by Amanda K. Brady

Customer Service: Job One for McCormick & Schmick’s IT Department

Apr 24, 200912 mins
CareersIT JobsIT Leadership

McCormick and Schmick's Seafood Restaurants' seven-person IT staff supports 96 dining establishments in the U.S. and Canada and a core user group of 700 employees. In this latest Hiring Manager interview, McCormick & Schmick's Vice President of Information Technology Daniel Cunningham discusses how his small team supports the chain, his criteria for hiring IT staff, and why he'll never hire someone who criticizes end-users during a job interview.

Daniel Cunningham joined McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurants Inc. as its director of financial systems in 2005—a particularly hectic and exciting time for the restaurant chain. It was expanding rapidly across the U.S., had recently gone public (it’s listed on the NASDAQ under MSSR) and was racing to become Sarbanes-Oxley compliant.

With so much activity inside the company, Cunningham’s role evolved to encompass IT management, and he was named director of information technology. Cunningham was charged with deploying new technology that would improve the McCormick & Schmick’s financial reporting and with implementing new business process that would maintain the company’s efficiency as it grew.

Today, McCormick & Schmick’s, like many businesses, is being hit hard by the recession. The restaurant posted a $69 million loss for its fiscal year 2008, and its outlook for 2009 is very conservative.

Though the company’s fortunes have shifted dramatically from 2005, Cunningham’s mandate hasn’t changed much: He’s still working on process improvements, but now he’s more focused on finding ways to support McCormick & Schmick’s 96 restaurants and a core user group of 700 employees with existing technology and with his six person staff.

You read that right: Six IT professionals (plus Cunningham) make up McCormick & Schmick’s IT department. There’s a senior manager of restaurant systems, a supervisor of architecture administration, a network analyst who also does PC technician work and some network administration, a database administrator who also does programming, and two point of sales analysts.

As the recession forces IT organizations across the country to do more with less, small IT shops like McCormick and Schmick’s offer examples of how to leverage limited resources. For instance, Cunningham says using software as a service applications (SaaS) supported by third parties frees up his IT staff to work on other priorities.

Small IT shops like Cunningham’s also often seek IT professionals who can wear different hats. When Cunningham has an open position, he looks for versatile candidates with myriad skills who are also customer-focused. Anyone who complains about clueless end-users is not a fit for his IT organization.

Cunningham spoke with The Alexander Group’s Amanda Brady about his criteria for hiring IT staff and why he doesn’t always trust his gut when making hiring decisions.

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Amanda Brady: How do you support a national restaurant chain with such a small IT staff?

Daniel Cunningham: One of the ways we get away with a smaller team is by using some hosted applications. Our point of sale and back office systems are both hosted. We divide support amongst ourselves and a variety of [vendor] partners.

For a long time at McCormick & Schmick’s, there was a desire to keep some applications in-house. But over the last couple of years, I started to move some of this support outside our four walls. I think we can get better support this way. I need people who are experts in each of these applications instead of trying to have my seven people develop the skill sets for all of them. If McCormick & Schmick’s continues to grow, we might get additional heads, but at this point, the vendors [ought to] know how best to support their applications. If there are issues with the software, they are responsible for correcting it.

Besides having to support the company with a small staff, what other IT challenges do you face and how does hiring figure into them?

My biggest challenge is figuring out what we can do with our existing resources to improve McCormick & Schmick’s as a whole. I am looking at our existing technology and how we can provide better support to the organization.

What do you seek in candidates for positions inside your IT department?

Because it’s a smaller team, I need people who are versatile and have a varied skill set. I want to see evidence of that on a candidate’s résumé. That is very important to me.

Another thing that is very important to me is customer service. The folks in operations at the restaurant level are so focused on treating guests and providing phenomenal guest service that their expectations of IT are the highest because they know exactly what kind of service customers expect. I need people who can communicate clearly and listen well and who will be empathetic to individuals trying to explain problems to them. I don’t want to hear someone talk about how end-users don’t know what they are asking for. If a candidate criticizes end-users during a job interview, I know they’re not going to treat the customer well. End-users know what they want; they sometimes just have trouble communicating it. It’s our job to help them figure it out.

How hard is it for you to find multi-faceted people in Oregon?

It is challenging. When we were hiring last year, we did not have a ton of résumés that showed the versatile background I look for. Instead, I saw résumés for more specialized candidates. Oregon is not what I consider a hugely rich environment for some of these roles, which surprised me considering that Nike and some other large employers are headquartered here.

What is McCormick & Schmick’s process for interviewing an IT candidate?

When I need to fill a new position, I prepare a job description for McCormick & Schmick’s manager of recruiting. He then starts with an advertisement. If we get lucky, he will filter some candidates by me. If we need to, we will leverage outside recruiters.

We do not do panel interviews. We do one-on-ones, or for someone we hired last year, the candidate interviewed with me, my two direct reports and my boss separately.

Do you include non-IT employees in your hiring process?

