by Jane Howze

The Hiring Manager Interviews: David Price Knows Exactly What He Wants and Needs from Candidates for His IT Department

Feb 14, 200817 mins
IT Leadership

The National Multiple Sclerosis Society's EVP of internal operations looks for personable individuals with good communication skills, energy, curiosity and experience managing large-scale systems.

He may not admit it, but David Price has a knack for hiring good people. He’s demonstrated it since day one. The first person he ever hired when he was a manager with Arthur Andersen in the late 1980s was a computer science major from the University of Virginia—who eventually became a partner with the firm. Sure, Price has made his mistakes (who hasn’t?), but he’s learned valuable lessons from them, and he shares those lessons in this Q&A.

Price, who is stepping down this month from his position as the National Multiple Sclerosis Society‘s executive vice president of internal operations to start his own consulting firm, DVPrice & Co., says he relies on “proven techniques” for sussing out candidates. He’s a rigorous reference checker. He involves as many peers and staff members as he can in the hiring process and values their input. Rarely does he override their opinions. He knows exactly what he’s looking for in candidates for various positions. And he tries to spend some time with candidates outside his office in a more relaxed setting, such as a restaurant, to get a better understanding of the candidate’s true personality.

“None of these techniques are ground breaking,” says Price. “They are fundamental techniques that have served me well.”

Hopefully, they’ll serve you well, too.


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Jane Howze: You have been a hiring manager in several different industries: not-for-profit, management consulting and financial services. Do you hire differently for different industries?

David Price: Financial services and nonprofit organizations couldn’t be more different. Yet, I have found that key hiring principles apply to both industries. For example, it is important to make sure that the goals of the organization are aligned with the personal goals of the candidate. Second, there are characteristics—such as being proactive, having strong problem-solving skills, attention to detail, communicating effectively and showing respect for individuals—that a candidate has to have regardless of industry.

Does a nonprofit attract different types of IT professionals than a for-profit?

If someone has a connection to our mission, they’re certainly going to be attracted to our environment. Other than that, we are a geographically distributed organization, which poses certain interesting technology and systems challenges. For example, the National MS Society is made up of 54 chapters across the country and a home office. This makes rolling out systems much harder than if everyone was located in three or four sites around the country. Complicating matters is the fact that every chapter is different, and the home office cannot dictate what happens in each chapter. We attract people who are interested in solving those types of problems.

The people we hire have to have exceptional interpersonal and communications skills because they do a lot of work via conference calls. We require our staff to function as facilitators and bring together all of the viewpoints and unique problems faced by our chapters. We also ask our staff to distinguish between what is truly unique to geography and what can be standardized.

Someone who wants to work in a nonprofit environment needs to be willing to learn everything they can about the business functions because a nonprofit environment is pretty much “all hands on deck” for every situation that comes up. For example, even though you might be in an IT position, you may need to work at a fundraising event. You need to be open to throwing yourself into anything that’s going on in the organization because most nonprofits don’t have the resources that many for-profits have; the gaps are filled by the efforts and energy of the employees.

Working for a nonprofit is a great place for people to start their careers, whether they’re in IT or another function. They get more responsibility and experience than they would in a comparable for-profit because everyone has to pitch in. Even if you decide to leave the nonprofit world, you’ll come away with broader and deeper experiences than your peers who started in for-profit organizations.

What IT challenges are you facing and how does hiring figure into them?

We’ve made significant technology investments in each of our functional areas over the past four years. All of our chapters and our home office are using the same core business applications. Implementing this common platform of systems took a tremendous amount of effort. The platform is not perfect, and we’ll make additional investments to tighten up these systems and improve data quality but, with the base platform in place, we can now shift our focus from implementation to actually using the systems and improving our processes.

Consequently in IT, we have focused on hiring people who are used to managing and operating large-scale systems and infrastructure and who can help us get a return from the investment we’ve made in these new systems. We’ve also hired people who either already know our business or who can learn it. We have focused on hiring business analysts, end-user support personnel, trainers and data analysts. We have outsourced all of the highly technical positions to our vendors (with the exception of networking and telephony), are in a much better position to find the best technical skills to apply to our systems. We need people in the organization who understand what we are trying to do from a business perspective and can apply the technology to solving business problems. The people we have hired are going to be the ones who make the technology work for our business and make our investments pay off.

What types of positions do you personally hire for in the IT function?

