7 Paths to Spotting and Spurring Hidden IT Talent

Your next great IT hire already works for your organization. Here's how to discover hidden IT gems.

IT talent

Everyone knows the secret to business success is to hire great talent. But some of the most talented employees around might already be working for you -- and you may not even know it.

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"Not enough time is spent identifying talent within companies, let alone grooming them for senior-level positions," says Iman Jalali, president of TrainSignal, an online IT training platform. "Looking inside doesn't just build morale, but is good for business, too. Sometimes you'll identify individuals that are emerging talent that need to be coached, trained, and groomed for future senior positions."

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How do you do it? We asked hiring pros, CTOs, and CEOs how they unearthed the hidden gems inside their organizations and how you can do it too.

Some of their secrets? Hold a hackathon to identify closet geeks or establish extracurricular projects for employees who want to show off their skills. Some techniques are as simple as setting up a suggestion box or scheduling time routinely to talk tech with your employees. Others involve pushing top performers out of their comfort zones or enlisting them in the hunt for top talent. Finally, you also need to know when to cut the cord and let your most talented employees move on to better things. Making their career paths a priority for your organization helps to ensure loyalty and get the best from your best.

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 1: Host hackathons

If there's programming talent hiding in your organization, nothing will bring it out like a hackathon. HireVue, creators of a platform that allows companies to send interview questions to candidates and record their responses via Web cam, holds regular "hackweek" contests to suss out new talent and ideas, says CEO Mark Newman.

"We ask them, 'What is that irritating thing you've always wanted to fix? If you had nothing else to do all day, what is the one really cool thing you'd want to build?'" he says. "We recently asked a team of 20 people internally these questions, and within one week we had five testable products to look at. It was awesome."

Robert LeCount, director of IT for financial education firm The Rich Dad Co., says the best tech ideas don't always come from IT pros. Last winter, Rich Dad split its staff of 22 employees into six cross-departmental teams. Their assignment: Come up with new marketing concepts for the company employing video, Web, and physical marketing materials.

"It pushed everyone out of their comfort zone and allowed us to assess where people work well -- who's more creative, who's better with technology, and who's more process-driven," says LeCount. "It got our IT guys learning how to use FinalCut and our accountants using InDesign and Illustrator. It turns out our accountants have great creative skills. In the end, the winning team came up with something we're now using as a marketing campaign."

But don't get too carried away by the cool tools and lose sight of the big picture, warns Joel Bomgar, CEO of remote IT solution provider Bomgar.

"To develop new, transformative technology, employees need some creative license, and letting employees experiment is a great way to uncover hidden talent," he says. "But if everyone isn't working toward the same endgame, you can end up with a lot of 'cool tools' that don't add up to a business."

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 2: Create showcase projects

If your employees don't have the geek cred to dive into a hackathon, there are plenty of other ways you can identify hidden talent. One is by creating special noncore projects and asking for volunteers to take them on, says Umesh Ramakrishnan, vice chairman at executive search firm CTPartners.

"Announce major initiatives that have not been assigned to a team and offer them up as temporary projects," advises Ramakrishnan. "Once you have your volunteers, have them assessed by your expert and monitor their progress. The cream will rise to the top."

Kareo, a medical office software and services provider, routinely offers up special projects for its staff, says VP of Product Development Jason Leu. For example, a Kareo engineer recently volunteered to create an internal tool to answer common questions from customers. It quickly became the central system the company uses to manage inquiries about customer accounts.

"This is the type of project that would not have been prioritized through normal processes but that turned out to have a profound impact on our business," Leu says. "When employees volunteer for these projects, it highlights specific passion around an idea or opportunity or flags specific talents that often are beyond the core knowledge of our team. They open up learning opportunities, allow employees to extend their skill sets, and help make a difference for our customers and business -- all positive factors for ongoing career development."

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 3: Resurrect the suggestion box

You'll never know what brilliant ideas are lurking inside your organization -- and which employees have them -- if you don't ask, says HireVue's Newman.

"We like to celebrate new ideas, and the people who promote them are the first in line for promotions and upward mobility inside our company," says HireVue's Newman. "Actively soliciting and implementing ideas from the entire employee base helps our technical team, as well as other functions, understand that their ideas matter and brings continuous improvement to the company. That ultimately leads to higher levels of employee engagement and retention. Out of the 100 people or so we've hired in the last three years, at least 10 of them were promoted thanks to ideas and programs they had suggested."

But, he adds, you must have a corporate culture that is open to new ideas; otherwise employees will feel shut out -- and quickly shut up. Being open and transparent is the key to retaining young tech talent, says Joel Bomgar.

"At Bomgar we have monthly companywide meetings during which I share everything that's going on, good or bad, down to our corporate bank balance," he says. "During those meetings I also read and address nearly every entry in our anonymous suggestion box, so employees know their views are being heard and valued."

