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Weeding out the monkeys

01 Aug 2010

I can’t recall where I read this, or even what it was in relation to, but this quote has stuck in my mind for the past few months for its lucid genius. You can apply it to almost any profession, but within IT I feel we have more than our share of oven operators. So, what can we do about it? IT has become an established career path, and increasingly people are simply following it rather than being excited by it. Qualifications are the benchmark employers and HR departments/ organisations use to screen applicants, but is aptitude or attitude more important when hiring? I would argue the latter; you can teach anyone a skill, but you can’t teach someone an attitude. When screening candidates, look for the cues: someone that lists “gaming” as a hobby most likely loves technology; someone who’s pumped gas for three years while at university most likely has great customer service skills (and determination); team sports = team player. You get the idea. These cues are the tip-offs to ‘can do’ people who will adapt and learn, as their heart is in it. This may seem like common sense, but my experience is that too much emphasis is placed on qualification alone. For many organisations, IT reports directly into Finance. This in itself isn’t a bad thing, but unfortunately it allows too many ‘mouse monkeys’ to slip through the cracks in smaller organisations. Mouse monkeys are the IT ‘professionals’ who know how to click through dialogue boxes and that’s about it. They talk the talk, but just kind-of wing it the rest of the time. Every Finance department is familiar with audits; they give the organisation peace of mind. By virtue, IT tends to have very high levels of access to sensitive data, so it makes sense to do the same for them. Peer review of IT will provide the same peace of mind and help weed out the monkeys. True story: years ago, I met a guy in the US, working at a large Fortune 500 company. He’d been working there for five years, was paid extremely well, and his role was Senior Unix Systems Administrator, charged with “keeping the company’s critical infrastructure running”. One night the central Unix mainframe crashed and when he got to work the next morning, he simply quit. Was he unable to cope with the pressure? No. It turns out that for five years he’d only been creating and deleting users (via a GUI on dedicated console no less) and didn’t really know anything about Unix. He had quit because he knew someone was about to find him out! The lesson there is that title, or the length of time spent with that title, doesn’t necessarily equate to experience. Experience is the result of exposure to different challenges, and the best one I know of is failure. And you need to let your staff do it. Putting your staff in a position where they can fail may seem rough, but you are also doing two important things in the process: you’re showing them a level of trust and giving them responsibility. I’m not talking about deliberately creating a situation that can only end in failure, or a situation that could deeply impact operations; I’m talking about allowing them to fail and when they do, trusting them to recover the situation. Your staff will only ever be effective in a crisis if they have experience like this. Think back to when you were learning to ride a bike. Your parents hovered nervously, you fell off a few times, but then came the exhilaration of riding off down the road. Same thing; you’re just the parent this time.