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By Mike Herrington

Many business owners don’t stop to think about the criticality of hiring the right talent for their IT department. Most businesses today are technology-driven, so, having the right solution in place for IT can be a critical part of your business strategy.

I do technology consulting on a regular basis and have been flabbergasted by the ineptitude of some of the IT guys — and even IT directors that I’ve come across over the years. They simply don’t know what they’re doing. “How do they keep their jobs?” you ask. They know a little bit more than the guy that hired them.

Have you ever gone to the mechanic and had them tell you that you had a busted tri-shaft exhaust flange or that you were low on blinker fluid? Those aren’t real car parts. The same problem sometimes occurs in IT. The average person isn’t an expert on cars or computers, so they trust the expert to give them sound advice. There are some less than upright IT guys that will take advantage of this type of situation where they have all the power.

They start telling management that they can’t possibly get everything done that needs to happen even when they easily could. They either have them pay to hire additional staff that is doing the first guy’s job or hire outside consultants to do the work they were paying their IT staff for.

I recently consulted with an organization that had about 80 employees. They had a full-time IT guy on staff and were paying a LOT of money in addition to that salary for consultants. An IT guy that knows his stuff and works hard can easily support 125 or so users, depending on the complexity of the network.

Their IT guy had worked there for years. He knew the system and how it worked and had gained the trust of all the management team. He was their expert and they trusted him completely. What they didn’t know was that he was also exceptionally lazy and not as skilled as he had led them to believe when he was hired years ago.

He would fix the occasional thing himself to keep up appearances, but outsourced most of his work to contractors. This caused the IT budget to balloon to five times what it would needed to be and was costing the organization hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in waste. Management didn’t blink an eye because they trusted him completely.

Don’t let this happen to you. Here are a few guidelines that will help you get the right solution in place for IT:

1. Do you need a full-time IT guy? If you have less than 100 employees, STOP. Don’t hire anyone full time in-house unless you have very specific network needs that are unusually complex. A better solution for small and medium businesses is a quality managed-service provider. This will get you a high-quality solution with fast response times and more benefits for a fraction of what you would pay for full-time IT staff. If you have less than 100 employees, this is likely a better fit and will save you money.

2. Know the need. To be effective at hiring for IT, you need to know some specifics about the network and job so you can hire for the need. How many servers do you have? What are the functions? Are they Windows and are they current? If you don’t have this information documented somewhere, a consultant can do an evaluation and provide it at a reasonable price. Having this information will also help you advertise for the right candidates. Do you need a senior systems administrator or a help desk technician? Understanding the network helps you get the right candidates in the door.

3. Look for integrity. IT guys have the keys to the kingdom and so they need to be someone that you can trust. Ask situational questions during the interview to help you gauge their moral compass. In addition, do a background check on every applicant. You don’t want a felon to have access to your financial data.

4. Look for personality. IT guys are famous for being less-than-personable. This is a huge problem for a lot of organizations. Even if they are a genius and can fix problems with ease, sometimes the lack of interpersonal skills can cause friction. This can prevent folks from wanting to talk to IT and can result in significant problems. Look for a problem solver that likes to help people.

5. Check credentials. Most IT professionals will have industry certifications that verify their knowledge. These certifications are frequently more important than a college degree because they involve hands-on industry experience. You can get a degree in computer science and know very little about troubleshooting a computer. Weight industry certifications and hands-on experience higher than formal education. You should also verify these credentials to ensure they are legitimate and current. Someone who got an advanced industry certification 20 years ago may know very little about current systems. They need to be up-to-date within the past few years.

6. Get help. If you know that you don’t have technical expertise on staff to effectively interview an IT guy, get a consulting firm to assist you. You’ll spend some money doing so but if you get the right hire in the door, it will pay off in spades.

Hiring for IT can be tricky for companies that have limited internal resources. Smart business practices and a careful hiring process can save business owners tons of headaches and enormous potential waste. Following these basic steps will help ensure that you don’t get sold a quart of blinker fluid.

Mike Herrington is the manager of business development at i.t.NOW.