I am involved in hiring people who will be senior leaders in our IT organization. Learning how to hire senior leaders is extremely challenging. If you hire the wrong person, the results can be disastrous: The morale of entire departments can be crushed, the effectiveness of the organization can suffer and this is just the short list. On the other hand, if you hire the right person, tremendous benefits follow. Speaking personally, when I believe that I have mastered hiring senior IT leaders, I will let you know. Don’t expect to hear from me for some time.

How do you determine whether a candidate you’re considering for a senior position in IT is right?

I wouldn’t consider hiring a CIO or IT director without having people in other functional areas also interview the candidates. Our organization is based on relationships. If my peers don’t think a candidate can successfully build relationships inside other departments, that is a huge factor in my decision process.

I place a significant emphasis on references from people I know, from what my peers tell me when they interview a candidate and what my staff tells me when they speak to a candidate. I have also learned to place more emphasis on what HR tells me. I have found that a good HR person can identify key issues quickly and early in the process. There is no such thing as too much help when hiring senior executives. I work with a great team of people and I learn from them with every hire we make.

Do you ever interview candidates for executive-level positions in other functions?

Yes. At the home office of the National Multiple Sclerosis Society, the management team is truly committed to making each other successful. As a result, many of us are asked to interview for senior-level positions in other departments. Our CEO engages a large portion of our management team to interview candidates for these positions. It is a crucial part of the hiring process in an organization like ours. I have participated in the hiring process for our EVP of human resources, CFO, EVP of advocacy and our EVP of marketing.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn’t like them? If so, did you hire the person and with what result?

If I get a strong negative reaction from my team and my peers on a candidate, I usually won’t hire that person unless I am certain I know something that they don’t—which isn’t very often.

There was one time when I ignored my team’s advice completely. Fortunately, it worked out well. I was hiring a junior information security analyst and there was someone on our administrative staff who was interested in the position. This person had done a good job in administration but had no information security experience. Nevertheless, this person had all of the qualities you could ever want in a good hire. They had just gotten tagged as “administrative support” only. (On a side note, I have seen this happen in almost every organization I have worked with: It is far too hard for people who get tagged as “administrative support” to move into other roles in an organization.)

Anyway, I was convinced that this person could pick up the skills they needed for this entry-level information security analyst position and I hired them in spite of being told by almost everyone that the person wasn’t qualified. We invested in training this person and, within six months, they were performing at an exceptionally high level. Now this person is a director of information security at a company in New York.

Who was the first person you ever hired?

The first person I ever hired was a computer science major from my alma mater, the University of Virginia. As a manager with Arthur Andersen at the time, I was asked to run Andersen’s recruiting program for consulting at UVA. The first person I hired eventually became a partner with Andersen, so that worked out pretty well for everybody.

Did you receive training on how to hire?

At Andersen, I received a lot of training on interviewing. But let’s be realistic, when you have to hire 50 people in Atlanta and you are interviewing at Georgia Tech, it doesn’t take a hiring genius to determine who should get an offer. I probably have not taken advantage of enough opportunities to receive further training on hiring. Through on-the-job training, I believe I have progressed to being fairly good at hiring senior technology managers and peer executives. As I mentioned earlier, I have a long way to go before I will claim being an expert in hiring senior executives, particularly when they’re in a field other than IT.

Do you think you’ve gotten better at hiring over the years through experience and training? Or do you consider yourself an instinctive hiring manager?

I think hiring is more of a science than an art, though instinct does play a part. I believe people can be taught how to make good hires. I have found that sticking to a proven hiring process, proven techniques and getting to the facts about a candidate serves me well. I am sure others are successful hiring on intuition, but that’s not me. I’ve gotten better through the years, though quite candidly it has been largely through trial and error.

What proven techniques do you use?

I work hard to get referrals from people I have had success working with in the past. When checking references, I ask the references for other references. This is extra work but it pays off.

I also include HR very early in the process. I am always amazed at how much a good HR professional can learn about a person in an initial interview. Many times, the results of the HR interview have given me a good sense of whether the candidate is potentially a good fit for our company.

I have the candidate interview with as much of the team as possible and with people in other departments.

I put a lot of emphasis on spending time with the candidate and learning as much as I can about him or her. I like to do a second interview with a candidate in a casual environment, such as a restaurant. The purpose of this second interview is not to test their social skills; I simply want get to know them as an individual in a setting that is a little more conducive to that than my office.

That said, I do not research a candidate on any of the social networking sites (Facebook, MySpace, etc.). The opportunity is certainly there to learn even more about somebody by going to these sites, but to me, that is going too far. Just because the opportunity is there does not mean I have to exploit it. However, candidates should know (and they probably already do) that many employers have made visiting these sites part of their standard operating procedures.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you ever made and what did you learn from it?

