Part 1 – Finding The Right People

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

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

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

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

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!

Resurgam–It’s Alive!

So!  It’s been a while.  (I just spent the last 20 minutes entertaining myself coming up with cheesy back-from-the-dead titles for this post.)  Where to start?  It’s been almost a year since I’ve posted anything at all (even on my food blog, so sad).

I struggled along for a several months before I started consulting with a great company.  I went full time with them on January 1 of this year as their CTO and I have had a blast ever since.  We have all been hustling it ever since and it shows no sign of slowing down.  I am very grateful and very lucky to have fallen in with such a great group of people.

In spite of all the time that has passed, I haven’t forgotten the outrageous boast that I made way back when.  I have had even more thoughts on the subject of technology investments and personnel and ROI and all those lovely things that make my world go ‘round.  Enough with the teasing already!  Here is the roadmap of my thoughts:

Part 1 – Finding The People

Part 2 – Integrating the People

Part 3 – Strategy and Support

Part 4 – Measuring

Part 5 – Real World Examples

So stick with me as I (finally) put to paper all of the crazy ideas that have been rolling around in my head for all of this time.  It’s good to be back.  Thank you for playing along.

Assumptions. Always Start with Assumptions.

Before I follow through with the outrageous boast I made at the end of my last post, I’m going to make some stipulations.  Stipulations, I said.  Not weaseling.  Not waffling.  Merely stipulating.  The thing is, they’re big.  Huge, even.  Like if you can’t get these things in place, you are ultimately doomed to a horrible flaming demise while your coworkers laugh and point.

Seriously, though, it will be impossible to get as much mileage out of the rest of what I say without these things in place.  The thing is, technology workers and even technology leadership can’t make these things happen.  Or can’t make them happen by themselves.  The leadership of the business (CEO/Owner/President/Whatever you call the person at the top along with all the people he or she listens to) must step up and provide this stuff.  (How to convince them to do so will be another post entirely.)  Here they are:

  1. A reasonable budget to get the job done.  Have you ever worked on a project that was underfunded?  Or that didn’t have a set budget so that getting every dollar was like going to war?  How did those projects turn out?  I don’t think that IT should necessarily be the ones to set the budget (on their own anyway), but any project must be well enough thought out to allocate it a budget.
  2. Clear priorities and objectives.  Every technology worker has run afoul of this at one time or another.  Work for a couple of months on a project and then all of a sudden someone says we’re not doing that anymore, we’re doing this thing over here now.  Not only will this kind of thing sap your team’s will to live, it will guarantee you’ll never get a happy return on the dollars you’re investing in them.  As with the budget, the business needs to think things through, make a decision about what’s important to it and then stick with it.  
  3. An executive sponsor who accepts full responsibility for success or failure.  The old saying goes something like “when everyone is responsible for a thing, then no one is”.  Without a sponsor or champion that takes absolute responsibility for a project, that project will never enjoy a happy life and will rarely come to a good ending.  The sponsor has to be a person who has a seat and a voice at the big table.  You can’t just grab a lower level project manager and say, “You’re on the hook for this.  You better get it right.”  That won’t work because he has no ability to advocate for or smooth the path in any way.  It has to be someone who can effect real positive change to conditions that will affect the project.  Sometimes it can be the CIO/CTO, but sometimes even they don’t have the wherewithal to get the job done. 
    I’d love to hear your stories confirming or denying my opinions here.  I’ve seen a lot of projects and a lot of teams over the course of my career and these seems to be recurring themes when things go awry. 

So I Have Some Time on My Hands…

I have been thinking big thoughts for the last few days.  I mean BIG THOUGHTS.  I’ve been pondering what it all means, what my place in it is and how exactly I think I’m making a difference in this crazy world. 

Over the last several years, one of the things that I have felt the most proud of is the development of a first rate team.  I have mentioned them on this blog more than once.  The thing is, as great as the individuals that made up the team were (and they were exceptional), it still took a LOT of work to bring them together and keep them going in the right direction. 

It’s not easy getting a team to do what you need them to, especially when we’re talking about technology teams.  They’re smart (often accustomed to being the smartest in the room),  they have definite ideas about how things should be and they aren’t afraid to speak up (or simply leave to find another job) when they’re unhappy.  Couple these factors with the high personnel costs and you have very little margin for error. 

As I have ruminated on this stuff, I realized that I have uncovered a need that I don’t see anyone filling.  A business that is spending on average $66,000 per year on a technology worker (that’s according to the US Department of Labor) needs to know that it is getting the most out of that investment.  A company whose existence is riding on the quality of its software products needs to take care of those developers that brought them to the dance and make sure they are not lost to competitors.  A startup company that is watching every dollar it spends needs to be sure that they have the right people making the right decisions.  These are not touchy-feely, new age ideas.  This is life and death stuff for a business of any age or size. 

So here it is.  I will break down for you exactly what it takes to create a team that can not only handle the tasks you set out for them, but do it with maximum efficiency and love every minute of it.  Does that sound like a line of bull?  Tune in and see for yourself! 

Smartest Person in the Room Syndrome

What happens when one person who is used to being the smartest person in the room has to work with another person who is used to being the smartest person in the room?  Or how about 3 or 4 of them?  I’ve worked for a lot of companies that would give anything to have this type of situation, but what about the unforeseen side effects of such a thing?  Sir Isaac Newton famously (and humbly) said “If I have seen further than others, it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.”  Would he have been as gracious if he had to go to staff meetings with those giants week after week?  Would he have been as quick to self-deprecate if he had to constantly defend his ideas to those giants? 

I’m sure you’ve know people like this.  Maybe you are one of them. Over the course of their lives, they have always emerged as the people that others turn to when they need things done.  They tend to be accustomed to having the best, fastest answer to any given problem.   I think the conditioning that happens to this sort of individual happens so subtly that they don’t even realize it’s happening.

So what’s the big deal?  My esteemed colleague (I told you I would give you credit, Steve) and I have been talking about this for some time.  Here are a few thoughts on the danger this presents to teams.

  1. Tunnel Vision – Every human being has an ego that tells them that their ideas are better than someone else’s.  Your ego in this has been fortified by your entire life’s experience in which your ideas were always the ones that were picked.  This can really negatively impact a group of people who are trying to solve a problem.
  2. Assumptions – You’re smart.  You know your teammates are smart.  Therefore, they must know the same things you do, right?  I think this leads to NOT exploring ideas and NOT talking through how you came to your conclusions.  Assuming in a team full of smart people can be lethal.
  3. Communication Gap – I suppose that communications is really at the heart of any team’s problems.  Any time you have more than one person working towards the same goal, communication becomes the glue that holds it all together.  I think smart people don’t sit and think, “I’m not going to communicate with that other person.”  I think more often it’s a combination of “We have daily/weekly/monthly status meetings to get us on the same page” along with some “I’m doing the WORK, I can stop and talk about it every five minutes”  with just a dash of “I figured it out, so should everyone else.”

I am fortunate to work with as many HIGHLY talented people as I do.  Every last one of them has some area(s) of absolute genius.  In spite of that (I suppose I’m arguing here because of that), we’ve fallen prey to some of these problems, mainly because we were unaware of this subtle cause.  But as GI Joe cartoons taught me when I was young, knowing is half the battle.