Tips for Hiring IT Staff: Balancing Skills and Communication

Written on: 
August 12, 2008
Written by: 
Chris Peters

MaintainIT Project

This article was adapted from a chapter in Recipes for a 5-Star Library, a compilation of technology tips and techniques created by TechSoup's MaintainIT Project, an effort funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to gather and distribute stories around maintaining and supporting public computers.

Hiring at its worst inspires both boredom and anxiety. Wading through resumes bores us, and the thought of hiring the wrong person scares us. And the fear factor is worse when you’re a non-techie who’s been tasked with hiring IT staff. As with any complicated, difficult decision, success starts with good planning.
  • Do you really know what you’re looking for in this new employee?
  • Does the job description reflect your needs?
  • Should this be a permanent, full-time position or should you hire a contractor?
  • Do you have the right people on your interview team?
  • Have you thought carefully about the questions you’ll ask the candidates?

The last ten years have witnessed a change in perspective with regards to IT staffing. At one point, most managers viewed technology as an obscure, mystical specialty similar to medicine or law. In-depth knowledge mattered more than personality in hiring decisions. Lately, after years of frustration and miscommunication, some business writers have started to preach a doctrine of “hire for attitude, train for skill.” Of course, for a lot of positions, years of hands-on experience and specific skills will still be the first consideration. The right balance depends, in large part, on individual circumstances such as who you already have on your team.

Why Is IT Hiring Important?

The consequences of a bad tech hire can haunt you for years, long after the person in question has left your organization. When you’re reviewing resumes and interviewing, ask yourself the following questions.

  • Will they invest resources wisely?

    Techies with a lot of in-depth knowledge sometimes lack the critical thinking/research skills necessary to make good choices and investments. As we all know, investing in the wrong technology or buying from the wrong vendor can cause significant losses in terms of money and opportunity.

  • Will they understand your end users?

    Some tech geniuses out there don’t understand that the rest of us have limitations. These folks sometimes want to invest in complicated, powerful technology that their colleagues won’t understand. Or they’ll customize a piece of software to the point that no one else in the organization can use it or maintain it.

  • How well do they communicate?

    IT people without soft skills can alienate their colleagues, souring them on everything to do with technology. Or they may get along with colleagues on a day-to-day basis, but lack the ability to communicate new ideas and build consensus around them.

  • Are they enthusiastic about technology?

    Having the right attitude toward technology seems obvious, but it’s good to ensure that the person you’re hiring for the job is excited about developing and improving your technology to meet the current needs, as well as to fit the future needs of the organization.

  • Do they have the right skills?

    Even if the person you’re considering isn’t an outright expert in all the technology areas you need, they should have the basic skill level to ensure that they can assess systems, vendors, and technologies with knowledge to make the best decisions for your organization.

Key Actions/Getting Started

  • Include techies in the hiring process.

    Find one or two trusted techies who can participate in the hiring process, from the writing of the job description all the way through to the final interviews and selection. If you don’t have a technology background, it’s especially critical that you find someone experienced to help you draft the position description, review resumes and write the interview questions.

  • Invite non-techies onto the hiring team.

    Find one or two non-techies and ask them to be part of the hiring process, from start to finish. If the candidate can’t communicate with them, they may not be right for your organization.

Alternate IT Staffing Scenarios

With shrinking budgets, nonprofits have gotten more and more creative about filling the need for a full-time IT person.

  • Share a tech person.

    Small and mid-sized nonprofits will occasionally hire a full-time tech support employee who divides his or her time between the two organizations. Of course, to make this work, you and your partner need to be close to each other geographically, and you need to have a strong relationship.

  • Outsource to local contractors.

    If your IT tasks require fewer than 40 hours of work per week, consider a local freelancer or IT shop. They may not have a strong understanding of your sector, and they may not always be available when you need them, but this can be a reasonable compromise if you’re short-staffed and don’t have enough money to hire a full-time techie. On the other hand, in large metropolitan areas, you can usually find freelance techies and contractors who specialize in working with nonprofits.

  • Work with your vendors.

    Depending on the warranty and the service plan you’ve negotiated, you might be able to outsource certain IT tasks to your vendor. However, there are a lot of dangers with this approach. Troubleshooting over the phone and mailing broken parts back and forth often takes much longer than working with someone local. You might have little influence with a larger company, while a small, local IT shop can offer more responsive service. However, if you can’t find a reliable contractor in your area, large manufacturers often provide a reasonable alternative. Ask if they offer on-site support and under what circumstances. Also, inquire about RMA’ing of parts. RMA stands for Return Merchandise Authorization, and it generally means that you’ll receive a replacement part first, before you have to mail in the broken part. This effectively cuts the turnaround time in half.

Further Resources