by Daintry Duffy

Finding Nontraditional IT Hires

Oct 15, 200013 mins
IT Leadership

Reader ROI

Learn how companies recruit nontraditional IT employees

Find ways to improve the success rate of hiring employees new to IT

Most CIOs wouldn’t consider 14 years of experience in theater as suitable preparation for a career in IT, but a conversation with Mark Dingley might change a few minds. Dingley worked as a master electrician and lighting designer for productions such as Shakespeare’s Henry VIII and Robert Bolt’s A Man for all Seasons in the New Jersey area. Trained in technical design and production, he also worked as a trouble-shooter for a theater-equipment rental company, advising production crews how to solve problems they encountered on the road. Though he never thought of his theater experience as providing transferable skills like project management or customer service expertise, Dingley was attracted by the financial rewards of a career in technology. Determined to get a position in IT—any position in IT—he sent out his r¿m¿willy-nilly” hoping that someone would respond. “I had never worked at one company for more than nine months,” he admits. “My r¿m¿ent on for pages.” Most of the companies he pursued insisted on a computer science degree. However, one company did throw him a line. IHS Help Desk Service, a New York City-based provider of call-center automation, offered to give Dingley a technology aptitude test. When he scored well, IHS put him through a two-week unpaid boot camp that teaches the basic technologies handled by the help desk, resolutions to common complaints and assesses how much each student understands by using role-playing exercises. At the end of it, Dingley was brought on board. That was five years ago. Dingley is now a senior process consultant with IHS and stands as proof that you don’t need to have a degree in computer science to build a successful career in IT.

While many companies would balk at hiring a total outsider like Dingley, they are still looking beyond the realm of IT at their own companies to staff their IT departments. Business-side employees with backgrounds in human resources or accounting, for example, can be successfully retrained to fill IT jobs. Companies that reach out for IT workers are finding that these transitioned employees not only build successful careers, they also bring a variety of assets to their roles that are not found among the traditional pool of computer-science grads.

So why don’t more companies look for these nontraditional solutions to IT staffing shortages? Probably because for each glowing account of a non-IT worker who successfully transitioned into IT, there is a corresponding sad tale of those who didn’t make it—the one who got discouraged, the one who felt overwhelmed and in many cases the one who just plain didn’t like IT. The cost is particularly great to companies when internal employees are recruited into IT and then don’t work out. When these employees fail, they often cost the employer not one but two jobs—the IT job that they quit and the business-side job that they left to join IT in the first place. The question that CIOs need to address is not whether hiring people, either internally or externally, with nontraditional backgrounds works; in many cases it clearly does. The issue is what successful companies are doing that ensures their success.

The Aptitude/Attitude Connection

Companies that recruit nontraditionalemployees seem to share a knack for identifying the right combination of aptitude and attitude. Back in 1996, IHS Help Desk Services had trouble retaining employees. While this isn’t a unique problem these days, IHS was in particularly bad shape. “If you were to annualize the number of employees we lost in one month, it would have been 300 percent of our workforce,” recalls Eric Rabinowitz, a principal with the company. Management brought in a consulting company to diagnose the problem, and one of the recommendations it made was to develop an internal training program that would allow IHS to recruit new employees from other disciplines and teach them to perform the help-desk role.

Reducing the high turnover rate would require the ability to identify people who had the skills and personality to do well in the help-desk role long term. IHS conducted a research project to create a behavioral profile of a prototypical help-desk or customer relationship management (CRM) worker. By comparing that profile with the general population, the company was able to devise a methodology by which it could measure applicants and deduce their aptitude for the position. To try out the model, IHS tested 5,000 people and found that for every 209 people tested, only one was selected for the job—a confirmation that the behaviors and traits IHS selected would identify only the folks who really fit the profile.

Some of the areas that IHS tests for are “technical mastery,” the ability to take in new information, learn it and apply it to the job; and communication, which is the ability to take in ideas and formulate them in a way that other people can understand.

The results for IHS have been compelling. By 1999, IHS had whittled its employee turnover rate down to 22 percent; 18 percent turnover for folks who had gone through the boot camp. In the past five years, Dingley not only moved up the ranks on the help desk, he moved over to the consulting side of the business where he can use the technical experience he has gained as well as the project-management expertise of his theater days.

An Inside Job

Unlike ihs, which recruits non- IT people from the outside, Progressive Insurance Corp.’s Quest program trains veteran business employees in the company who want to move into IS. Employees who are interested in making the transition to a tech career sign up to take a test and are put through a rigorous interview process. The test and interview weed out some applicants, and the remaining applicants are placed in a three-month program that teaches them the basics of the IT environment—from mainframe skills, tools and utilities, to the programming language they’ll be using in their new position. The company has offered the program annually since 1994, and in that time Progressive has trained about 95 employees. An impressive number of those (88 to be exact) are still working within the IT group.

Mary Kline, IT/HR director of the Mayfield Village, Ohio-based company, attributes much of the program’s success to the fact that it’s offered only to employees who are already with Progressive. “A business person from the outside wouldn’t know IT and wouldn’t know Progressive, so they would really struggle,” she says.

Christine Musacchio, a systems application programmer with Progressive, took the aptitude test in 1997 when she was an underwriter. Until that point, Musacchio’s technology experience had been mostly limited to personal computer use, but she was interested in IT and felt that she might have a natural aptitude for it. The test, which involved learning a mocked-up computer language, manipulating and storing values, and then writing some simple minicode, “was the easiest test I ever took,” says Musacchio.

