given a task or new technology, will be able to pick it up on their own. There is nothing more frustrating for me that to hear from an employee. “I dont know how to do that,” and have them leave it at that. The best employees will say, “I dont know how to do that, but I will find out how to do it and solve the problem.”
Jorge Abellas-Martin is the CIO for Arnold Worldwide, an international ad agency network headquartered in Boston.
Career Coach: Brian D. Jaffe
Dont sell yourself short. Given that youve been doing the work until now, probably no one is more qualified than you are to do the recruiting. Oh sure, there may be others more adept at asking technical questions, but they wont have your insight into what the job is all about and how you envision IT facilitating your companys growth and success.
Since you have a small business, youll be looking for someone who can do it all. This may attract people who are disillusioned by the pigeon-hole aspect of larger IT environments. Youll want to place a very high value on skills like accountability, resourcefulness, flexibility, responsibility, willingness and eagerness to learn, and self-motivation.
You could bolster your ability to do technical interviews by boning up with some technical books and articles, or even hiring a consultant to help perform technical interviews. But, if they have the characteristics I listed above, and pass muster based on your own technical knowledge, is a higher technical-bar really going to matter all that much?
You may want to come up with one or two technical questions that are particularly difficult just to see how the candidate deals with it? Does the candidate say I dont know or just try to snow you? Ive had a few candidates say I dont know and then contact me afterwards to tell me that theyve researched an answer. If all youre looking for is the right answer, then youre not making the most of the interview questions.
Brian D. Jaffe is a contributing editor for eWEEK and can be reached at [email protected].