Find Better People: Tips for Hiring Qualified IT Staff

Posted by Andy Rivers on Aug 31, 2017 1:27:00 PM

In ITIL, Process Improvement

Since we began our HigherEd webinar series toward the end of last year, we’ve been looking for the most pressing ITSM issues facing the HigherEd community (One-Stops, Building a Successful Service Catalog, etc.). This month, we’re taking on an even bigger challenge: the Educause Top Ten - and what better place to start than with number one, “Hiring and retaining qualified staff, and updating the knowledge and skills of existing technology staff”.

The three main components of this issue: hiring qualified staff, retaining qualified staff, and updating their knowledge and skills, each is a major issue unto itself. So, to give each component proper attention, I’ll be splitting the issue into three parts. We’re start with hiring qualified staff, so let’s get to it. 

Hiring Qualified IT Staff

One of the biggest challenges I’ve faced when hiring within Higher Education is how long and drawn out the process can be. Sure, we can sit around and blame HR and the many processes that must be followed, but we have to admit most of the delays are self-inflicted – at least they were for me. Many days were spent putting out fire after fire, which caused the new-hire search to be continually put on the back burner. The ironic thing here, of course, is that many of the fires I was putting out were a result of understaffing or a specific unfilled position. These experiences have taught me a lot, and left me with two important recommendations for you: take action and assign an owner.

Take Action

As soon as you find out you have an open position, do two things: post the opening within your own process and contact a staffing agency for contract-to-hire candidates. Simple as that, you’ll have candidates coming your way from two sources. Many balk at the idea of contract-to-hire – I used to count myself among them - but after trying it several times, I’ve come to recognize it as a great resource. You have a full time recruiter out there working for you and identifying potential candidates, and in many cases doing some initial screening for you. Worst case, you have additional candidates in your pool, but this can work to your advantage as well, as these candidates can be viewed in comparison to those candidates funneled through the university’s recruiting efforts.

But what about budgeting for a recruiter? As soon as you have an unfilled position, you should begin setting aside that unused salary within your budget. Use these funds, should you choose to go with a contract-to-hire, to cover the recruiter’s commission. While each university handles budgeting differently and the degree of control you have over it may vary, the simple fact is that once a position is created or vacated, that salary becomes available in the budget; it’s just a matter of how and if you can tap into it.

Assign an Owner

This is as complicated as it sounds; assign someone to own the hiring process. This person does not need to have hiring authority; he or she simply owns the process and ensures progress is being made (ie: making sure it’s one of those many fires you’re putting out each day). Assign this role as soon as the position is posted, so you’ll (ideally) have the same process owner from start to finish. This is a position that benefits from consistency.

The process owner should keep job postings and descriptions organized and up-to-date. While he or she is not responsible for creating the content itself, this person can ensure content is updated at least once a year and identify who in the organization is responsible for the content. This way, as a best case, the job description is ready to be posted as soon as the vacancy is identified, and, as a worst case, you’ll know exactly who to contact to have it updated. With this, you’ll avoid the delay of the job description bouncing around for a week while we figure out who needs to update it and then get it over to HR. You want these ready to go as soon as possible, so it’s best to ensure they’re always in good shape.  As an extreme analogy, think of them as battle plans; You hope you’ll never need them, but if you do, you’ll want to execute on them as quickly as possible. We don’t want our staff to leave, but we need to be prepared when it does happen.

One last note about the process owner: A student worker is perfect for this position as long as he or she is organized and is enough of a driver to keep the project moving. If you aren’t currently using student workers, I highly recommend you start. They’re an extremely valuable resource. They are the workers who in a few years’ time will be competing for the same positions we are trying to fill now. Let them help you while gaining practical experience. It’s a win-win.

Candidate Review

Ok, so you have an owner and hopefully a pool full of candidates. Now it’s time to review them. I recommend reviewing resumes as they come in, and to streamline the process by applying a simple numbered scoring system to evaluate them. I prefer the following scoring system:

0: Criteria not mentioned on resume and no evidence of it
1: Criteria mentioned on resume
2: One large/several small project(s) utilizing criteria mentioned on resume
3: Multiple mentions of extensive experience utilizing criteria in projects

Scoring provides an easy mechanism for determining whom to interview. Dismiss automatically candidates who have any zeros in the required experience and skills. This will provide you with a baseline from which the remaining point values can be sorted and a cut-off score determined; all of those who fall above that score should be interviewed.

This, again, is a task easily handled by a student worker. He or she can review resumes and provide scoring in accordance with criteria you have set. Issues or questions can be brought to you, allowing you to deal with one-offs and exceptions only, as opposed to the entire stack of resumes that do not meet your minimum requirements.

Follow the same process for all candidates regardless of whether they come through the university posting or the staff recruiter. Fair analysis employed across the board in this way will ensure you’ll have consistent data from which to work when you begin the interview process.