About 70 percent of the employees who sign up to take Progressive’s Quest program pass the aptitude test, which focuses on logical thinking and problem solving. Those individuals then have to undergo a behavioral-based interview. Good interviewing skills can be taught. But to avoid the canned answers that tend to dominate regular interviews, Progressive asks applicants to recount specific situations they have experienced to reveal how they handle themselves under pressure. For example, the interviewer might ask them to recall a situation in which their boss was angry with them and delve into the details of what they were doing when the boss approached them, how they felt and so on.

When internal employees from other departments bring their knowledge of the business into the IT group, they make a clear contribution to the group as a whole. However, CIOs also benefit from the fact that they are hiring a known quantity. With internal employees, CIOs have access to their performance records, know much more about their skills and temperament, and have the added comfort of knowing that they are already committed to the company.

At technology service provider IHS, on the other hand, whose bread and butter is retaining qualified IT talent, hiring internally is not a luxury. J.C. Sherman, associate vice president for IS at the Navy Federal Credit Union based in Merrifield, Va., sounds a note of caution for CIOs who ignore internal applicants for IT spots. “If employees really want to get into IT, they’ll go to college part time and make the jump to an entry-level position somewhere else.” Your loss.

The Wheat And The Chaff

Interviewing helps i.t. departments separate the folks with a sincere interest in technology from those who just see a jump as a way to bring home a bigger paycheck. Ken Michaelchuck, CIO of Philip Morris in Rye Brook, N.Y., has watched business people move in and out of IT in his years with both Procter & Gamble and Miller Brewing (a subsidiary of Philip Morris). One of the big mistakes he has seen is that oftentimes people read a magazine and are seduced by the breathless accounts of technology in action and believe that IT is the best place to be. “I’d like to be a brain surgeon; they make a lot of money,” says Michaelchuck, “but when I look at what it takes, I’m not sure I want to waste half my life in school.” Sitting down with interested employees and talking about what they are getting into, the skills they will need for the job, and what they’ll have to do to get them, often causes those who are less committed to reconsider.

CIOs need to weed out the employees who follow the biggest paycheck from those who are sincerely committed. Tests, of course, are not infallible, so CIOs should not rely on them as the only means of gauging a person’s aptitude for an IT job. At IHS, for example, where customer-service acumen for the help desk is highly prized, Rabinowitz encourages his staff to pay attention to the people they meet in customer situations and, if they warrant it, to give them a business card. Rabinowitz recalls standing in line at a Nathan’s hot dog counter in a New York City airport—where one does not always encounter the friendliest folks. The clerk behind the counter was exhibiting exceptional customer service skills as she served a long succession of harried customers. Impressed, Rabinowitz gave her his card and had her enrolled in the help desk boot camp. In this case it wasn’t a great fit for the candidate, and she didn’t work out. But Rabinowitz still encourages his staff to pay attention to the people they meet in customer service situations. “If they’re respectful on the phone, deal well with people and vendors, that person is showing abilities that can easily be translated into dealing with our customers.”

Don’t Skimp On Training

Although offering training to employees transitioning into IT might seem painfully obvious, it’s a step that many companies gloss over in their fervent desire to put a warm body behind a desk. When employees with little experience are placed in on-the-job training situations, they often have the aptitude to learn their position, but their long-term job growth suffers because they never gain a mastery of their job. Michaelchuck of Philip Morris suggests that CIOs give employees their training away from the actual job so that they have the opportunity to build a real base of knowledge and understanding rather than the minimum needed to just get by.

Progressive trains new IT employees in a three-month classroom program interspersed with short, on-the-job assignments where they apply what they learn. Kline believes this approach allows employees to learn their jobs before plunging into them. In addition, as trainees achieve some small successes during the learning process, they can better appreciate the progress they have made.

Mentoring is one of those touchy-feely topics that tends to elicit mass eye rolling among executives, but companies that are successful in converting people from other disciplines into productive IT workers follow career- development principles. Often mentoring is a fundamental part of that approach.

If converts receive career training and development and have a person assigned to track their progress, Philip Morris, for one, has found that they contribute much more the organization. Michaelchuck hopes to build IT people who have the eventual capacity to be “managers of managers,” taking their training and expertise all the way to the executive level.

The Navy Federal Credit Union followed the same theory when it set up its program. The company selected seven people from the 81 who applied to go through their seven-week training session. A mentor assigned to each trainee closely followed their progress and provided them with as much individual attention as they needed.

Navy Federal also built a safety net into its program, stipulating that—if after a few months in the field, employees were unhappy with the IT job—they could return to their old position. One person took them up on it. Rather than promoting frequent job changing among the restless, the safety net is designed to quell any uncertainty that employees may have about making such a huge career change. Regarding the one employee who dropped out, Sherman says, “he was certainly intelligent enough, it just wasn’t what he had in mind.”

Worth The Effort

For organizations that design a thor-ough training program and are willing to help non-IT people adjust to their new careers, hiring individuals like Musacchio and Dingley not only eases the staffing crunch, it also brings individuals with valuable business and life experiences into the IT department.

Since completing Progressive’s training course, Musacchio has moved up in the department to a senior-level programmer and is often the go-to person when a fellow programmer in her group has a business-side question. “Because of the previous business knowledge, I was actually ahead of people who came in at the senior level at the same time I did,” she says. “They’re still struggling to grasp the entire picture.” In Dingley’s group of external non-IT recruits at IHS, the results have been just as compelling. One recruit worked as an auto mechanic and came to IHS after being injured on the job. “At first he was kind of embarrassed about his background,” Dingley says. “But he brings with him a wealth of troubleshooting experience that someone with a computer science degree just doesn’t have.”