by Bill Lepiesza

The Hiring Manager Interviews: Alan Etterman Shares His Sensible Hiring Practices

Jun 16, 200815 mins
IT Leadership

The CAO of JDS Uniphase doesn't aim to get the perfect hire every time, and neither should you. In this Q&A, Alan Etterman explains why.

Alan Etterman joined JDS Uniphase as its CIO at the height of the company’s turnaround efforts in November 2004. The communications components provider’s business fell apart when the telecom bubble burst in 2000 and, four years later, executives were still trying to put the pieces back together.


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During Etterman’s tenure as CIO, he picked up other functional responsibilities beyond IT, which led to his promotion to executive vice president and chief administrative officer in July 2007. In this role, Etterman is responsible for IT, workplace solutions, human resources, indirect sourcing and procurement, customer service, order management and corporate events. He has six direct reports and about 350 employees in his organization—not too shabby for a self-proclaimed IT guy who’s spent his entire career working for high-tech companies such as IBM, GTE, Cisco and 3Com.

“I can go from a real estate deal in the morning to comp and benefits [discussions] before lunch to technology strategy in the afternoon,” says Etterman.

Etterman’s views on hiring are as straightforward as his description of himself as an IT guy. They’re also sensible and worth emulating. For one, he believes that striving for the mythical perfect hire every time only fosters indecision and operational paralysis. The best managers, he says, make correct hiring decisions 70 percent of the time. Realizing you’re only going to get seven out of 10 hires right should make it easier for hiring managers to cut their losses sooner on the 30 percent that don’t work out, he adds.

Other rules guide Etterman’s hiring process, such as hire people who do what you don’t like to do and hire people who are passionate about what they do. In this latest Hiring Manager interview, Etterman shares his very organized interview process, discusses the biggest mistake CIOs make when staffing their IT departments and describes his formula for selecting direct reports.

Bill Lepiesza: How does a turnaround situation at a company affect hiring?

Alan Etterman: The challenge in a turnaround is that you actually can’t hire your “end state” because you’re not attractive enough to lure those people yet. So you actually go through a multiphase organizational development plan where you hire as good as you can get at the moment of the depths of the turnaround, which may be just B or C players. And a lot of times, they can’t get you to the “end state” because they’ve never seen it.

You actually go through two generations or phases of management when you go from turnaround to successful company. So I spend more time thinking about what phase I’m in and whether the people I have can lead the company to its next phase. Through transformation, you go from “crisis” to “good” and then you go from “good” to “great.”

A lot of people are inherently comfortable with living in chaos. I’ve learned that that the people who are great at helping me in a turnaround are the same people who are really successful in a start-up, where there’s no structure and where the attitude is, I can outwork it, I know everything, I can live in my cube, I can do things with no money because we don’t have any. That describes a startup as well as a turnaround.

What is your typical interview process for bringing in top-level technology talent?

I have a pretty formal process. We strive for ten interviews with a candidate. These are one-on-one interviews, not panels. At the outset, I lay out an entire interview program including who will be on my interview list and what I expect them to hunt for. For example, I’ll have one person ask about business metrics and another person talk about modeling. I want to make sure that each person on the interview team will have a specific area of focus so that there’s no duplication of effort. I’ve learned over time that when you don’t do that, everybody asks the candidate the same questions, and we forget to ask a number of the important ones. The key is to understand exactly what you’re looking for.

Usually, after seeing the first two or three candidates, we will regroup and figure out if we are getting what we asked for. Sometimes we will conclude that we should restructure the job description or tell the recruiter to focus more on a different area.

Next: The biggest hiring mistake CIOs make.

Do you remember your first hire? Did you receive training on how to interview early in your career?

My first hire came when I was at IBM, after I went through IBM manager school. I’d become a manager and inherited people, but went through IBM’s manager school before I actually had to hire somebody. They have a great program. You get a big binder. We had that at Cisco, 3Com and we have that here. We train managers how to interview because most people don’t actually know how. At JDSU we have an overall HR employee education curriculum, which includes leadership development programs and training on how to give performance reviews.

