Category Archives: IT Hiring

IT Generalists and Specialists

IT Professionals generally fall into two broad categories based on their career focus: generalists and specialists. These two categories actually carry far more differences than they may at first appear to do and moving between them can be extremely difficult once a career path has been embarked upon; often the choice to pursue one path or the other is made very early on in a career.

There are many aspects that separate these two types of IT professionals, one of the most poignant and misunderstood is the general marketplace for these two skillsets. It is often assumed, I believe, that both types exist commonly throughout the IT market but this is not true. Each commands its own areas.

In the small and medium business market, the generalist rules. There is little need for specialties as there are not enough technical needs in any one specific area to warrant a full time staff member dedicating themselves to them. Rather, a few generalists are almost always called upon to handle a vast array of technical concerns. This mentality also gives way to “tech support sprawl” where IT generalists are often called upon to venture outside of IT to manage legacy telephones, electrical concerns, HVAC systems and even sprinklers! The jack of all trades view of the IT generalist has a danger of being taken way too far.

It should be mentioned, though, that in the SMB space the concept of a generalist is often one that remains semi-specialized. SMB IT is nearly a specialization on its own. Rather than an SMB generalist touching nearly every technology area it is more common for them to focus across a more limited subset. Typically an SMB generalist will be focused primarily on Windows desktop and server administration along with application support, hardware management and some light security. SMB generalists may touch nearly any technology but the likelihood of doing so is generally rather low.

In the enterprise space, the opposite is true. Enterprise IT is almost always broken down by departments, each department handling very focused IT tasks. Typically these include networking, systems, storage, desktop, helpdesk, application specific support, security, datacenter support, database administration, etc. Each department focuses on a very specific area, possibly with even more specialization within a department. Storage might be broken up by block and file. Systems by Windows, mainframe and UNIX. Networking by switching and firewalls. In the enterprise there is a need for nearly all IT staff to be extremely deep in their knowledge and exposure to the products that

they support while needing little understanding of products that they do not support as they have access to abundant resources in other departments to guide them where there are cross interactions. This availability of other resources and a departmental separation of duties, highlights the differences in generalists and specialists.

Generalists live in a world of seeing “IT” as their domain to understand and oversee, potentially segmented by “levels” of difficulty rather than technological focus and typically a lack of specialized resources to turn to internally for help. While specialists live in a world of departmental division by technology where there are typically many peers working at different experience levels within a single technology stack.

It is a rare SMB that would have anything but a generalist working there. It is not uncommon to have many generalists, even generalists who lean towards specific roles internally but who remain very general and lacking a deep, singular focus. This fact can make SMB roles appear more specialized that they truly are to IT professionals who have only experienced the SMB space. It is not uncommon for SMB IT professionals to not even be aware of what specialized IT roles are like.

A good example of this is that job titles common and generally well defined in the enterprise space for specialists are often used accidentally or incorrectly with generalists not realizing that the job roles are specific. Specialists titles are often used for generalists positions that are not truly differentiated.

Two exceptionally common examples are the network engineering and IT manager titles.  For a specialist, network engineer means a person whose full time, or nearly full time, job focus is in the design and planning and possibly implementation of networks including the switching, routing, security, firewalling, monitoring, load balancing and the like, of the network itself.  They have no role in the design or management of the systems that use the network, only the network itself.  Nor do they operate or maintain the network, that is for the network administrator to do who, again, only touches switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers and so forth not computers, printers, servers and other systems.  It is a very focused title.  In the SMB it is common to give this title to anyone who operates any device on a network often with effectively zero design or network responsibilities at all.  No role overlaps.

Likewise in the enterprise an IT manager is a management role in an IT department.  What an IT manager manages, like any manager, is people.  In the SMB this title may be used correctly but it is far more common to find the term applies to the same job role to which network engineer is used – someone who has no human reports and manages devices on a network like computers and printers.  Not a manager at all, but a generalist administrator.  Very different than what the title implies or how it is expected to be used in the large business and enterprise space.

Where specialists sometimes enter the SMB realm is through consultants and service providers who provide temporary, focused technical assistance to smaller firms that cannot justify having those skills maintained internally. Typically areas where this is common is storage and virtualization where consultants will often design and implement core infrastructure components and leave the day to day administration of them to the in-house generalists.

