Anyone who assumes working for the United States Postal Service’s (USPS) IT department would be a cushy job should read what George Wright has to say about the mail business. The vice president of information technology operations for the USPS describes an enormous enterprise—bigger than even Wal-Mart in some respects—with literally hundreds of thousands of moving parts:
We have 40,000 retail outlets, and we service 9 million to 11 million customers per day. Think about the information systems it takes to manage a company with 40,000 retail outlets and 11 million customers a day. We have 300,000 carriers on the streets, and we deliver to every household in America every day of the week. We are the largest user of airline capacity. We have 600 plants that process mail. We operate in almost every major line of business that exists in the Fortune 500. … We run the world’s third largest intranet. Our entire internal organization consists of between 650,000 to 700,00 people. Many organizations that are significantly smaller than us have more [IT] resources than we have. … We currently have approximately 1,300 people in the IT organization.
Finding candidates for IT jobs who have the skills to support such a large-scale enterprise is one of Wright’s biggest challenges. Wright says the need to recruit IT professionals is intensifying as Baby Boomers in the USPS’s IT department start retiring and because the need for IT talent in Washington, D.C. is so high.
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In such a competitive environment for IT hiring, Wright says it’s difficult to make safe hiring decisions that aren’t motivated by the pressure to fill a critical vacancy. He’s been burned by that pressure before, and he’s learned his lesson. That may be why he’s become so set in his hiring decisions.
When a situation arises in which Wright disagrees with members of his team about a candidate, he sticks with his gut: He won’t hire someone he doesn’t think is right, even if the rest of his team does. But he always carefully considers their views and takes the time to explain his decisions to them.
Here, Wright talks about his hiring practices, how he acclimates them to the scale of the organization, and the many mistakes candidates make in interviews that irk him.
John Mann: Many people believe that government jobs are stable and that it is difficult to be fired. Is job stability, in general, better within your IT group than the private sector?
George Wright: Postal services are going through very challenging times. The chief executive officer [of the USPS] has mentioned that we need to reduce the number of workers we have. So while most people might think that government is a stable environment, we are required to be competitive and generate revenue. Our stability is contingent upon how well we perform and how well we grow. Like any company, if the revenue numbers go down, we have to adjust by reducing costs, and approximately 70 percent of our expenses are people. If you perform well, you have job security.
What are your staffing challenges?
We have several people who are getting close to the end of their career, so one challenge we have is the turnover of Baby Boomers. We have to figure out how to match turnover with bringing on new talent. We can consider recruiting somebody who has experience in building retail systems for Wal-Mart. However, Wal-Mart only has approximately 5,000 stores. The difference between the technology needed to run 5,000 locations versus 40,000 locations is significant. In addition, most people who build software do not design it to run on the scale that we operate on. So we have scale issues, size issues, and the number of applications we run. I have an enterprise data warehouse that integrates data from about 135 systems and continues to grow. When we implemented SAP, we had to do it for 800,000 employees.
Is it difficult to hire new talent quickly in a large government organization?
The challenge is hiring people in the Washington, D.C. area. I don’t know what the unemployment rate is for IT in the D.C. market, but I would bet it is close to zero because there are not a lot of people available. We have multiple avenues for how we find resources, including search firms, our own website (e-careers) and word of mouth. At the end of the day, our challenges for hiring are no different than anyone else’s.
Despite those challenges, we have been successful in hiring. If you look at my staff today, I would bet that half of my managers who have been promoted in the last three years have come from the outside and half from the inside. We believe that we constantly need to bring new talent into the organization at all levels, and we have a program for promoting from within in order to get the best mix.
What positions are you currently looking to fill?
We are interviewing and hiring talent from entry level programmers to people who run our data centers. We have two large data centers—one in Egan, Minn. and San Mateo, Calif. We typically look for people who have a programmer/analyst/program manager background. All we have to do is acclimate them to our scale. We put them on projects that allow them to grow to where they need to be to deal with our scale. The interesting thing is once they have gone through that process, they become very valuable to people on the outside.
When we recruit for top-level positions, like the two people that run our data centers, we try to match experience to the position. Then we bring them onboard in a staggered fashion with the existing manager, and there is a gradual hand-off of responsibility. It is a process that we use where the new hire’s peers support the new hire and help bring him up to the level where he needs to be.
What is the process for interviewing candidates for IT jobs?
The process is fairly well structured because we have HR rules to follow. We post the position. People submit their résumés, and we review the résumés. We generate a list of candidates, which is then reviewed by a committee. The selecting official will interview three to five of the top candidates.
We were recently in the process of filling an enterprise architecture position. Four different managers interviewed six candidates. After the interviews, the managers discussed the candidates and how each met the requirements for the position. By having multiple people involved in the interviewing process for our senior-level positions, we get feedback on whether the candidate fits our culture, communicates well, and on other subjective components of the interview process. Someone on paper can have all the credentials, but if their communication style or personality do not mesh with the culture of the organization, you run into problems.
