Tech & Work

Hiring your first support tech

A TechRepublic member is looking for advice on hiring his company's first technical employee. Our management expert gives him some advice.

Editor's note: Peter Woolford has spent more than a decade advising candidates on IT and engineering careers, as well as advising hiring managers on recruiting and retaining top talent. Here he answers a question from a TechRepublic member.

Question: I am a sole proprietor working with a business coach, and we both feel very confident it's time to move forward with our growth strategy. Part of that growth is hiring my first "technical support rep" to start servicing my clients, so that I can focus more on sales and growing the business. My business focuses on servicing businesses with 10-50 desktops primarily.

Do you have advice on where to look, what to look for, how to avoid common pitfalls, etc.? Some initial questions I've thought of are:

  • What experience/certifications should I require?
  • Should I INSIST on real-world experience or is it better to train?
  • Where do you usually find your best candidates?

Any other advice on hiring that first tech would greatly be appreciated

Response: Good luck with your business. Many of my business contacts have started similar businesses over the last few years, and done quite well with them. There is a sweet spot for businesses with a handful of employees that specialize in servicing other small businesses. You can be more responsive than the big guys, provide better service, and undercut their prices; all while making good money yourself.

Here are my thoughts on the options you face relative to hiring entry level or experienced talent, and how to find them.

Entry level

When hiring at an entry level, you will be able to pay a lower salary, but possibly with significant tradeoffs. These people should come to you with good school training, possibly a certification, but will have little or no experience actually doing the work. They will be eager to learn and grateful for the experience. However, on the technical issues, they won't have seen the myriad real-world technical problems your clients need you to fix. They won't have the problem identification and problem resolution skills. In addition to technology, they probably will also lack business acumen. Will they be able to handle customer problems and customer complaints? Will they instill customer confidence in your business?

If you hire entry-level staff, expect them to shadow you as you work for at least the first few weeks, or even months. After that, expect to invest considerable effort supporting them as they progress toward independence. By the time you get them up to speed and fully functioning, expect your competition to try to lure them away. Your vulnerability to your competition will be at its highest when they have nearly become fully independent, but you haven't yet adjusted their salary accordingly.

To find talent at all levels, your best alternative is to get a personal referral. Find someone you know and trust who can recommend someone. To find entry-level talent outside of a personal connection, you would be best served by approaching the schools that train the appropriate people. Your options are colleges, community colleges, and the various for-profit certificate training schools. All of these offer career placement assistance to their graduates and would be happy to help you. Start by deciding which level of training/education you need for your work and that will lead you to the appropriate training school or college.

Experienced

Your other option is to hire experienced talent. Obviously, you can hire at many different levels. Experienced talent will carry with it higher salary expectations. Mostly, you get what you pay for at increasing salary levels.

An experienced hire will be productive much more quickly, if not immediately. Technically, they will have the problem identification and problem resolution experience. Business issues won't be foreign to them. You will need to do much less hand-holding. If you hire the right person, you should be able to assign a task and pretty well forget about it.

To find experienced talent, you have a number of options. Again, start with your personal network. This will be your best way to find a reliable person, and it has the additional advantage of being free. The downside of the personal referral is: If you don't like the candidate, did you insult a friend? Also, you can't predict the timing of personal referrals. You may get lucky quickly, or you may wait months before your personal contacts come through for you.

Other options for finding experienced talent include agencies, the newspaper, job board postings, and job board resume searches. There are advantages and disadvantages to each:

Agencies: A good agency will be able to produce good talent in a short period of time. This is your best bet if the timing is critical, or if you don't have the time to invest in the various options that follow. This is also your most expensive option.

Newspaper ad: An old standby for years, newspaper ads are getting less and less common. Also, running a decent-sized ad several times can be quite pricey.

Certification schools: The same schools that train entry-level talent may offer advanced certification courses. Try them to see if they can connect you with experienced talent.

Job board, posting the position: There is a cost here with the bigger boards charging more money. You definitely get what you pay for in the way of exposure. You also get what you pay for in the number of responses. Expect to spend considerable time sifting through the responses. They will come in from all over the planet!

Job board, searching resumes: Rather than posting a position and waiting for replies, you can search the resumes people have posted. There is a wide array of talent posted on these boards. Expect to see more resumes on the more expensive boards. You should also expect to invest a lot of time reading resumes, so you should ask yourself how good a screener you are, how well you evaluate talent, and whether you have the time to give to this.

Certifications

Here, the adage, "You get what you pay for," holds true. You need to decide what certification is relevant for your work. If A+ is enough, that is a certification that is easy to find. MCSE, CCNA, MCP, and CISSP are much more extensive certifications, and people with those are harder to find. The decision you'll have to make is do you need experience, certification, or both? You pay more for both, but your business risk is lower.

Compensation

If you hire at an entry level, you may want to consider a compensation plan that ramps up over time to reflect the increase in your employee's value as they come up to speed. You may also want to offer a commission or bonus for bringing in new business. Whichever level you hire, one option to consider is that of hiring someone on a temporary/hourly or contract basis to try them out.

In the end, you are the only one who can decide which of the tradeoffs make the most sense for you and your business, whether it's the level staff you hire or how you choose to recruit. As a sole proprietor, you don't have a lot of time to give to recruitment or to training, but your financial situation may be a determining factor as well.

Remember, too, that you need to look beyond the obvious technical aptitude and business acumen to determine a candidate's work ethic as well. You can't afford to hire someone who will spend the day at the Dog Track while you're running all over town trying to drum up business. Interviewing for technical knowledge is a relatively straightforward process. Interviewing for work ethic is much more difficult and requires a lot of thought. It's well worth your time to read up on interviewing techniques, so you can ask the types of questions that will allow you to make the most informed decision. Then, you can proceed to your next challenge—that of supervising your first technical employee.

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