In the enterprise the situation is very different. Generalists do exist but, in most cases, the generalization is beaten out of them as their careers take them down the path of one specialization or another. Entry level enterprise workers will often come in without a clear expectation of a specialization but over time find themselves going into one quite naturally. Most, if not all, IT growth paths through enterprise IT require a deep specialization (which may mean focusing on management rather than technical.) Some large shops may provide for cross training or exposure to different disciplines but rarely is this extensively broad and generally does not last once a core specialization is chosen.

This is not to say that enterprises and other very large shops do not have generalists, they do. It is expected that at highest echelons of enterprise IT that the generalists roles will begin to reemerge as new disciplines that are not seen lower in the ranks. These titles are often labeled differently such as architect, coordinator or, of course, CIO.

The reemergence of generalists at the higher levels of enterprise IT poses a significant challenge for an industry that does little to groom generalists. This forces the enterprise generalist to often “self-groom” – preparing themselves for a potential role through their own devices. In some cases, organic growth through the SMB channels can lead to an enterprise generalist but this is extremely challenging due to the lack of specialization depth available in the majority of the SMB sector and a lack of demonstrable experience in the larger business environment.

These odd differences that almost exclusively fall down SMB vs. enterprise lines creates a natural barrier, beyond business category exposure, to IT professionals migrating back and forth between larger and smaller businesses. The type of business and work experience is vastly different and the technology differences are dramatically different. Both enterprise IT pros are often lost moving to an SMB and SMB pros find that what they felt was deep, focused experience in the SMB is very shallow in the enterprise. The two worlds operate differently at every level, but outside of IT the ability to move between them is far easier.

Enterprise IT carries the common titles that most people associate with IT career specialization: system administration, network engineer, database administrator, application support, helpdesk, desktop support, datacenter technician, automation engineer, network operations center associate, project manager, etc. SMB titles are often confusing both inside of and outside of the industry. It is very common for SMB roles to coopt specialization titles and apply them to roles that barely resemble their enterprise counterparts in any way and do not match the expectation of a title at all, as I demonstrated earlier. This further complicates the fluid movement between realms as both sides become increasingly confused trying to understand how people and roles related to each other coming from the other realm. There are titles associated with generalists, such as the rather dated LAN Administration, IT Generalist and architect titles but their use, in the real world, is very rare.  The SMB struggles to define meaningful titles and has no means by which to apply or enforce these across the sector.  This lack of clear definition will continue to plague both the SMB and generalists who have little ability to easily convey the nature of their job role or career path.

Both career paths offer rewarding and broad options but the choice between them does play a rather significant role in deciding the flavor of a career.  Generalists, beyond gravitating towards smaller businesses, will also likely picking up a specialization in an industry over time as they move into higher salary ranges (manufacturing, medical, professional services support, legal, etc.)  Specialists will find their focus is in their technology and their focus on market will be less.  Generalist will find it easier to find work in any given local market, specialists will find that they often need to move to major markets and potentially only the core markets will provide great growth opportunities but within those markets mobility and career flexibility will be very good.  Generalists have to work hard to keep up with a broad array of technologies and changes in the market.  Specialists will often have deep vendor resources available to them and will find the bulk of their educational options come directly from the vendors in their focus area.

It is often personality that pushes young IT professionals into one area or the other.  Specialists are often those that love a particular aspect of IT and not others or want to avoid certain types of IT work as well as those that look at IT more as a predetermined career plan.  Generalists often come from the ranks of those that love IT as a whole and fear being stuck in just one area where there are so many aspects to explore.  Generalists are also far more likely to have “fallen into” IT rather than having entered the field having a strategic plan.

Understanding how each approaches the market and how the markets approach IT professionals help the IT professional have an opportunity to assess what it is that they like about their field and make good career choices to keep themselves happy and motivated and allows them to plan in order to maximize the impact of their career planning decisions.  Too often, for example, small business generalists will attempt to do a specialization focus, very often in enterprise Cisco networking just as a common example, which have almost no potential value to the marketplace where their skills and experience are focused.  Professionals doing this will often find their educational efforts wasted and be frustrated that the skills that they have learned go unused and atrophy while also being frustrated that gaining highly sought skills do not appear to contribute to new job opportunities or salary increases.