What are the critical areas that a technology executive should focus on during the hiring process?

I think the biggest mistake CIOs make is that they hire people with a strong technology background and not necessarily a strong business background. I think that sort of answers the never ending question of why the CIO and the business can’t get along.

CIOs lead with technology, and we don’t talk the same language as the business guys. Some CIOs get trapped in the mindset of, “Technology is going to save the world!” and that’s not right. It’s a false premise.

I focus on business skills. A few layers down in the organization, they better hire some smart technology people, but I focus on the direct report level to the CIO. I always look at 60 to 70 percent business aptitude and 30 to 40 percent technology aptitude.

I also think hiring managers tend to hire themselves over and over again so you have to be aware of that. You also have to realize what culture you have as a company as well as what culture you have within your organization.

I have two other rules I follow when I’m hiring: Hire people who do what you don’t like to do, and hire people who have passion for what they do. When I look at the good hires or the great hires, they are people that I hired who were smarter than me to start with or people who have surpassed my ability in a specific area.

I would assume that rule is especially important in your current role, where you have so many different functional areas reporting in to you.

I can’t be the expert in everything, but I can sure hire experts in everything.

That also means you have to have a lot of trust in your direct reports and hopefully you can tell pretty quick if you’ve hired the right person for the job.

You can usually tell pretty quickly if they’re not the right person. I usually know within 90 days if I’ve made a hiring mistake.

I believe that a great hiring manager is successful no more than 70 percent of the time, that three out of 10 hires will just not be good or just not work out.

I think if you strive for “the perfect hire every time” you paralyze yourself into never being able to pull the trigger. Which is why you end up with personnel reqs that have been around for more than 300 days.

When you know that someone is not working out, you’ve got to cut your losses. You can do that when you believe that 30 percent of your hires will not be the greatest hire. If you believe it somehow diminishes your ability as a manager because you made a bad hire, then you’re never going to fire that person. You’re just going to hang onto that bad situation, when you really need to just cut your losses, get it over with and start over.

That’s an excellent point. And being able to do that is certainly a key trait for a successful manager.

If I wait 90 days or 100 days or a year, I’ve just wasted all that time. And I knew all the time we weren’t going to get to where we needed to go.

Next: Etterman’s worst interviews and advice for candidates interviewing for CIO positions.

Speaking of bad situations, what are some of the worst interviews you can remember?

When I was at Cisco, I was the head of networking, which wasn’t a bad job to have. This one guy, I’ll never forget this, comes into my office and at the start of interview goes: “You know, Mr. Etterman, I am so honored to be here. I can’t believe I’m sitting here with the Babe Ruth of networking.” And I’m like, I don’t even know where to go from there! I mean A) I’m not the Babe Ruth of networking, and B) I realize this guy is going to tell me whatever he thinks I want to hear as opposed to what I need to hear.

You know, the guy was really smart, but I knew immediately that he was out. He was not going to answer me honestly. He was going to tell me whatever he thought I wanted to hear to get the job.

Another time, recently, I had agreed to do an interview for another hiring manager. The candidate came into my office and I launched into a very long explanation of my thoughts about the role and what we were looking for, and the candidate goes, “Thanks, but I’m actually here to talk to you about a different position.” It was a little embarrassing.

So did you flip gears pretty quickly with him?

Here’s what happened. It was not a hire for me, but for someone else. I had the candidate’s résumé and that was kind of it. The résumé lined up to a position in the organization we were hiring for, but he was interviewing for an entirely different position. It was Monday morning. I must have forgotten over the weekend. But the experience prompted me to remember that when people ask me to be on their interview teams that I need to understand what position I am actually assessing and what they want me to look for.

You mentioned that you strive for ten interviews with a candidate as part of the hiring process. Do you need unanimity in the hiring decision?

I don’t believe unanimity is a requirement. I hire executives and managers to take the responsibility for building the team that they want. So when I or someone else tells them who they can and can’t hire, all of a sudden everything that doesn’t work is no longer their responsibility. Hiring managers are paid to hire. I expect them to do that, and it’s their job to do that.