When we assess someone who I want to promote into a position that supports one of the functional areas, we narrow down the list of candidates and ask the customer [in the functional area] who they are going to support. When someone gets promoted to a management position, especially from inside, the customers have experience with them. So we engage the customer in that process because the IT person is going to support them, and we want to make certain we have the right chemistry and respect between the IT manager and the customer they’re supporting.
How do you determine whether a candidate is right for a given position and for your IT organization?
I spend enough time to make sure that a candidate is technically qualified, then I flip over to the soft skills. I seldom get fooled by people’s technical skills.
Personal skills are harder to assess because you see candidates in a very limited environment during the interview. I think my instincts about candidates’ personalities have gotten better over the years. I try to listen for things that are going to cause problems. For example, if I am hiring someone who is going to run one of my development shops (we have four development shops with a couple hundred people), the key to making that work is people skills and being able to provide technical insight and new ways of looking at things. If a person comes across as process-oriented, people who tend to be process-oriented are interested in setting up new ways of doing things. That can create challenges because this person will want to change how the organization operates. I am looking for people whose temperament and approach to problem-solving will fit into where we are going and who have enough confidence in their ability to change something if it is wrong. At the same time, if something is working o.k. but is not the way they want it to work, they are flexible enough to adapt.
What is the biggest hiring mistake you’ve made, and what did you learn from it?
I have hired the wrong person because pressure to fill a vacancy were pushing me to make a decision. In situations like that, I’ve thought, “I’ll take someone who is not the right fit, but maybe they can grow into it.” I realize now that it is better to leave a position vacant than to fill it with the wrong person. That is difficult because it is getting harder and harder to find the resources. Demand is high and supply is low.
Have you ever had a case where you really liked a candidate you interviewed, but your team didn’t?
I have never had that situation. Usually, it is the other way around—where people want to hire someone who I do not want because I see things that are a problem. And if I think I see problems, I will not hire the person.
In situations like that earlier in my career, I had thought that maybe my team was seeing something in a candidate that I did not see. But the answer generally was no, they did not see something I missed; I saw something they didn’t see. Today I will go with my instincts before I will go with my team.
How do you address those differences of opinion with your staff?
If I give an o.k. on a candidate, I will have a set of reasons that are based on their technical skills, things I saw, something in their background, and I will document them. Those become the facts upon which I make a decision. If someone else has a different set of facts, I determine whether that person or I missed something. Did they misread it, or did they ask questions that uncovered things that I did not? At that point, the dissention is more a presentation of facts that we have to review to make the right decision. I am willing to work through that process until we get resolution because nothing is worse than making the wrong decision. I have brought people on board and ended up releasing them within 60 days. That is the worst possible outcome of a hiring process.
What should candidates wear to an interview?
In this organization, business casual is appropriate. I assess people by first impressions, so how you look and speak matters. In the old days, you could get by in IT because you were a technology geek. The old joke used to be, “They do not speak very well, but if you throw meat under the door, they will turn out a system that you can implement.” Today, that is not the way IT works. If you are interviewing in IT, you have to come across as a professional and dress well.
What advice would you give to candidates interviewing for positions in your organization?
If you are going to interview for any position, you better know something about the company and have some understanding about the objective of the position. For example, the enterprise architecture position that we are in the process of filling could be viewed as a technical, business or strategic role. Do everything that you can to find out how the company perceives the position so that you address what they are looking for during the interview.
Also, I look for people who are passionate about what they are doing, who are excited about their experience and how it can come to play here. I am looking for someone who has energy. All those things indicate a person who want to get a job done.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
Anybody who does not make eye contact with me, and people who ramble—like I have in this interview. Also, when a candidate is asked a question, did they understand the question? If not, did they ask for clarification? When the question was asked, did they think about it and give an answer that was specific to the question? It is important to me how well they listen and how well they respond in clear, concise terms.
Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter, résumé or phone call sent directly to you?
In the postal service and the federal environment under our rules, I have to go through the human resources organization. If you sent me a résumé, I am obligated to give it to them.
What interview questions do you always ask and why?
After giving candidates a quick overview of the organization’s issues and challenges, I typically ask them how their experience would address the challenges we are dealing with.
I then throw out some of the problems pertinent to the position. Generally the ones I pick are more attuned to challenges interacting with different people to see how they respond to those issues. After they give me their answer, I ask them for examples where they have dealt with a particular people issue because they could have given me a book answer versus telling me what they’ve actually done in a similar situation.
I also ask how this particular position fits where they want to be in the future. I want to know if they have a plan for themselves, if they have the ambition to change and grow.
After I have finished the interview, the last thing I ask is if the candidate has any questions for me. I ask this question because I want to see how insightful they are and learn what is important to them.
John Mann is associate director of The Alexander Group. He works out of the executive search firm’s office in Houston.