By Derrick Wlodarz, FireLogic
Sourcing, vetting, hiring, and retaining quality technical talent is a necessity for any Managed Services Provider (MSP). Yet, when I speak to industry colleagues, it’s a science that is rarely considered easy. The practices surrounding hiring decision making that I hear described are sometimes so convoluted and unorthodox that it doesn’t surprise me many business owners dread the topic of bringing on new staff.
It doesn’t have to be so painful. I’ve personally been involved in the hiring process that has scoured hundreds of candidates and extended dozens of interviews over the last decade and can say with confidence that a large majority of the hires we’ve brought on at my firm FireLogic have been solid picks with few regrets.
How do I hire and retain such quality IT talent? Here are some of the best practices I’ve come to swear by.
1. Don’t Be Afraid To Hire On Personality And Soft Skills First
At a time when unemployed technical talent is razor-thin, MSP and IT business owners need to know that the usual rules of engagement for hiring don’t necessarily apply. In an employers’ market, we get to wade through troves of candidates and can cherry-pick those with the top tech and soft skills alike.
But with record low unemployment, the tables are turned. Candidates coming across the desk of HR will have lower technical skill stacks, but this is merely where decision-makers need to get creative. If a candidate can’t give you all of the technical prerequisites you were looking for, perhaps prioritize your top three necessities and evaluate them based on that limited subset. Or, see how quickly a candidate can learn a given subject by prescribing homework before a face-to-face interview, and quiz them on their ability to think and analyze on their feet – just like they would need to do in their potential role.
Yet as important as technical skills are, many of my industry colleagues fail to place soft skills on the pedestal they deserve. A candidate’s ability to write and speak clearly, be personable over the phone, and engage in critical thinking with logical reasoning are areas far more difficult to teach on the job. Honestly, some of my best hires at FireLogic have been those with less technical backgrounds but with excellent people skills and grounding that offset that gap.
2. Know How To Read The Early Signs Of A Bad Candidate
There’s an old adage that first impressions are everything. After being involved with hiring IT talent for almost a decade now, this couldn’t ring truer. Almost every candidate coming across your desk leaves breadcrumbs about their overall character from the moment they send in a resume. It’s these tea leaves which you need to learn to read in order to start forming judgments early on.
Many times, it’s the small things that peel back the onion about a candidate quite accurately. Did they forget the cover letter that was specifically asked for? If you’re doing a virtual pre-interview, did they show up on time and ensure their system was able to install your chosen meeting client with audio and video working? If they came to the in-person interview, were they over/underdressed? Did they do research about your firm so they can ask targeted questions about their potential employer?
Some hiring decision-makers don’t place enough weight on these early interactions. But more often than not, enough negative checkboxes in these periphery areas usually gives me enough objective reasons to nix a bad apple before they get an offer letter. And if you’re on the fence about a candidate, always, and I mean always, trust your gut.
3. Your Best Untapped Talent Pool Is From Trusted Referrals
Most IT business owners would agree that their best clients come from referrals. Why are we not treating potential candidate sources in the same manner? Between existing clients, staff members, and extended networking contacts you already have in your Rolodex, technician referrals are harder to come by but well worth making the effort to uncover.
I’ve personally seen excellent success with staff members we’ve hired based on a referral. These candidates have a lot of positives going for them right off the bat. They’re generally pre-vetted since they have a trusted colleague sticking their neck out for them. And likewise, these candidates are less likely to ‘gin up’ their resumes, realizing that someone is personally vouching for them. These two factors usually work together to ensure that referred candidates are honest parties generally worth a closer look due to their token fast-pass in the hiring pool.
4. When You Can’t Offer Fortune 500 Benefits, Creativity Is Key
Hiring quality technical talent is tough but keeping them on staff is decidedly trickier. Cushy corporate positions at the largest firms generally come with perks that most smaller MSP businesses cannot compete with. But herein lies the same area of opportunity for MSPs to leverage benefits that are similarly impractical for the Fortune 500.
For example, having superior flexibility when it comes to PTO is something small firms can much more easily accommodate, especially when it comes to family leave for staff dealing with newborns. In another instance, we identified a need for staff to have access to additional PTO days if they depleted their buckets early in a year and introduced the ability for staff to ‘gift’ other team members days from their respective personal pools of PTO.
On a similar note, if a key staff member has to go on medical leave or needs to otherwise use unpaid time off, consider gifting them some of that time back in the form of paid time as a thank you for their dedicated service. You’re not obliged to do it, but these small gestures go a long way to building staff loyalty where a headless corporation would likely just go by the book.
Other small, unique perks also can help fill the void. For instance, we give all staff access to paid ITProTV subscriptions for both professional development and personal enjoyment. Also, you can consider doing ‘spot bonuses’ in the form of gift cards for jobs well done – be it positive client feedback or any other exemplary situation. Not only do these gift cards directly help someone’s pocketbook, but the public recognition they get in front of other staff helps boost morale in multiple areas.
Your firm may already be doing some of the above or offering differing but similarly impactful perks that would be unheard of at a corporation. Regardless of what you offer, make sure it’s meaningful, that staff finds it worthy, and that the benefits are communicated clearly so that all eligible parties can take advantage of the perks equally.
Talent Acquisition And Retention Needs To Be Purposeful To Succeed
There is no silver bullet when it comes to sourcing and retaining the best technical talent. Our strong economy, while a great boon for MSPs currently, decidedly puts a kink into the usual endless talent pools of yesteryear.
All of this merely means that your hiring and sourcing processes need to be refined and tweaked to match market conditions. Make concessions on some of the technical requirements you normally ask for. Look out for warning signs that can easily nix potentially troublesome candidates, and be very mindful that IT skills, not people skills, are far easier to train on the job.
The turnover rate at my tech firm is extremely low, and there’s absolutely no reason you can’t improve yours as well.
About The Author
Derrick Wlodarz is President and Founder of Des Plaines, IL (USA) based Managed IT Service firm FireLogic. He has 14+ years of IT industry experience spanning both the private and public sectors. His firm specializes in providing SMB clients with managed IT support, consulting, and training. Derrick is a long-serving member of CompTIA's Subject Matter Expert Technical Advisory Council that shapes the future of CompTIA exams across the world. In addition to being an IT industry speaker and author, his work has been academically published in The Journal For Social Era Knowledge. He is a court-approved technical expert witness in the State of Illinois. You can reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.