When it comes to hiring staff for his technology department, Joseph Seibert has a soft spot for candidates who are underdogs. He admires IT professionals who’ve charged ahead in their careers despite starting at a disadvantage.
In the past, Seibert has grown so excited about an underdog’s personality that he says he has made the mistake of advancing a candidate through the interview process who had a great story but who was not right for the job. Seibert, now senior vice president and CIO of The New York Times Company, says the lesson he’s learned from that mistake is to know himself: to be aware of his tendency to get excited and to keep his excitement in check so that it doesn’t undermine his effort to hire the best person for the job. It’s practiced advice that all hiring managers can benefit from.
Job seekers can benefit from Seibert’s advice, too. In this latest Hiring Manager interview, Seibert describes the mistakes IT professionals make on their résumés and during job interviews that kill their chances of wooing employers. He spoke with CIO.com about his hiring practices and how the transformation of the media industry is affecting IT staffing at The New York Times Company.
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Sarah Mitchell: How are the challenges facing the news industry affecting your hiring?
Joseph Seibert: The news industry is transforming. Traditional print and media organizations have to become multi-channel distributors of news and information, including digital channels, such as websites, blogs, iPhones, cell phones and BlackBerries. I was hired to transform the technology organization so that it has the right structure, skills and capabilities to support multi-channel distribution.
[ For more information on The New York Times‘ response to shifts in the media industry, see Rapid Prototyping Provides Innovation that Fits at The New York Times. ]
The technology organization is extremely important to this overall transformation, and it is very important that I get the right structure and the right people within that structure who understand multi-channel distribution, digital technology and traditional technologies. I need leaders who have worked in some type of media, including a pretty sizable digital environment, and who can work amidst transformation and uncertainty. They must know how to build the infrastructure that provides speed-to-market, flexibility, and that supports those many channels efficiently and effectively.
What organizational changes have you made to the technology department since you joined The New York Times Company last year?
When I arrived I did an assessment of the technology organization, then developed a plan to reorganize it. We are moving toward a federated model where there is a shared services group at the corporate level for infrastructure, shared applications and strategic services. We support the shared services organization with local groups, primarily applications-focused teams within each brand. I’m in the process of recruiting a new leader for the infrastructure team, and I’m reorganizing the entire security team and hiring new leaders there. I have consolidated and eliminated some positions to narrow the leadership within The New York Times newspaper itself, but the department has stayed at around 800 total employees. I continue developing the organization at a pace that makes sense; you can only change an organization structure and the people in it so quickly.
You’ve worked in the media industry, for an ISP, and in retail. Does your approach to hiring vary by industry?
I don’t think the process of hiring is fundamentally different depending on the industry. I think the basic practice is, you have to understand the business strategy. You have to understand where the business is going, the business’s demands for technology, and how the technology organization is going to most effectively support and lead that. Once you understand that, the hiring process is the same. You find the right people that match the skills, cultural requirements and diversity requirements.
How do you determine whether a candidate will be a good cultural fit with the IT group and the New York Times Company as a whole?
I tend to have candidates meet various people at various levels in and outside of technology. Feedback from those meetings gives me a good feel for the candidate’s cultural fit.
[ Job seekers should assess cultural fit from their perspective, too. See 8 Ways Job Seekers Can Assess a Prospective Employer’s Corporate Culture. ]
Have you ever had a situation where you really liked a candidate, but other people did not?
Did you hire the person anyway?
No, I didn’t. I really liked the candidate, but I was pretty new to the company, so I was very careful about culture and style. I sent this gentleman outside of the department for interviews, and the feedback that came back was consistent: the candidate did not fit in the culture.
Do you think if you had had more tenure inside the company you might have leaned a little harder to get that person hired?
Given my style, I doubt it. I think technology is a service organization. I believe in a collaborative approach. I think you build a better team by doing that in any size company. It is very important to hire people who have the right technical skills and the right social skills—the ability to be part of the culture, fit into the company and work well with others here.
Do you require unanimity on a hire?
If I get a thumbs down from someone, I want to understand why. If I get too many thumbs down, that tells me that I am not seeing something. If I am verifying a candidate’s technical skills and I get a thumbs down from someone whom I consider a technical expert, that is a problem. If one person did not feel comfortable with a candidate socially, but everyone else did, I am probably okay hiring that person.
What’s the biggest hiring mistake you’ve ever made and what did you learn from it?
I am so supportive of the underdog—someone who has picked themselves up from the ground and made major moves. I love people who really try, and I tend to look over a lot of things because I get excited about someone’s personality. I love people who are really serious about life. I am careful about that because sometimes when I get enamored by the candidate, I start skipping over what is really required for the position. That is often why I bring in other interviewers. The mistakes that I have made—and fortunately I didn’t make too many—have been along the lines of advancing people through the interview process only to find out I was fooling myself because I got caught up in how much I enjoyed them. I have learned that when I’m interviewing people, I have to know who I am as well.
What makes for a bad interview with a candidate?
Every once in a while, I get someone who hasn’t really prepared for the interview. They don’t talk about the job at all, or about the company, or how they would fit in, or what we are looking for. I think it is so inappropriate when I ask, “Do you have any questions?” and they say no. There’s nothing they need to know? If you are competing for a world-class job with a world-class organization, I would think a you would want to spend an afternoon or an hour at night doing some reading. I have had interviews that should have taken an hour that lasted twenty minutes because there was nothing to talk about. Those are horrible interviews.
Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?
Poor eye contact or body language. People should be present during the interview and aware of the way they are sitting and acting and behaving.
What three interview questions do you always ask?
One is always relevant to the area that they are interviewing for: technical questions, how they have performed that job. Second, I always ask how they work within a company culture, with the business, and with other parts of the technology organization. Third, I always ask how they develop their teams, managers and organization. All three are extremely important.
[ For a list of questions IT hiring managers like to ask candidates during job interviews, see IT Job Seekers: Can You Answer an Interviewer’s 12 Gotcha Questions? ]
What should candidates wear to an interview?
People should lean toward conservative dress. For any first interview, you should dress in formal business attire. I’ve worked for start-ups, and when I met with the investors I wore a suit and tie. Even if the company doesn’t dress formally, I’m still going to go in with a jacket and slacks and business shirt.
What advice can you offer to job seekers about their résumés, cover letters and thank-you notes?
A nice thank-you note, even a thank-you email (it doesn’t have to be very formal), is a good move. I’ve had people send me handwritten notes, and it’s nice.
With résumés, people should pay attention to detail. I read résumés with mistakes or that are obvious cut-and-paste jobs. A résumé represents the job seeker. It’s the only thing a hiring manager has before meeting the candidate. I don’t think you can invest enough time in a résumé. It’s should be short and professional, and every word should be considered. People have given me their résumés to review as a favor, and I have found sections repeated or page numbers are wrong or things like that. If it’s way too long, people aren’t going to read it. It’s sort of like going to an interview dressed improperly—it’s your first impression.
Sarah Mitchell is an executive director with The Alexander Group, a search firm.