Mar
3

Recruiting and Interviewing Best Practices for MSPs

Recruiting and Interviewing Best Practices for MSPs

March 3
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If you’ve been around the block a few times you’ll probably agree that few activities are as important as finding the right mix of employees. The range of skills MSPs cover today is wide and varied, and retaining the best employees gives you a distinct advantage over your competition. I’ve worked for a number of companies where employees viewed recruiting and interviewing as an interruption to their day. They say things like, “Why should I take an hour or two in the middle of the day to interview a potential hire when there’s no guarantee they’ll be a good fit? Or they’ll end up on another team?” The excuses are endless.

If you look at the top-performing companies in your market, I’ll bet you’ll find they place a high priority on recruiting. You’ll also find they get their employees involved in the interviewing process. Microsoft has a long established procedure for interviewing job candidates which includes putting them through two days full of interviews. HR might spend a few minutes explaining the position being hired for, but the rest of the hiring process is turned over to Microsoft employees who will decide which candidates make the cut and which do not.

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MSPs have so many tasks calling for their attention that it’s easy to overlook the importance of recruiting and interviewing. This week I want to look at some tips for finding the best talent. I’ll also provide a few interviewing tips I’ve used over the years.

Recruiting

I’m going start with an overlooked recruiting basic: the job description.

Finding the the right person is about attracting the right people, and this starts with the job description. If you’re still using a boilerplate IT job description someone in HR emailed you a few years ago, I challenge you to toss it in the trash and start fresh. A good job description will describe the activities and responsibilities of the job along with a few parameters on how performance will be evaluated. It’s short, sweet and to the point!

Far too often I’ve seen job descriptions that cover the characteristics of the person the company wishes to hire. Every manager wants an employee who is honest, dependable and hardworking. These are traits all employees should possess. Focus on the job you need done and the skills it requires. Every person who reads your job description should be able to assess whether they can accomplish the job or not. Clarity is a virtue when creating a job description.

Let’s now move on to recruiting talent. I spent about a decade recruiting, hiring and training IT staff across a number of large and small companies. Each company I joined had an existing pool of recruiting resources. Some were serving the company well while others were not. The challenge I found was stepping outside these company sources in search of my own. If your company has had success finding talent by posting to Craigslist, you might run into barriers when inquiring about the recruiting budget. With that said, I found that when I created a quality job description, I could usually convince my boss or HR to allow me to investigate alternative recruiting sources. Usually it was time not money I was asking for.

Here are some of the best practices I used to find IT talent:

Current Employees. This might seem obvious, but if you aren’t asking your best employees for referrals, you’re overlooking your best source. Your best employees probably know other high-performers. They can get your job description in front of these people and put in a good word for the company. When I  had a critical position to fill, I’d call a few of my top performing employees into my office and tell them exactly what I needed. Great people want to work with other great people so utilizing your current staff to locate talent is a no-brainer.

Host an Open House. Post your job description to all your social media accounts which are probably followed by some of your most loyal customers and fans. Even if they aren’t a good fit themselves, I’ve found they do a great job of spreading the word on your behalf. Hosting an open house will give potential candidates a taste of your culture. I’ve found that the best candidates rise to the top at these events. The goal isn’t to find your hire that night, but to narrow the field to a manageable number who will return for a formal interview.

Attend Industry Events. People have told me this is an expensive way to recruit, but it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to fly across the country to attend CES in Las Vegas to make this work. I had good luck attending small WordPress events around the Seattle and Portland area. While there, I would let others know I was hiring and pass around my business cards. I found the smaller conferences and events more effective than the larger expensive events when it came finding talent.

Visit Trade Schools. I had better luck visiting trade schools than I did spending time at colleges and universities when it came to hiring for IT related positions. I found the trade schools attracted a slightly older demographic which meant graduates often had more experience, even if it was outside the IT field. The best candidates will already have job offers by the time they graduate so you must work early to gain access to the best students, and that’s usually done through the placement advisor. Float your job description past the advisor and tell them you’re looking for the very best.

Interviewing

Interviewing is a skill one gains through hours of practice. I cringe when I think back to the first few interviews I conducted, but I’m sure everyone can relate. Interviews generally fall into two categories: structured and unstructured. Structured interviews rely on a planned agenda while the unstructured interview does not. For the sake of this article, I’m going to focus on structured interviews as I find them more effective and fair, as the same (or very similar) questions are asked of all candidates interviewing for the open job.

Before I get to a few best practices, I want to point out that I strongly recommend scheduling only one or two interviews a day, and never back to back. This gives you time to honestly consider each candidate. I’ve found it helpful to jot down my impressions right after each interview ends before those details get lost or attributed to another person. With that said, here are a few tips I’ve learned over the years:

Reduce the Number of Questions. Inexperienced interviewers often have pages full of questions. Don’t fall into this trap. Instead, make a list of 8 to 10 questions and then ask the 5 best. The best interview questions are open-ended and give you insight into a skill or trait you find valuable for the position. One of my most memorable interviews came at Microsoft when a woman gave me a story problem. She left me alone with a marker while she went to lunch. She wanted to see how I’d work through a technical problem on her whiteboard.

Maintain Control. I always leave a few minutes at the end for the candidate to ask questions. Otherwise, I maintain control by asking the questions and then allowing the candidate to speak without interruption. Sometimes I’ll intentionally ask a vague question to see if the candidate will ask for more details. Avoid standard interview questions such as “Where do see yourself in three years?” because the experienced candidate will have a pat answer for it. I like to ask questions where the candidate must sit back and reflect before answering.

Do Your Homework. After a while all resumes start to look alike. But I’ve found it useful to pull out one or two interesting items from the resumes of each person I interview, and ask them about it. Does the interviewee speak a foreign language? Ask her how she learned it. These are great first questions because they put the interviewee at ease and allow them to share something personal before the tougher questions arrive.

Avoid Tricks and Traps. It’s not about you, so don’t make it about you. I’ve heard of interviews at some tech companies where the interviewer plans an elaborate trick question or puzzle with the goal to stump the interviewee. This might work if the job requires solving puzzles, but it really tells you nothing about a candidates IT skills. Avoid these cheap tactics and keep your questions relevant to the job at hand. Your goal is to find the best fit for the position, not someone who knows how many golf balls it takes to fill a football stadium.

Conclusion

No matter the market conditions, the best and most talented employees will always be in demand. Each person you hire has the opportunity to enhance or take away from your team’s culture. Wise hires take time and effort. And while it might sound reasonable to hire the first person who can do the job, it’s smart to step back and make sure you’ve found the right skill set and personality. Good luck!

Photo courtesy of Heinrich-Boll-Stiftung at Flick