I strongly believe in promoting internally—probably more so than most people I have talked to. I think internal candidates often get unfairly penalized because you know them, warts and all. I usually give internal candidates extra credit.

That said, the biggest mistake I made involved promoting an internal candidate. When I first approached them about the position, they were reluctant and stayed reluctant through most of the search. The search dragged on for a few months when suddenly this person became extremely interested in the position. Needless to say, I hired them and they were not successful. When this individual was reluctant for so long, they were sending me a message that this position really was not right for them. I should have listened to that message. By ignoring this nonverbal message, I put this person in a position where they were unable to be successful regardless of how well I thought they were going to do.

What was the worst interview you ever conducted?

I was interviewing for new hires at Andersen and was talking to a candidate about their summer job, which involved testing different types of highway paint. I tried to get the candidate to explain the testing process to me and the role they played. I got nowhere. All I remember from the interview was the person saying, “I tested yellow paint and I tested white paint.” For whatever reason, I couldn’t get anything substantive from this person.

If I’m interviewing someone and it’s not going well, I’ll end it early out of respect for their time and let them know I don’t think it’s a good fit, but that doesn’t happen very often. I’ll also give them the opportunity to continue the interview if they believe that I’m missing something.

What do you consider a successful hire?

It is a two way street. The candidate has to produce for the company, and the company has to produce for the candidate. I imagine there are a lot of ways to measure this, but I consider someone a successful hire if, after five years, they are still with the organization, their performance is clearly recognized as solid to excellent and the employee feels that their time with the organization has helped them progress toward meeting their life goals.

Have you ever interviewed somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call they sent directly to you?

I don’t receive too many “cold” inquiries via mail, e-mail or telephone. If I do receive them, I generally tell them the truth about our hiring situation and refer them to HR. I love receiving “warm” inquiries. These are inquiries from people I know or people recommended by people I know. I will take the time to talk to these people or schedule a lunch with them to get to know them better.

If a candidate knows me or is referred to me by an associate, I want them to contact me. If they are coming in cold, they really are better served going through HR. I speak almost daily with our EVP of HR, and if a good candidate comes across her desk, I know I will hear about it.

LinkedIn is going to be a significant hiring source for me. I am still working on getting my LinkedIn network up to critical mass. However, it won’t be too long before I get it where I want it to be. Referrals through LinkedIn jump to the top of the queue.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

In general, it is always better to overdress for an interview than to under dress. You almost can’t go wrong if you follow that advice. However, if a candidate has purple hair and wears a nose screw and they undo all of that for an interview and get the job, it can end poorly for everyone. The candidate might find themselves miserable since they had to change themselves so much to get the job and cannot be themselves at work. I would rather a candidate present themselves to me during the interview the way they would present themselves to me on a typical work day. During our interview process, the candidate will interview with enough people to see how people dress on a typical work day. As I said before, hiring is a two-way street: I have to be comfortable that the candidate is going to be a good fit in our organization, and the candidate needs to feel comfortable in our organization. So I would rather have someone dress as themselves for an interview than dress as the person they think they need to be. If they are the right person for the job, it will come out during the interview.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés, thank-you notes and cover letters?

You can never use the words “please” and “thank you” enough. It does make a difference, particularly over the long-term.

What interview questions do you always ask?

How does this position fit into you major life goals?

Please tell me about your biggest failure and please don’t share with me one of those failures that is really a success. If a candidate hasn’t failed (botched project, whatever) and learned, then they probably aren’t right for the position I am hiring for.

What three things do you require from me to be successful?

Give me an example of when you have told your boss, to their face, that they are about to make a stupid decision.

What advice would you give someone interviewing for a CIO position?

Do whatever you have to do to learn the truth about what you are getting yourself into. If an organization is interviewing for a CIO, it is probably not because everything is going great. In fact, quite the opposite is probably true.

If the old CIO left, and management was happy with how that CIO was doing, they probably will hire from within. The most likely scenario is that management is extremely unhappy with the current situation, and you are walking into a functional and political minefield. As a candidate, you need to find out as much as you can about what you are walking into. What is the real status of their major projects? Why did the previous CIO really leave? What does the CIO’s peers think needs to be done? Is the management team structured so that you will have any real influence? You almost need to do a mini-strategic systems plan during the interview process. You should talk to as many people as possible and interview the company as much as they are interviewing you. Talk to key vendors if you can. Talk to whomever you can about the real situation you might find yourself in. Then, once you understand the situation you can make a rational decision about what to do.

Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.

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