In short:

  • Asking for a laundry list of specific tech skills is ruining your ability to attract the very best talent
  • Entrepreneurs need to guard against the temptation to hire an antisocial or unempathetic talent, no matter how brilliant
  • Here are warning signs and traits to insist on when building your IT talent pool

Today, every company really is a tech company. So it stands to reason that managers put a lot of emphasis on finding people with just the right cloud, networking or coding skill sets.

This is exactly the wrong approach.

Let me begin to explain by asking a question: What do you think makes a technologist successful? I’ve spent 20+ years observing both failed and successful IT staffs, and a pattern has emerged: Generally, your best technologists are those who are really good at listening. They’re also insufferably curious, which makes them really good at asking questions after listening.

They’re the best at ferreting out the real intention behind your stated intention, if you will.

Many business folks begin by asking for a specific feature or function. For example, maybe you want your billing system to send out customer payment reminders as text messages. Sounds straightforward. But a good technologist, before rolling up her sleeves, flexing her fingers and firing up a text message cloud service and a windowful of code, will ask questions. “Why text messages and not email? What’s the budget? ... because here’s about what this service will cost per X texts. Will you allow customers to respond, and if so, who will monitor that?”

A failure to ask these questions might get your business into an unsavory situation: out-of-control cloud costs, wasted and expensive effort, disgruntled customers and more.

A good technologist has grace. He will respectfully probe for intent in a way that doesn’t put the requester on the defensive. He will make it clear that this is a partnership, and that getting the job done is high on his list of priorities — it’s just that he needs some information in order to do a good job for you.

A good technologist works well with others. Sure, in the ’80s, it might have been possible for one person to do it all: systems administration, database, coding, design. But in today’s world, database administrators, infrastructure engineers, coders, designers, project managers and others — whether on staff, on contract or with a vendor or service provider — must work together to execute projects quickly, securely and reliably. Tech today is a team sport.

You’ve heard the maxim: Don’t hire… we’ll go with "jerks." I’ll expand that to include prima donnas, misanthropes and garden-variety narcissists. The ability to engage in teamwork cannot be overvalued. One bad actor can do more damage than you can imagine. I have seen a multimillion-dollar, high-stakes initiative almost derailed by one jerk who didn’t think he needed to prioritize a colleague’s project above his own and masterfully exhibited passive-aggressive behavior for weeks before getting called on it.

His colleague and a skilled manager could do nothing but navigate the situation’s turns and twists, feeling helpless, watching time tick while giving this individual several chances to make good on empty promises. This person was great at doing the technical work, but that didn’t matter since he wouldn’t actually do it when needed. While this person is no longer with the organization, the impact was significant.

“But he had amazing tech skills,” is, in this case, the equivalent of, “But Hannibal Lecter was a great cook.” Call it EQ, call it empathy, call it just plain not being a jerk — it’s what you need far above any specific skill.

The best technologists are also systems thinkers — they look at the world as a set of interrelated parts and understand that no one set of processes or code modules or anything else exists in a vacuum. Look for people who seek to map out and understand relationships and dependencies.

The very best systems thinkers, again, are curious and have a scientific and experimental mindset: If you change just one condition, what is the effect? This outlook is useful for everything from troubleshooting behaviors (Prospects don’t seem to be filling out this form; is it too long? Let’s shorten it and see what happens!) to what you might think of as more traditional tech troubleshooting (Does this workstation continue to misbehave when we move it to a different network segment? Wow, it doesn’t — let’s see what might be different about this segment!)

To screen for the above traits, take a team approach to interviewing. Include managers and peers with IT acumen on the interview team, sure, but also include folks from key business partners to assess non-tech skills.

Next, focus your own mindset on these qualities versus specific tech skills before digging into resumes and interviewing. You’ll find yourself noticing how applicants talk about prior experiences. Do they mention experimentation? Do they seem to connect processes to one another, or do they consider everything a silo? Do they position themselves as superheroes who don’t need others? Jerk alert!

The Hard Thing About Hard Skills

I have not talked about any specific tech skill set because “hard skills” are table stakes. Of course you need them, but these skills are also quite easy to vet. Either candidates know how to work with your company’s infrastructure-as-a-service platform or they don’t. A candidate can competently write and modify Javascript or she can’t. You either know how to maintain an SQL database or you don’t.

Sure, it’s a little harder to vet just how proficient a potential IT employee is at a given task. But are you vetting your CPAs’ advanced abilities in 150 accounting scenarios during the hiring process? Probably not. You look for the CPA designation. This is no different.

Hiring for cloud infrastructure as a service? Look for appropriate certifications or verifiable projects that use the skill. Hiring a developer? Check out the GitHub “repository,” which is essentially the portfolio site for coders. Engage other tech staff or verify project completion through reference checks to vet skills such as infrastructure engineering.

You want finishers for whom others happily vouch, not someone who is good at interviewing.

The Bottom Line

In the ever-changing, “go to lunch, fall behind” world that we call technology, the most important skill is a soft one: the ability to learn. Look for the qualities that make good technologists and a hunger for new knowledge instead of asking about this month’s hot technology and you’re setting your business up for success.