Dave's Blog

Random thoughts from a random CTO.

View the Project on GitHub

This is the first (actual) post in a series that I first mentioned a LONG time ago. I even posted some assumptions that would go along with the rest of these posts. The idea was (and is) to lay out some specific steps that can be taken to build and keep a great technology team, get that team aligned with what the business needs, and measure success along the way. Sounds fun, right?

There’s a game called Wii Play which has a mini-game called Find the Mii. The point of the game is to endlessly pick the right person out of a crowd according to ever-changing criteria. Whoever finds the right character first, scores points. It’s a low impact game that my kids really like to play.

I am not such a fan. Staring at monitors for the better part of 15 years has not been very kind to my eyes, so I kind of suck at seeing some of the fine details that distinguish the creepy little Mii guys. Not only that but my brain seems to be much better at retaining the thing we were looking for in the last round as opposed to the round we’re currently playing. My 11 year old daughter owns me at this game every time, it’s embarrassing.

Finding the right people for your technology team is a lot like this game. The selection criteria changes because of corporate and industry shifts, it becomes hard to differentiate the candidates after just a few interviews, and you’re constantly racing against the clock. So, here are my steps to finding the top notch people without the constant urge to throw the Wii Remote through the nearest plate glass window.

Know What You’re Looking For (h3)

Logical, right. You’d be surprised at how many companies write up a 1 paragraph job responsibilities blurb and call it good. I’m not saying that you need to write volumes, but you should have a VERY clear idea of what you need this (let’s be honest) very expensive person to do for your team. Take the time to develop a list of Evaluation Criteria.

Within all of the disciplines of IT, the same rule holds true. It is far easier (you business types can read: cheaper) to change something on a whiteboard than it is after implementation. In hiring someone, the same is true. Figure it out before you even start looking at resumes. What does the ideal developer look like for your team? Is it a C# guy knows everything there is to know about the .NET framework with a little SQL thrown in? Or how about a jQuery person who has Fine Arts training? How about the analyst that you need on this project? What types of businesses have they worked for in the past?

Once you get a wish list going, don’t forget to add in the more intangible things like what type of personality would mesh well with the rest of the team, what kind of peripheral interests might be of interest to your longer term plans, and so forth.

Above all, make sure you absolutely define in black and white what this person NEEDS to contribute to the success of the team and the success of the business. Don’t get bogged down in HR-speak or technical talk, either. I think it needs to be no more than a few sentences and drop-dead easy to understand. (This will come in handy when you go to get the position approved, trust me.) Here’s a sample:

We need to add a new IT administrator to our team to reduce the average time to resolve a help desk issue, provide backup for emergencies and outages on nights and weekends to provide the highest possible uptime, and to take charge of server patching and upgrading to better secure and stabilize our network.

Don’t forget to add in the benefits to the business. How do we hope this new person’s contribution will be seen through the eyes of the rest of the company? Once you have your Evaluation Criteria, you’ll be in good shape to go shopping!

Participate in the Community (h3)

So none of these steps are going to be easy. They require time and effort and genuine interest on your part. As far as time and effort go, this one is the big one. You must get involved with the community, possibly even more than one. Finding the best people is all about relationships. The best way that I have ever seen to form lasting and meaningful relationships is through Service.

You can’t fake this one. You can’t just show up for the meeting, eat the pizza and hand out your business cards. Generally, the best people in tech out there want to give back to their communities. They want to be thought-leaders and share their experience and insight with others. What better way to get to know them than by supporting the forums that enable them to do it?

If your company won’t support you doing this kind of thing, then volunteer on your own time. If you truly want to seek out (and eventually employ) the best people possible, you’re going to have to step up. This type of service will come back to you in countless ways. Trust me, you’ll be amazed.

Once you’re there, make sure you take the time to actually connect with people. Everyone out there has something fascinating about them, you just have to listen attentively and sooner or later you will find out what it is. Ask them about people they’ve worked with, projects they’ve been involved with and what they thought about them. By paying attention to the things they liked and disliked about former teams and companies, you can learn a lifetime of lessons to apply to your own team.

Keep a List (h3)

You know what you’re looking for. You have put in the time by volunteering and supporting the communities that you’re targeting. Don’t waste all of this effort by not keeping track of people that you’d like to work with. Even if you know they’re not looking, keep your Missionary List up to date.

LinkedIn is a great tool to support this. Not only can you keep up with where all of your top choices are working now, you can check out all of the places they’ve ever worked. This can be invaluable when interviewing people that you don’t know, but may have worked with one of them. Remember that those top people generally try to pass along the things they’ve learned to their teammates, which can really help you to evaluate that candidate.

Use Recruiters Strategically (h3)

A good recruiter can actually be a shortcut on some of the steps I’ve recommended. I’ve worked with some great recruiters over the years. I’ve also worked with some really sorry ones. The good ones will make your life so much easier by really getting to know what you’re looking for, what your company and team are like, and actually screening people instead of just burying you with resumes. In my opinion, a good recruiter is a good connector. They see connections that will be mutually beneficial and then make them gracefully.

As much as I like to have a talented and honest recruiter in my corner, they are not cheap. If you’re paying what they will ALL say is the “industry standard” of 25% of the first year’s salary (even though I never paid more than 18%), you’re looking at starting around $10,000. That is a healthy chunk of change no matter how big your company is. That is why we must use them strategically.

To me, using a recruiter when you’re in the market to fill a short-term need is a no-brainer. Why would you spend your time and effort on someone who will not be a permanent member of the team? That’s not to say you want to short-change any of the process. If you screen them carefully, and you find that you MUST have that role filled permanently then you have the room to hire them.

The rest of the strategy is a little more dependent on your situation. Are you completely buried in work? Is it hard to carve out 30 minutes for a status meeting, let alone the couple of hours that a good technical interview would take? If you are already past the red-line as far as workload goes, you probably need to just bite the bullet and go with a recruiter. Your time is better leveraged that way.

I hope these ideas will spark some thoughts of your own on how to find the right people for your team and not get caught up in the Find the Mii game. Good luck and let me know how it goes for you!