There is, of course, opportunity to move between general and special IT roles.  But the more experience a professional gains in one area or the other, the more difficult it becomes to make a transition, at least without suffering from a dramatic salary loss in order to do so.  Early in an IT career, there is relatively high flexibility to move between these areas at the point where the broadening of generalization is minimal or the deep technical skills of specialization are not yet obtained.  Entry level positions in both areas are effectively identical and there is little differentiation in career starting points.

Greater perspective on IT careers gives everyone in the field more ability and opportunity to pursue and achieve the IT career that will best satisfy their technical and personal work needs.

Contract to Hire

There are so many horrible hiring practices commonly used today one hardly knows where to begin. One of the most obviously poor is the concept of “Contract to Hire” positions.  The concept is simple: You hire someone on a temporary contract and, if all things work out well, you hire them on as a full time employee.  The idea being that the firm can “test drive” the employee for six months and make a sound hiring decision.  Maybe on the surface this feels like a huge win for the employer and the employee, of course, gets to test drive the employer.

But if we look at the idea from an employee’s perspective the misguided nature of this approach becomes very obvious.

There are essentially two types of workers: consultants and traditional employees.  At least people who desire to be one or the other.  Consulting is a unique way of working and a certain percentage of professionals prefer it.  Most workers want to be employees with all of the stability and benefits that that implies.  Very few people desire to be consultants.  It is a very high stress way to work.  This doesn’t mean that people don’t change over time, it is common for young professionals to like consultant work and desire to change to full employment at some later point in their careers.

The description above shows the problem with the contract to hire approach.  Which person do you hire?  The thought is that you will hire the later, the person wanting to be a long term employee with good stability and benefits who seeks out the contract to hire position in the hopes of becoming an employee.  One problem there, however, and that is that people who want to be stable employees don’t want to contract first.  Everyone knows that contract to hire means “contract with little to no chance of being hired afterwards.”  So workers seeking regular employment will only turn to contract to hire positions if they are unable to find regular employment leaving the employer with a strategy of only hiring those that are failing to find work anywhere else – a weak strategy at best.

The other risk is that consultants will take contract to hire jobs.  In these cases, the consultants take the position with no intention of accepting an offer at the end of the contract.  The company may spend six months or even a year training, testing, nurturing and convincing the consultant to love their job and when it comes time to hire them, they get declined.

There is no positive scenario for the contract to hire.  At best you hire a consultant who’s work style opinions are changed by the amazing nature of the work environment and magically they don’t get restless after accepting a position.  But this is far more rare than contract to hires actually attempting to hire someone at the end of the contract.  In the real world a company engaging in this practice is reduced to either hiring the least hireable or consultants with little to no intention of entertaining the “bait” offer.  This also leave the company with the belief that it has a carrot to dangle in front of the consultant when they in fact have nothing special to offer.

It is a case of an employer looking to take advantage of the market but, without thinking it through clearly, is setting themselves up to be taken advantage of.  The best employee candidates will bypass them completely and full time consultants will see the opportunity to strike.

The idea is simple and applies to all hiring.  Don’t hire a person based on factors that don’t apply to the actual job.  Hire employee types for employee positions, consultants for contract positions.  The same as you would not attempt to interview engineers for marketing positions – in theory someone has crossover skills but you eliminate almost any chance of every finding the right person.  Hire honestly to meet your needs and many problems will be eliminated.

Hiring IT: The Reverse Interview

Corporate interviewers often forget that interviews are a two way street: yes the company is interviewing the hopeful job candidate, but that candidate is interviewing the company as well.  Unless you are a wildly well known and highly desired company at which to work (e.g. Apple, Microsoft or Google) then you have probably little more than the interview process in which to demonstrate what kind of company you truly are to a potential candidate and even then many candidates will take the media’s opinions of working at those companies with a proverbial grain of salt.

No matter how fashionable or well respected the firm, most likely a job candidate will get one chance to peer into the inner workings of your company.  They will not judge you based on your cafeteria food nor on how friendly the staff is nor the lengthy, and probably completely inaccurate, job description – all of that is a form of marketing – a good candidate knows that and is exposed to it all of the time.  No, they will judge you based on your processes and the only process that you can’t gloss over, hide or fake is the interviewing process.

