Hiring the Right Techs

Hiring, at its worst, inspires both boredom and anxiety. Wading through resumes bores us, and the thought of hiring the wrong person scares us. And the fear factor is worse when you’re a non-techie who’s been tasked with hiring IT staff. As with any complicated, difficult decision, success starts with good planning.

Consider the following when considering hiring staff:

  • Do you really know what you’re looking for in this new employee?
  • Does the job description reflect your needs?
  • Should this be a permanent, full-time position or should you hire a contractor?
  • Do you have the right people on your interview team?
  • Have you thought carefully about the questions you’ll ask the candidates?

The last ten years have witnessed a change in perspective with regards to IT staffing. At one point, most managers viewed technology as an obscure, mystical specialty similar to medicine or law. In-depth knowledge mattered more than personality in hiring decisions. Lately, after years of frustration and miscommunication, some business writers have started to preach a doctrine of “hire for attitude, train for skill.” The right balance depends in large part on who you already have on your team.

Why Is IT Hiring Important?

The consequences of a bad tech hire can haunt you for years, long after the person in question has left your organization. For example, consider the following:

  • Techies with a lot of in-depth product knowledge sometimes lack the critical thinking/research skills necessary to make good choices and investments. As we all know, investing in the wrong technology or buying from the wrong vendor can cause significant losses in terms of money and opportunity.
  • Some tech geniuses out there don’t understand that the rest of us have limitations. These folks sometimes want to invest in complicated, powerful technology that their colleagues won’t understand. Or they’ll customize a piece of software to the point that no one else in the organization can use it or maintain it.
  • IT people without soft skills can alienate other librarians, souring them on everything to do with technology. Or they may get along with colleagues on a day-to-day basis, but lack the ability to communicate new ideas and build consensus around them.

Key Actions

  • Get some techies to help with hiring. Find one or two trusted techies who can participate in the hiring process, from the writing of the job description all the way through to the final interviews and selection.
  • Get some non-techies to help out, too. Find one or two non-techies and ask them to be part of the hiring process, from start to finish. Ideally, these non-techies will work at your circulation or reference desk. If the candidate can’t communicate with them, they’re probably not right for your library.

Alternate IT Staffing Scenarios

With shrinking budgets, libraries can’t hire a full-time employee to address every one of their needs. So they get creative. One of the following ideas below might meet your needs while costing you a lot less than a permanent, 40-hour-a-week employee.

  • Share a tech person. Mid-sized independent libraries will occasionally hire a full-time tech support employee who divides his or her time between the two systems. Of course, to make this work, you and your partner library need to be close to each other and you have to have a strong relationship. Other libraries rely on shared tech support from the state library or from a regional cooperative. However, if this option isn’t available to you already, it could take you years and a lot of hard work to put it in place.
  • Outsource to local contractors. If your IT tasks require fewer than 40 hours of work per week, consider a local freelancer or IT shop. They may not have a strong understanding of libraries, and they may not always be available when you need them, but this can be a reasonable compromise if you’re short-staffed and don’t have enough money to hire a full-time techie. A lot of libraries have built a strong relationship with a local contractor.
  • Work with your vendors. Depending on the warranty and the service plan you’ve negotiated, you might be able to outsource certain IT tasks to your vendor. However, there are a lot of dangers to this approach. Troubleshooting over the phone and mailing broken parts back and forth often takes much longer than working with someone local. You might have little influence with a larger company, while a small, local IT shop can offer more responsive service. However, if you can’t find a reliable contractor in your area, large manufacturers often provide a reasonable alternative. Ask if they offer on-site support and under what circumstances. Also, inquire about RMA’ing of parts. RMA stands for Return Merchandise Authorization, and it generally means that you’ll receive a replacement part first, before you have to mail in the broken part. This effectively cuts the turnaround time in half.

Stories from the Field

Some of our hardware and printer repairs and that kind of stuff, it’s way cheaper for me to send them out and have them repaired, than for me to pay someone here to do it. It’s by the hour. Sometimes we outsource hardware repairs, of course. Some of our network maintenance we outsource. It’s part of a contract we have with our local ISP at Cincinnati Bell, and they take care of our internet. They do our router maintenance for us. That I consider outsourcing but I kind of talked them into that as part of the contract so we get that for free basically; not free, but it’s kind of a bonus. The stuff that we don’t outsource would be more related to like our database and our servers because those are, to me, so security-sensitive. But yeah, the stuff that we have outsourced, I’m happy, honestly. It saves us money. Let’s say I have a tech that makes $18 an hour and I can get all my junk together and send it out, and some guy repairs it for a flat fee, for example, or that kind of thing. That saves us money.

Michelle Foster
Boone County Library, KY

In a smaller environment, they may just want to see if there’s a cooperating organization that has somebody who could come to the interview process with them. If they’re a library, see if a school district has somebody they could borrow for the interview time, or a local university or tech school, so that they can evaluate the technical part of the interview, and then the person who’s not technical can make the decisions about the person’s character and the ability to communicate and such.

Jay Roos
Great River Regional Library, St. Cloud, MN

Yes, one of our libraries has their own tech person, and I’ve helped them go through their interview process and come up with a job description. And one of the things in the interview process that I found helpful is having them explain how they’ll fix something, even if you don’t know, just if they can describe it to you, and you catch a few things, it helps. Or have an example, like the monitor wouldn’t come on, what would you do? Or one of our staff says they can’t get their email, what would you suggest to them to do? Or a patron is complaining because a Web page won’t come up, what would you tell them to do? One job interview that I went on awhile back was at a college, and they asked, “What would you do if somebody was complaining about another person looking at pornography?” And I thought that was a clever question to ask because it kind of depends on what the policy is. So, I guess coming up with real-life situations to ask that tech person on how they would handle certain situations is a good way to find out if they really do know what they are doing because some people can talk the talk but not necessarily walk the walk. You can read a book and get the terms, but do you really know how to do it?

Jean Montgomery
Upper Peninsula Region of Library Cooperation

Further Resources

For more suggestions on hiring technology support, check out our Further Resources section.