I highly recommend you conduct multiple interviews. An HR manager and former colleague once told me, “IT is the only department that meets with one person for an hour and decides to hire them.” Somehow, it hadn’t dawned on me until that moment what a broken process that is. We all know the IT field in general is not known for its mastery of social skills, so I can safely say we did not have some inherent ability unknown to other departments to detect the perfect candidate. We had not been treating the hiring process with the seriousness it deserves. Rigor around this process is necessary to ensure we don’t allow just anyone on our team, and that each new hire contributes to the foundation of high retention.

All of this, over time, led me to recommend a four-round approach to interviews. It may seem like overkill, but I encourage you to analyze each step and apply it to a few of your good (and not-so-good) hires. I think you’ll find your good hires look better and better with every step, while the not-so-good, well, don’t. Let’s go through the steps and discuss the intent behind each:

Round 1: The Rock Stars and the Duds

These interviews should be scheduled for 30 minutes and be conducted via phone – save the in-person interviews for later. Involve only yourself (the hiring manager) and one other team member. Adding the student worker is optional, though I recommend it when possible because the more experience they get along the way, the better they will be at reviewing and scoring candidates.

You have two goals in this round: recruit the top candidates and identify the duds within your pool. Duds are those candidates who looked great on paper but ultimately don’t have the ideal skills or fit. Asking probing questions about their resumes is the best way to identify these types of candidates. If a resume states a candidate was a lead on a project, ask them about the team members and how they kept it organized. That will help you identify if they truly led or were just participating. If they mention a specific skillset, ask them to tell you about the last time they used it. This will give you an idea of how current it is and the scope with which they’ve used it. Gauge the skills of potential system administrators by asking about the last script they wrote, what it did, and why they wrote it, for example.  As they respond, look for clues as to how they may fit with your current team (Eg.: If he or she claims to have written a script to do X because everyone else on the team was too incompetent to do the work, you may be dealing with someone who isn’t a team player).

As you are identifying the duds within your pool, you’re also going to start identifying the ‘rock star’ candidates. Start recruiting them now by discussing benefits of working at the university, major projects they could impact, etc. This helps put you on the offensive with the salary discussion arises. The salary discussion is always the elephant in the room with higher education. I recommend fully acknowledging that elephant and talking about it in this round of interviews. But - and this is a big but - only after talking through the benefits. This way you aren’t throwing a salary range out there and trying to justify it, you’re talking about all the benefits and, “oh, by the way, it pays this much”. You obviously can’t tell them the exact salary at this time but you know how much the position can pay, so be honest - go ahead and say its mid-$40s or low-$60s, whatever the case may be.

Hopefully, your candidate is still with you at this point, but if not – if the salary discussion was a deal-breaker – at least you know now, without having wasted a huge amount of their time or yours. Encourage candidates who may be on the fence to think about it over night. This will create an opportunity for a future recruiting discussion and deter any knee-jerk reactions to salary.

I tend to place particular emphasis on healthcare benefits because, while they don’t manifest themselves in the salary directly, they certainly impact the amount of money in the bank. Encourage those rock star candidates you’d like to recruit to balance those expenses with the proposed salary range. Even after all of this, you’re going to lose some of them. But, again, better to lose them now than after three more rounds of interviews, only to find out salary was the deal-breaker all along.

Round 2: Subject Matter Expertise

This round consists of traditional in-person, one-hour interviews. Several team members should sit in with the candidate and you, as this will be a more in depth conversation than was had in round one. The goal here is to identify the candidate’s level of expertise in field for which they are interviewing.

Ask questions about the candidate’s resume and experience as well as more general questions about the field and specific proficiencies you need in the position. I recommend having 2 to 3 team members involved in the discussion along with a non-technical member such as a business manager or administrative assistant. The team members will assist in evaluating the candidate’s technical expertise, and the non-technical member will provide insight into intangibles, such as personality and cultural fit within the organization. This kind of diversity in the interviewers will allow your team to focus solely on the technical points, getting the more standard where-do-you-want-to-be-in-five-years questions off their plates.

Speaking of “Where do you want to be in five years?” – don’t ask that question. The non-technical representative in the interview, since it’s his or her only focus, should be asking more provocative questions. Ask standard interview questions if you want to hear rehearsed answers. Ask questions such as “What is the biggest mistake you’ve ever made at work?” instead. These types of questions provide insight into a candidates self-awareness (Are they capable of recognizing then acknowledging they’ve made mistakes?) and ability to learn or course correct (Did they deflect, blame others? Willingly share what they learned from the experience?).

Tip:  The number one skill for future success is aptitude - especially in technology. Is your candidate able to keep up and learn at the pace of technology and your customers?  If you hire a mainframe expert who hasn’t learned anything else along the way, how valuable is that person going to be in five years? Ask specific questions around this. Choose a specific point on their resume and have them walk you through how they ramped up for the project and subsequently executed it. Ideal candidates, in my mind, report self-studying and testing as soon as they learned the project was on its way. Answers such as, “My boss sent me to a training class” are less satisfactory. Don’t get me wrong; attending a training course can be hugely beneficial. The question, though, is whether the ongoing education was voluntary or compulsory.