What somebody else needs may not be what I need. All I have is a viewpoint. I could say, “I saw this about this person” or “Do you think you can overcome that experience gap through bolstering with other team members?” Everybody may have a vote, but the hiring manager has the ultimate vote.

Is there any particular advice you would give to technology professionals interviewing for CIO positions?

A CIO’s most important interviews will not be with the team that he or she manages, it will be with the other C-level executives at the company. You need to be able to talk business language whether it’s finance or manufacturing or sales or service and understand how to apply technology to solve those business problems. If you find yourself talking technical storage issues or specific architectures, you are not a CIO. It’s a C-level job. You have to approach it as a C-level executive.

What should a candidate keep in mind when he or she interviews with a CIO?

You’ve got to understand the company, where it’s headed and the person. I have this belief that people join companies and they quit managers. Going into an interview, regardless of your preparation, you can’t know enough. You’re “buying” JDS Uniphase and an hour with me so use that time to understand who you will be working with.

They also need to keep in mind that it has to be a two-way interview. The candidate needs to assess the interviewer and the environment as much as the hiring manager assesses the candidate.

Next: The unusual question Etterman always asks candidates.

Are there any questions that you always ask candidates?

I actually don’t do very much of “list of 20 questions” type interviews. I tend to have more of an informal conversation, and I think that sometimes puts the candidate off guard a little because they’re expecting me to ask, “What was the most difficult situation you’ve managed through?” or some other question like that. I’d rather have the conversation wander around a bit, see where the discussion goes and get my answers through a more informal conversation. After doing this for 30 years I believe I have a good sense of how to read someone.

I do have a question I sometimes ask, though, and it’s one that few people seem to know how to answer. I ask people if they could be anything, what would they be? So if you ask me that, I would say: I would play third base for the Detroit Tigers. If I could have been anything, that’s what I would have been. (I say “would have been” because now at 55 I’m too old to be doing that.) That question catches people way off because they usually don’t have a scripted answer. It’s not a business question. It’s a question about knowing you as a person. It’s learning about the essence of the person.

I mean, who the heck would be a CIO if you didn’t actually just end up there, if you could be anything?

There must be that small subset of the population, though, that has thought it all through and decided CIO is exactly what they want to be.

I’ve met those guys. They need to get some therapy.

The bottom line is, through the interview process you try to learn as much as you can about someone. I’m trying to hire people. I don’t worry as much about the specific technical skills.

Are there any red flags you look for when meeting with candidates? Any way a candidate can instantly rule him or herself out?

I think there’s two. If you’re late, you’re done and you will not get a second chance. If you can’t figure out the commute then leave an hour early and wait in the parking lot. I want people who want the job, not someone who says, “I was really busy and I got lost.” Not my problem!

The other thing happens when you have candidates who are active in a job search. Sometimes they will have their spiel down to the point where they forget to listen to your questions. They’re answering what they are used to answering. They’re not listening to what I’m asking. They just have their own monologue going.

What are your thoughts on résumés, cover letters and thank you notes?

Typos are unacceptable. As you know, spellcheckers do not correct all typos. You need to know when to use “its” and “it’s” “your” and “you’re.” A concise, well put together résumé is your entry to the game. Why would you not spend the time to make that perfect?

What should candidates wear to an interview?

Candidates need to do research. You can actually find out a lot about a company’s culture. If you’re interviewing for a software company, it just might be a little more casual unless you’re in sales, where it might not be. I think it’s about business appropriateness for the role.

I’ve interviewed a ton of information security guys. I’m not sure there is a dress code for that culture. In fact, for those, the more purple hair and tattoos and body piercings lets me know that I’m in the right candidate pool.

If you’re hiring a head of sales, the “window dressing” might be as important as the content. After all, you’ve got to put this person in front of a customer and they would represent your company. Just remember business appropriate for the role.

Is there anything else that you’d like to add? Anything I haven’t touched on or any other points you’d want to mention?

Yeah, we’re hiring!

Bill Lepiesza is associate director of The Alexander Group. He works in the executive search firm’s San Diego, Calif. office. Prior to joining The Alexander Group, Lepiesza held a number of senior human resources management positions.