Hiring technical talent

I know a couple small business owners who are technically-minded (and I happen to be one of them,) but most are not. One of the biggest challenges facing non-technical owners of small businesses is how to hire technical people.

Whether you need to get someone in-house to solve the inevitable technical gremlins that are popping up on your office network, or a dozen programmers to build the Next Big Thing in software, there are a few things you need to keep in mind when you’re adding technical people to your team– some rules of thumb that will help you find people that are a good fit for your small company.

My core philosophy on hiring people has always been that there are two types of people in the employee universe: people who want to go work for a company and make it successful, and people who want to go work for a successful company. Make sure you’re hiring the former and not the latter. The problem is that the larger you get you’ll attract more of the undesirables… the bigger problem is that most employees don’t really know which group they are in.

With technical employees it’s even harder… for one thing, it can be difficult for you to assess their skills, since you might not have experience in their area of expertise. There are a couple of things that you can keep your eye out for, though…

Beware the over-certified techie.
If you have a potential hire, and the name on his resume is followed by a series of seemingly random acronymns like “MCSE” and the like, run away. At the risk of seriously offending some people, most of the people I’ve worked with that had a ton of certifications didn’t know their stuff, and literally NONE have been a good small-business fit. These certifications (with the possible exception of Cisco’s certification process) are largely meaningless, and tend to indicate a lot of college-kid-style-cramming and studying than actual knowledge and experience. When it comes down to brass tasks, “this wasn’t in the book” is not an acceptable answer.

Beware the wunderkind.
This is a little more subtle, but don’t be too quick to hire the 17 year old geek down the block to build out your company’s network or software. It’s often tempting, as they are inexpensive… but the act of building something that will withstand the needs of a real business requires experience that you can only get by building software and infrastructure for business. It’s not the same thing as building a home network. Concepts of scalability, reliability/availability, and security are just too important to leave in the hands of someone who’s top priority is Mrs. Johnson’s next English term paper, not your bottom line.

Beware the Great Hacker.
Many studies have shown that a very good programmer is an order of magnitude more productive than an average programmer. We’re talking about a 10X improvement here… so one great programmer can write more code, implement more features, and jump any technical hurdle literally as fast as a room full of 10 average programmers. This sounds counter-intuitive to most non-techincal people, but it’s absolutely true (and is something to keep in mind when you’re compensating someone by the hour!) However, when hiring the next great programmer, you need to make sure and shy away from what Paul Graham recently described as “A Great Hacker.” The reasons for this are many, and are best described in an excellent essay by one of my small business idols, Eric Sync. I won’t try to rehash it here. Go read Eric’s article. It’s OK– I’ll still be here when you get back.

OK, so who can you hire?
Well, I’ve done a good job of telling you who not to hire, but that’s not very optimistic, is it? There are some ways you can spot good technical talent, though.

The first rule of interviewing and hiring technical talent is that if there is even an inkling of a sense that this person isn’t the right fit for your company, don’t hire them. When you are interviewing someone, there are two possible outcomes: Hire, and No Hire. There’s no such thing as on the fence here: if you’re on the fence for any reason, the answer is No Hire… there’s plenty of fish in the proverbial sea, as there’s a lot of great unemployed talent out there right now. Keep looking. Take your time. Get the right fit– it will save your a fortune, and make your life a lot easier. There are two mistakes that you can make on the hiring decision: you can not hire a good candidate, or you can can hire a bad candidate. The first one is unfortunate, the second is a disaster. It’s worth risking letting a good candidate go in order to protect yourself from hiring the wrong person for the job… you’re not a big company– you can’t afford to hire the wrong candidate.

One of the most useful guages I’ve found of technical talent is their passion for technology. Do they get visably excited when describing some esoteric feature or “clever hack” that they’ve done in the past? No? No hire. I know precisely one person who is a great technical mind who isn’t deeply passionate about technology… that’s one out of hundreds and hundreds of technical people I’ve known and work with. Don’t play those odds.

Another quality you should be looking for is an inate understanding of the concept of business. This is hard to find, but again– you want the right fit. It’s very easy for technical staff to become “technology myopic” and ignore the business. This works great in a big company where you can afford to have a bunch of specialists, but you’re a small business, and all your employees need to wear a lot of hats. Specifically, you need someone who understands that the customer and the customer’s needs come first… that you can’t just make technical decisions in a vaccum (or, even worse, for “reasons of principle” like “all software should be free” or “because Microsoft is Evil”) without considering the ramification on your customer. Second, the candidate needs to fundimentally understand that this is a business… I’ve used the phrase “It’s TLAHoldings.com, not .org” to indicate that we’re in the business of running a profitable company. Some techies inately understand this, others don’t… for the others, No hire.

Another important factor is the ability to learn things and get up to speed on new technologies quickly. This is a key factor in the person’s success, and one of the reasons that the over-certified folks can be a problem: they tend to rely on classes and courses to learn everything. You need someone who can pick up a new tool and learn it on the fly. Technology changes quickly, and your techies need to adapt. I try to find people who are good technologists in general, rather than people who have experience with the specific tool or technology in question: the ability to learn is more important than the knowledge that’s already in their head.

Finally, look for someone with some experience, speciffically experience in companies of similar size and scope to your own… If someone has always worked for the AT&Ts; and Microsofts of the world they probably won’t be able to cut it in a small business. It’s very different working in a big company, and a lot of people can’t make the switch. In a small company, you’re working without a net, and there isn’t a huge IT budget. They need to learn to be creative– they need to learn to improvise… these are not easy skills to learn, so you need to hire someone who already has them. Not sure? No hire.