A company’s ability to interview effectively is the best cradle to grave process example that a candidate will see – very likely it will be the only one.  And since this is a process that affects all others, in that every person at the company was selected using it, it is also the best way to indicate to the candidate what the overall company is likely to be like and how it functions.  A good hiring process reflects a healthy company using good processes and possessing good staff, a bad hiring processes reflects a company with generally poor procedures and staff consisting mostly of those unable to find work someplace more attractive.

The hiring process is so often either complete afterthought or, at best, based completely around weeding out bad candidates that there is little thought put into convincing good candidates to accept a position at the firm.  The better the candidate the more likely that that candidate is already working and getting offers from more than one company.  The interview process must often convince a candidate that the unknown of your company is better than their existing, known position and that it is better than the unknowns of potentially many other firms.  Overcoming the “devil you know” issue can be very difficult, especially if that candidate already has a great job.  Ask yourself, “If I had their job, why would I leave it to come work for me?”

Vetting a potential candidate is not something that interviewers and the hiring process creators are likely to forget or overlook, but focusing so heavily on ruling out bad candidates will often also tell good candidates that this isn’t a place where they are interested in working.  Good candidates don’t want to work in a place lacking bad people, they want to work in a place full of good people.  The two are not the same thing.

Having a good, efficient and goal-oriented interviewing process can be difficult, especially if your firm is large and follows traditional interviewing practices in a codified manner.  There is no simple equation to running a great interview process, what every company’s technical needs and cultural needs are will dictate how best to approach enticing the best fitting candidates.  There are simple rules, though, that must be followed.

Every potential candidate that you will ever interview is full of horror stories from their own job hunts over the course of their careers.  Some are nearly universal, such as stories about how the human resources department sabotaged an otherwise perfect fit position, while others are unique and surprising.  Anyone that you will be interviewing will be thinking about their own past experiences as well as stories that they have heard from others and will be thinking about these things as they go through your company’s process.  Most process issues can be resolved, or at least mitigated, simply by taking the time to empathize with the candidates and see the process from their perspective.

Running a good interview process can start with the simplest of things like making sure that the team preparing to interview a candidate are on time, prepared for the interview, the appropriate people for that interview, aware of what they are interviewing for, etc.  Too often candidates go to an interview just to find that they are being interviewed by random people in the office who just happened to be available.  Those interviewers have not seen the resume ahead of time nor are aware of the qualifications that they are seeking.  You would not be impressed if the candidate being interviewed was late and unprepared, why are we then surprised if they are equally unimpressed when we as the entity seeking to hire are unprepared.  We can hardly fault a candidate for not taking the interview seriously if we are not taking it seriously ourselves, but this is exactly how the average interview goes – the candidate is far more prepared than the interviewing team.

Human resources presents one of the most well understood failures in the interviewing process.  Human resources is seldom prepared to speak to a potential candidate in any meaningful way in the information technology arena.  Rarely, if ever, is human resources in a position to judge a candidate’s skillset, skill level, ability to mesh with a team or appropriate compensation.  Human resources could be involved for verifying resume data or supplying benefits details, of course, but only after a candidate is otherwise selected.  Every IT professional can spot a job description that human resources has touched and great candidates turn down your firm at this stage, long before they ever show up in any statistic – before any contact with your company has been made.  You are losing potential employees, the best potential employees, before you ever find out that they were giving you a moment of their time.  You may also accidentally turn away candidates who would happily have accepted a position with your firm but were misled into believing that they were not qualified for a position due to nothing more than an incorrect, often impossible, job description.

It is important, too, to have a generally well laid out and efficient process to move from one interviewing stage to another and to do so, from end to end, in a relatively short period of time.  I myself have had poorly planned interviewing processes that stretched for longer than six months.  In these cases the people involved will often change positions, or even companies, during the process and the same stages might get repeated over and over with the interviewing company not remembering the candidate or what had been said and determined in earlier interviews.  If an interviewing process spans more than about a week the process is too long and the stages are too disconnected.  Decisions should also come in a timely manner, not weeks after an interview has taken place.