Again, this round is best conducted in person. However, I typically ask candidates to travel if I seriously think we are going to hire them. If the candidate remains an unknown to some extent, or if the team is on the fence, I recommend conducting a video interview. Notice I said video, not conference call; It’s important to gain insight such as whether the candidate took the interview seriously enough to dress up, pay attention to the back drop, etc.  I remember spending the entirety of one video interview wondering how quickly we could call 9-1-1 when the giant pile of junk teetering in the background collapsed on his head; “Do we still call 9-1-1 even though he’s in another city or do we have to lookup the local police station?” All this while the candidate was answering questions and I was supposed to be listening.  In this case, we unanimously decided not to carry this candidate forward, as the position for which he was interviewing was customer facing - if he didn’t have the wherewithal to ensure a proper setting for his video interview, we didn’t feel he could be trusted in front of our customers.

This round is designed to further thin the heard in terms of which candidates remain in consideration for the position. Only those candidates with the technical skillset and personal comportment that meld well with your team should move forward to the next round.

Round 3: The Social Outing

In some cases, Round 3 may be scheduled immediately after Round Two. This is especially true if the candidate is in from out of town. This is fine should it be necessary, but I prefer treating the two events as separate rounds, rather than considering Round 3 as a continuation of Round Two.

Perhaps more important than a candidate’s current subject matter expertise is how they will fit with the current team. If they have technical aptitude, training in specific skills can bring them up to speed (you can see more about that process in the third part of the article). One great way to get a sense of how the candidate will fit with the team is to take them to some sort of social outing (lunch, dinner, coffee, etc.) and observe how they interact outside of the office. I recommend having two or three team members join you for lunch, one of whom should be part of the interview team from Round Two. The others, however, should be new team members. This will broaden your perspective on the candidate even further.

Evaluate factors such as whether the candidate exhibits your team’s culture – or the one you’re attempting to build. I pay a lot of attention to how he or she interacts with the restaurant staff; I want to see interaction with different people: are they gracious? Bossy? Demanding? All of these factors should be considered thoughtfully when determining whether to move the candidate to Round Four.

Your field of prospective candidates should be narrowed to at most two or three by the end of this round. It is also possible, even likely, that you’ve settled on a single primary candidate. Strongly as you may feel about one candidate at this point, I encourage you to carry at least two through to the next round, if possible. Don’t force it – if there’s only one, there’s only one – but carrying two to the final round will leave you some flexibility should you need it.

Tip: As you refine your list of candidates at this stage, take care to move forward only those you feel will truly help move your organization forward. It is hugely important to avoid the pitfall of settling for the best of what is in front of you. Don’t fall into that trap – you’re far better off beginning the entire process again (and again) than making a bad hire.

Round 4: Plus One

In this round, remaining candidates will meet with your direct supervisor – or the level above, if appropriate. Having consulted with your team and deemed the candidates appropriate for the position, a fresh set of eyes can help you reach a final decision. Input from your supervisor will lend some clarity by either confirming your team’s evaluation of the candidate or calling it into question. Plus, you will ultimately be accountable for the candidate’s performance, so it doesn’t hurt get your boss’ input from the get-go. The candidate’s interview with your supervisor will end with you taking one of two courses of action: make the candidate an offer, or start the process again.

The Offer

Having thoroughly reviewed, interviewed, and whittled down your pool of candidates, it’s time to make an offer. I recommend offering as much as possible, bearing in mind constraints around available budget, compression with other staff, and the like. Starting with as high a bar as possible is especially important in higher education, as offering subsequent pay raises is historically difficult.

The Redo

Educause put this issue at the top of the list for a reason – and it wasn’t because it’s easy. There will be times, even though you’ve followed this process to a T, when you still don’t feel you have any viable candidates. This can happen at any stage in the process; you might make it all the way to Round 4 or be stuck for a while at Round One. The key, no matter where you’re caught up, is to be absolutely sure you are not settling along the way. Don’t sacrifice a short-term win for long-term pain (and if you’ve ever managed or worked with an under-performer, know just how painful it can be). So, instead of settling, start over if you run out of truly desirable candidates at any stage in the process. Go back to that proverbial drawing board, repost the position to the university, and get your recruiter back out there.

Unfortunately, as the process begins again, your work continues to flow. Much as it may pain some of us to hear, the university does continue to function after we leave. So, to combat the potentially overwhelming amount of work you’ll be facing as you start the hiring process from scratch, I recommend hiring a three-month temporary employee to help keep you afloat in the interim. Use the unfilled salary budget to cover it, or if need be, request additional funds from the projects delayed or held due to the vacancy.

Requesting these funds will likely open the door to discussions around priorities and realistic project timelines, as well. Use this as an opportunity to re-evaluate and adjust these timelines if need be. So often, we get into trouble because we aren’t willing to have these discussions with our customers or supervisors, but the bottom line in cases such as these is that we committed to a set of deliverables based on the resources available to us at the time. If those resources have changed, the deliverables will likely require adjustment as well. It is hugely important to get in front of this one.

Typically, a vacancy that extends the period of one candidate search is short enough that the team can absorb any resulting extra work. However, when second or even third searches must be made, it is likely in your team’s best interest that deliverable expectations are adjusted.

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