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How To: Hiring Technical Staff
By Hailey Lynne McKeefry , Ziff Davis Internet

When hiring technical staff, channel employers may be tempted to focus only on technical knowhow. But they will be best served by also looking for business acumen and communication skills.

“It is more important to have a well-rounded person, someone with not just technical competencies, but also good communication skills, an understanding of the business and solid interpersonal skills,” said Melissa Maffettone, branch manager, at Robert Half Technology, a technical recruiting company in Ft. Lauderdale., Fla.


The prospect of locating and luring such multi-faceted people may be overwhelming, but channel employers who do their homework and are open to training new hires have a good chance at success. Creating and following a solid search and interview process produces the best results, say executives and recruiters.

Starting the Search

The first step in a well-planned search is to develop a clear job description that includes a list of must-have certifications, qualifications or experience.

“Have a template for each position, but be as specific as possible, not just with technical requirements, but also with soft skills such as the ability to communicate,” said Steven Morgan, president and CEO of VARSalesJobs.com, a Northport, N.Y.-based career jobsite that specializes in the reseller industry.

IT trade association CompTIA offers tools to help VARs hire technical staff. The TechCareer Compass, for example, provides a comprehensive database of job descriptions

“Turnover can be high in some high-tech jobs because the company can’t find the right skill-set,” said Tara Manzow, product manager at CompTIA, Oakbrook Terrace, Ill. “Often, it is a problem of the job posting not being clear enough.”

VARs also need to develop a clear and consistent system for evaluating potential candidates, on paper and in person. “It is all about developing a process,” said Maffettone. “There has to be a method to the madness. Develop an approach to use with all the candidates, such as a ranking system with key factors, and prepare a list of specific questions in order to objectively evaluate one person’s qualifications against another’s.”

The number of resumes coming through the door can be overwhelming, so create a list of key attributes or qualifications based on the job description to decide which resumes merit follow-up, said Maffettone.

Having decided what skills are vital and which are desirable, VARs should consider training a promising person in weak areas. “If you have the right candidate with the technical skills, an employer could be picky and place too much value on the business skills, which [the employee] might be able to pick up later,” said Manzow. “Read people and find people who are willing to learn.”

Another rule of thumb: Look for what’s not there. Keep an eye out for red flags, such as unexplained employment gaps, job hopping, or typos, grammar errors and misspellings. “I also pay attention to ambiguous words, such as ‘familiar with’ rather than ‘responsible for,'” she added.

In looking for solid technology hires, VARs also should avoid people who have gotten stuck working with older technologies. “You want people who are aggressive, and it shines through on a resume when they have gotten involved with the latest and greatest technology,” Maffettone said.

Ask the right Questions

Once a promising person has come through the door, the interview is critical. Be sure to ask a broad range of questions about specific technology skills, certifications and training, Maffettone added.

Evaluating soft skills, such as business, communication and people skills, is best done through open-ended or scenario questions. Questions that start with, “Give me and example in which you…” or “What would you do if…,” help assess how a person thinks and determined their communication style.

A solid interview is the key to hiring. “Everyone loves to pad or embellish their experience,” said Stephen Almeida, owner of Almeida & Associates, a reseller in Boston.

“What I am looking for is someone who has rock-solid knowledge and the flexibility to learn. We’ve created our own interview process, simulated scenarios about what they might encounter and put them in a lab environment so they can walk us through.

A wrong answer doesn’t mean we don’t hire them, but that we know where people need training.”

Finally, use references as yet another testing ground for the potential employee. “Just ask open-ended questions,” said Maffettone. “Ask the references in what kind of job would the person excel, what kind of environment the person works well in, without leading them.”

Ask for customer references as well as standard references, said Morgan. “I’d give technical companies one rule of thumb in terms of hiring: Ask for references from customers, and go and ask them the hard questions about the candidates,” he said. “They are more likely to be objective. If a potential hire can’t provide them, then there’s something wrong.”

Fish in Multiple Streams

After putting a strong evaluation system in place, it’s time to start looking for candidates—and recruiters say there’s no single place to look.

“You really need to use multiple recruiting streams,” said Maffettone, citing job listing boards, technical user groups, continuing ed classes, certification classes and local colleges.

“Someone within the company should always reach out and attend meetings. Schools are more than happy to have people coming in as a potential employer to speak with students.”

Local technical schools and training facilities are a fruitful source of new talent. Create relationships with local schools to get the best referrals.

“As I was going through my own training for Microsoft and Cisco, I attended several facilities and found a few that were above and beyond the others,” said Almeida. “I made friends with my instructors and some of the folks that run the facility. If they have a good understanding of what I am looking to do and respect me as a professional, I am more likely to get qualified leads.”

Word-of-mouth and personal recommendation still yield superior results over other methods.

“My very first preferred method is going through the technicians I already have to get a more known quantity,” said Robert Green, president of solution provider Crossroads Business Solutions. “Especially here in Indianapolis, it is a small IT community and people move around quite a bit. Most good engineers know most other good engineers.”

VARs should consult their existing stellar employees. “Companies need to look at their best people and what it is they bring to the table,” said John Challenger, CEO of Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., an outplacement firm based in Chicago.

Many companies encourage referrals by offering incentives (such as a monetary bonus or extra vacation days or even additional training opportunity) if a contact of theirs is hired and remains with the company for a specific length of time, Challenger said.

Although large online job boards (such as Monster.com) and local newspapers are a good place to start, also consider hiring resources focused on a particular industry or field. VARSalesJobs.com, for example, has 120,000 subscribers and focuses exclusively on sales jobs in the VAR and channel community. Other focused sites include Dice.com or ComputerJobs.com, which specialize in the technical sector.

Maneuvering the Two-Way Street

When searching for technical employees, employers sometimes forget that while the candidate is wooing his or her potential boss, VAR businesses also must take steps to try and impress possible hires. “Over the past few years, it has been a company-driven market so companies sometimes overlook the need to pay a lot of attention overall to what hey have to offer,” said Maffettone.

Be sure to expedite the interview process. Taking too long to schedule a second or third interview can be a mistake.

“People have more options, and I see a lot of companies take two or three weeks to get to the next step after the initial conversation, only to find that the candidate has taken a position elsewhere,” said Tim Sobon, senior partner at the Lucas Group, a recruiting company in Atlanta.

VARs also need to make sure to mention their company’s benefits and keep in mind salary often tops potential employees’ list of concerns.

“For the past several years, especially with technical positions, people have not seen salaries increase,” said Sobon. “Now, they are not as willing to make a lateral move. They want to be compensated for the past few years, so they want to see that bump in pay.”

For technical hires who are motivated to stay current in their field, tuition reimbursement and training opportunities also take a top spot, said Maffettone. Other creative incentives might include extra vacation time, performance-based bonuses, stock options, additional services (such as discount memberships for a health club) or the opportunity to work at home or telecommute, she added.

And, of course, people want to join companies that are profitable and growing. “People like to talk to companies that will talk to them about personal career growth,” said Sobon.



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