Finding the right IT staffers is a challenge for any company, but for a small or medium-sized businesses (SMB), hiring those with good skills and even better judgment is crucial. How do you locate a competent IT director who understands your business and fits well into your corporate culture?

One

of the biggest challenges is that non-technical people must often screen technical people. “It’s a recipe for disaster,” says Stephen Mill, Canadian regional vice-president for Toronto-based Robert Half Technology. “That’s why a lot of companies use recruiters. If you are going to do it yourself, make sure you’re tapping into the passive job market, which is referrals, professional associations and job sites that cater exclusively to technical people.”

If senior management doesn’t have a good understanding of technology, it’s going to rely on its IT director, says Robert Berger, president of Toronto-based Recruitment Outsourcing Solutions (ROSS). And hiring the wrong person can lead to all sorts of trouble.

“IT projects are notorious for going way over budget,” he says, “so if you have an IT director that is bluffing their way through, senior management basically has to trust what this person is saying. Then halfway through this project that’s gone awry your IT director leaves and you’re in the middle of a huge implementation that could end up costing you tons of money, aggravation and time.”

Some SMBs have unrealistic expectations. They look for an IT director capable of serving as a programmer, network administrator, project manager — capable even of running network cable through the roof. “You’re not going to find them,” says Mill. “One of the biggest mistakes we see small and mid-sized businesses make is they try and find one person who can do everything. A jack-of-all-trades is at times a convenient hire, but for companies that plan to grow it’s not a very strategic hire.”

SMBs need to become comfortable employing different methods to staff up in IT, he says. This includes outsourcing and the use of contract staff — practices often associated with larger organizations.

Masoud Badre found himself in such a situation. Badre, a real estate agent who manages six employees in an Ottawa branch office of RE/MAX Metro-City Ltd., purchased a Citrix server and software from a computer reseller to provide remote access to the company’s database.

“We spent almost $20,000 on this system and for a small company that’s a lot of money,” he says. But he wasn’t happy with the results. “They charged me a ton of money, they installed it on my system in the wrong way, we could never use it and we had no clue what to do,” he says.

Badre decided against hiring a full-time IT director, instead calling his technology vendor for references, then asking recommended outsourcer Computerland to fix the problem and train his staff on the system. As part of an ongoing agreement, Computerland drops by once a month to check on things.

An important part of hiring full-time staff, outsourcers or contractors is defining your specific IT needs. Is a security expert required, says Berger, or somebody who can do desktop upgrades and act as support staff? “They really should define both the tactical requirements they’re looking for, but also have a good understanding of the soft skills they’re looking for.”

If the candidate has to work odd hours or carry a pager, it helps to find somebody who has worked in such an environment before and knows what to expect. “Ask them which environment they prefer — one where you’re micro-managed and you’re told what to do on a regular basis, or an environment where you really take your own initiative and don’t need to have that hand-holding from upper management.”

Putting in your due diligence during the hiring process could save time and money down the road. When you bring in a new employee, you don’t get any value out of them for about 18 months, says Berger. If you do a good job screening and qualifying candidates upfront, it should lead to a greater retention rate, he says, which will save you the trouble of replacing that person later. “I can’t stress enough how important it is a company give the recruitment process the time and energy it deserves — ultimately it’s your human capital and that will define your business.”

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