The interview process should be designed around the desired candidate traits.  If you want to hire someone to just hit the ground running and have no long term viability, focus purely on tech skills.  If you want someone to be a part of the team, focus on personality and just make sure that they can learn the tech skills in an amount of time that is appropriate for your needs.  If a position is important enough to hire someone to fill, it is important enough to interview well to get the right person.  Hiring a new staff member is a very big deal, nothing defines your company more than the people that it hires.  Nothing should be taken more seriously than the processes used to acquire the best staff.

Communications between interviewers and stages is important.  An interviewee will not be impressed if asked the same question multiple time, especially not if asked by the same person.  This is far more common than interviewers may realize.

Put yourself into the shoes of your candidates.  Think about how they will see your company when they interview with you.  Will they see an organization that treats them with respect and professionalism?  Will they see you as prepared and highly skilled?  Will they see processes that encourage the kind of people that they want to work with to join your firm?  Or will they see that your company thinks that hiring good people is not a priority?  Will they find that their future coworkers aren’t the cream of the crop and that they aren’t being hired to compliment good people but to provide skills that you have failed, thus far, to cultivate?  Will they see processes designed to weed out bad people but that fail to attract good ones?

Interviewing processes do not need to be exceptionally formal or rigid.  Alternative approaches can work wonders and can tell a candidate much about your company.  But make sure that any process that you implement reflects positively on your firm and is not turning away the candidates that you might wish to hire.

No matter how much you imagine that candidates should be beating down your doors to come work for you – those candidates don’t know that.  Until you convince them otherwise, you are just another unlikely job prospect to them in an endless sea of job listings – unlikely that they will get an offer and unlikely that they will accept one if received.  Job seekers are inundated with job listings and head hunters daily.  Most companies that a candidate will decide to interview with will turn out to not even really be hiring but are just “fishing” – looking to see what the candidates and going compensation rates are like in the current market.   A candidate is not going to get excited until they feel that you are a serious firm and that the job sounds exciting.

Interviewers generally approach candidates with the impression that the candidate is begging for the position and that they are charged with turning away all but the best option.  But there is a very good chance that the person that you are interviewing was cajoled or begged (or even bribed) to sit across that table from you by a headhunter, consulting or staffing firm.  Often they have been led there under false pretenses, such as being told that compensation is as much as double what is actually your realistic cap or that they will be in a far more senior position than you are interviewing for.  In that person’s eyes it is you the interviewer, not they the interviewee, who is in the begging position, and for truly great candidates that will almost universally be the case.  Companies need great employees far more than employees need great jobs.

If a candidate is brought in by a staffing firm then chances are that that candidate has been presented with a very different view of the situation than you expect.  Likely they have been told great and unrealistic things about the position and they see that staffing firm as the direct and official representative of your firm – which if you have hired them, they are.  So you are effectively reaching out to candidates, pre-selecting them and asking them to come interview with you.  To the candidate, they are doing you the favor, not the other way around.  If they show up and you are not ecstatic that they took the time out of their schedules to meet with you they are going to be less than impressed.  They assume that you have sifted through large numbers of candidates and selected them for a reason.

Using a staffing firm is never advised, in my opinion.  They do not represent the interests of you as the hiring company nor of the candidates.  They, at best, are a point of miscommunications and increased cost.  At worst they play both parties against each other for their own gain.  Like an human resources department, they have very little to add to a selection process but have the capacity to wreak nearly unlimited damage.  The best companies, no matter what size they are, take the time to make their hiring process a purely internal one.  No matter what type of business you are in, the ability to attract, acquire and retain the best staff is the best competitive advantage possible.  If your hiring process is not taken seriously there is no way that you can compete cost effectively.  Your only option is to raise salaries to a point that enough candidates concerned about money over job quality are willing to come work for you.  This can work but is very expensive, and not completely effective, compared to having great hiring practices.

The bottom line is that your hiring practices dictate what you are and will become as a company.   If you don’t acquire and develop good staff you won’t have them to drive efficiency and innovation.  Take your hiring process very seriously and consider how your company presents itself to a candidate.  Remember, weeding out bad people is easy.  Attracting good ones is hard.