I don’t, but if I was trying to fill an IT position that was specifically designed to cross over to another department, then I might ask someone from that other department to participate in the interview.

Who was the first person you hired? What company were you working for and in what capacity?

I was with Chart House Restaurants, and I was hiring my replacement as a treasury accountant. I was primarily responsible for treasury management for the organization, and I was moving into restaurant accounting. The woman I ended up hiring was brilliant. She went to Indiana University and graduated with a 3.9 GPA. She ended up being a very good employee.

What did you base your hiring decisions on then and how does that compare to how you make hiring decisions today?

At the time I was very focused on credentials: good university, great GPA. Now I want to know more about a candidate’s experience and how he or she will react to certain situations. I like to hear people talk about the accomplishments they’re most proud of and where they brought value in their organizations. I ask better questions now.

Give me an example of an accomplishment that would make a good impression on you?

For example, when a candidate is very proud that something they developed saved the company money, made it more efficient and effective, and was something that employees really appreciated because it reduced their workloads. If that’s what they are proud of—that they’re helping to make other people’s lives easier and improving things for the company—that is going to be a strong person. That tells me they are constantly looking at how to improve things for the organization and the people within the organization.

To what degree do you rely on your gut when making hiring decisions?

I tend not to rely on instinct. I don’t know if relying on instinct always works out because some candidates just interview well. If someone interviews well, you’ll get a good feel about them, but there is always a risk that the person is just really good at interviewing.

What do you consider a successful hire?

Someone who fills a need and exceeds your expectations. Here’s an example from when I was at Chart House:

We were experiencing some turnover when Chart House was having some financial challenges, and we had a really emotional individual who was head of a department. This person was absolutely falling apart, and of course, with the head of the group falling apart, all these other people started to freak out. The department head ended up leaving without any notice. We had to try to stabilize the group, and we needed to bring in someone who was strong and who was good at managing task-oriented individuals.

We hired someone new, and she got the group organized and really did a great job managing these folks. She was stern—what she said went—but at the same time she knew how to motivate and reward her staff. She really knocked it out of the park with process improvements. She improved things so much that we were able to close the books quicker because she got people operating better than they ever had.

When we originally hired her, we were not necessarily thinking about process improvement and getting more efficient; we were looking for someone who could get the group back on track. She continued to learn and to evolve her skillset to become a better employee.

Finding someone who is that self-motivated, who is not waiting for a manager to send them to a training class is a challenge. That’s why I felt that this individual was just outstanding.

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

Hiring without seeing enough candidates. I once hired someone when I was really, really busy and didn’t have time to interview a lot of candidates. The person ended up being more effort to manage and did not end up knowing IT as well as they led on during the job interview.

No matter how busy you are, how big the need is, you need to see enough people to make sure you are making the right decision. I like to see at least three to five candidates.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked a candidate but your team didn’t?

The closest I came to a situation like that was when someone who previously worked in the IT department, who had transferred to another department, considered coming back to IT. Three senior people who clearly didn’t like this individual said that bringing her back would be a bad decision. We ended up not being able to find a spot for her so I was saved from having to make a potentially contentious decision.

Do you require unanimity on a hire?

No. I don’t want to be in an environment where I have a ton of “Yes” men. I am not a “Yes” man. If I disagree with my boss about something, I will voice my opinion respectfully and maybe go into his office when no one else is around. If he has a real strong opinion and he speaks it in front of an entire group, I am not going to be insubordinate. I will have a conversation with him offline and explain where I think he may have a risk that he might want to reconsider. I expect my guys to do the same.

What advice would you give someone interviewing with a CIO?

It depends on the CIO and the type of organization he or she works for. But if that CIO is me and they are coming to interview with me, they need to clearly communicate how they’ve added value in their organizations.

What advice would you give someone interviewing to be a CIO?

They need to be able to communicate how they develop strategy and how they execute strategies. They also need to be able to talk about how they work with other department heads and build relationships. At the CIO-level, you need to be able to work with the other senior members of the organization. In a lot of cases, IT people progress very quickly, and there are some personality traits of IT people that don’t necessarily lend themselves to being interactive. If you want to be a CIO, you have to break out of that mold. I think any personality trait, with time, can be adjusted.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

They should dress professionally—a suit or a sport coat and tie for a man. Even though our environment is business casual, I like to see that people are making an effort.

Do you have any interview pet peeves?

When someone is just spitting out techno jargon. That drives me nuts.

What three interview questions do you always ask and why?

  1. What professional accomplishment are you particularly proud of?
  2. What is your experience with the end-user community and how do you interact with them?
  3. What types of processes exist in your company and what would you do to improve them?

I have to ask: Do you get dining privileges at your restaurants?

Yes. I don’t have to pay to eat at any of our restaurants. At my level, we call it “quality control.”

What is your favorite dish?

Right now, Chilean Sea Bass. We just put it back on the menu at all of our restaurants.

Amanda K. Brady is associate director of The Alexander Group. She works out of the executive search firm’s Houston office.