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 4: Chew the tech fat

One of the best ways to unearth hidden talent is to find out what your staff is passionate about. This means setting aside time to shoot the breeze, says Perry Stoll, VP of engineering and operations for Cloudant, a cloud-based distributed database solution.

Stoll says Cloudant routinely schedules time for employees to bring in articles or blog posts that interest them, sit down, and talk tech, even if the conversation has nothing to do with actual work projects.

"The goal is to get insight into the real stuff people are paying attention to," he says. "You might learn someone is really into functional programming, compiler design, query optimization, or big data statistics. Or maybe they want to show off the latest advances in virtual machine performance. Whatever the case, they're going to have cool ideas on ways to build systems better."

At job-matching service TheLadders, developers watch an episode of Clean Coders' code-cast once a week during lunch, then discuss the content with the team, says Kyri Sarantakos, vice president of engineering. "It gets everyone out of the weeds and thinking about software engineering more broadly."

It doesn't have to be a formal or scheduled meeting. ExtraHop Networks encourages its engineers to brainstorm with one another in the hallway or spark up spontaneous white board sessions in a conference room nearby, says Rothstein, a software engineer himself. Because his office is right next to the engineering department, Rothstein says he'll often join in and push his team to come up with new product features or creative solutions to problems.

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 5: Do the employee shuffle

Sometimes the best way to find hidden talent is to throw people into unfamiliar waters and see how well they swim. Aside from sussing out new skills, taking employees out of their comfort zones and putting them in new work situations helps keep employees sharp, says TheLadders' Sarantakos.

"Nothing kills productivity quicker than boredom, so we try not to keep anyone in one box for too long," he says. "At TheLadders, if someone's been working on our back-end algorithms, we give them a chance to work on our consumer-facing features. The goal is to not put employees into the same rut day after day. We expose them to new technology or product features they haven't seen before in the hope that something clicks with them."

As a result, Sarantakos says, TheLadders' QA group comes mostly out of its customer service organization. "We've found them a great source for talent because they know the products and the customers," he says. "Three of our QA engineers started out in customer service, and one recently became a software engineer. We plan to back-fill his position from the customer service org."

The key is to treat employees more like free agents, able to roam where their interests take them, says Dave Katauskas, CTO for Geneca, a custom software development firm.

"We like to create opportunities for junior talent to make a difference and demonstrate an impact in areas that are important to them personally," he says. "The technology available today gives employees more opportunities to perform activities they are passionate about. This keeps them more engaged with the company and most will find the time to go above and beyond what they normally do on a daily basis."

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 6: Bring out your rock stars

Identifying talent takes talent. If you want to hire a top engineer, you need your best engineers involved in the decision. If you want to tap into skills already contained within your team, you need your rock stars mentoring the aspiring young hopefuls.

Keep interview teams to a critical list of your star performers, advises Allan Leinwand, VP and CTO of platform development for enterprise IT cloud company ServiceNow.

"If you want to grill someone about their database skills, you need someone in the room who knows databases and can ask the right questions," he says. While this may seem like it's keeping your best techs from doing what they do best, Leinwand says it's a much better use of their time in the long run.

"The ability to bring in the right people is a better way for them to spend their time," he says. "There's nothing more important than hiring and retaining great talent."

Bringing top talent into the hiring process can also make your company more attractive to promising recruits, says Kareo's Leu.

"Kareo actively leverages our senior leaders in our recruiting efforts," he says. "It means a lot to a potential recruit to talk to someone high up in the company in the first round of interviews, and it's even more flattering to the recruit if the executive or senior management is the one to perform the initial reach-out."

You can also use your best to unearth hidden talent in existing staff, most typically via a mentoring program.

"We pair young engineers with mentors who have over 10 years of industry experience," says Jesse Rothstein, CEO of ExtraHop Networks, a provider of IT operational intelligence solutions. "In this process, young engineers have a great deal of responsibility and freedom while their assigned mentors watch their progress and guide them."

Spotting hidden IT talent tip No. 7: Push your best employees out of the nest

It seems more than slightly counterintuitive: One of the best ways to attract and keep talent is to tell them when it's time to leave your team. But you owe it to your staff to let them know you're interested in their long-term success, says Stoll, even if that means eventually losing a star employee.

"You need to have honest conversations with your employees and ask them, 'So, when are you ready to leave my team?'" he says. "It's a conversation that says, 'I'm committed to your long-term success. Right now, that may mean finding you another role here.' These people are likely to be some of your star performers. It's tough, but helping them move onward and upward is the right thing."

New hires are discouraged from thinking about pursuing a long-term career at The Rich Dad Co., adds LeCount. "In fact most of our employees run their own companies on the side -- it's something we encourage," he says. "We want them to learn on the job, then take what they learn to go out on their own. We're in the business of teaching entrepreneurship, and we want our employees to embody that."

Managers need to resist the Dilbert Principle, says Stoll; they can't assume they can hold on to their best employees indefinitely because they believe geeks don't care about career advancement.

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