10 traits to look for when hiring a field engineer

Field techs encounter a wide array of challenges, making it tricky to determine who will be a good fit for the job. But if you can find candidates who exhibit the qualities listed here, you'll be on the right track.

If you own, manage, run, or work within a consultancy firm, or you're a large company that makes use of field engineers, you know how hard it is to find good help. But with a little bit of forethought and a solid understanding of just what qualities make for a good field engineer, hiring a new employee can always be a win. Let's look at 10 traits that make for the best combination of field engineers and employees.

1: Ability to handle stress

Let's face it: The job of IT support/field tech challenges the engineer at every corner and at all levels. Not only do the software/hardware issues task engineers to the edge of their knowledge, issues such as irate customers, traffic, and timeframes can really push them to their limits. That's why it's crucial to hire engineers who can handle the stress of everything coming at them at once. How can you tell whether someone can handle such stress? Make the interview process a challenge. Don't just grill candidates with the usual onslaught of questions. Make them display their tech mettle by fixing a server in a given timeframe. Don't judge them according to whether they fully solve the problem, judge them by how well they comport themselves during the test. This will be a good indicator of how they handle stress in the field.

2: Inventiveness

As much as people want to argue about this, it is not black and white out in the field. Too many times, I have seen technically brilliant engineers come across a non-documented problem only to fail miserably. Engineers do need to have a bit of inventiveness in their toolkit to be able to solve the problems that arise in the real world.

3: Attention to detail

An efficient engineer pays close attention to detail. Because they tend to work under tight deadlines, it is crucial that they be able to see the very detailed picture as well as the grand scheme. A close adherence to the minutia of a job will not only help the engineer work efficiently, it will result in a job done to completion. When an engineer can't see the details, issues and deadlines are missed.

4: Sense of humor

I'm not talking standup comedy, but engineers need to know how to laugh at themselves and/or at a situation. Engineers are going to make mistakes. If they beat themselves up for those mistakes, they're likely to drag those feelings of failure into their next appointment. Being able to take a situation a little more lightly means a person is capable of moving on and not dwelling on negatives. The last thing a consultancy needs is to have to pander to the insecurities of engineers who can't seem to get over making a mistake.

5: Ability to work alone or with others equally

Do you work well with others? Do you work well alone? Typical questions asked during interviews. We all know the interviewee is going to try to answer the question in a way that best fits the job description. We also know that the best field engineers are the ones that can work well alone and with others. There are going to be tasks that must be completed alone and tasks that must be completed as a team. Engineers worth their weight in payroll will be able to handle either situation without issue.

6: Desire to learn

This industry races by faster than the speed of light. The second you have a full grasp on a technology, something newer, better, and totally different comes along. This is a constant, and it means an engineer's education and knowledge must be ever-fluid and expanding. Without the want or willingness to learn new technologies or skills, an engineer isn't going to be much use to a consulting firm.

The worst-case scenario is that every time a new version of an operating system is released, an engineer is going to have to readjust his or her way of thinking. On a daily basis, we receive phone calls from new companies or companies releasing new versions of their software hoping to get us on board. On occasion, we try the new products, hoping to either find a replacement for a piece of software that doesn't meet our demands or to find something to fit a particular client's needs. When this happens, someone has to learn the ins and outs of the software. Hopefully every engineer on the staff is willing and able to do this.

7: Thrilled (but not obsessed) with tech

You want your engineers to enjoy technology... otherwise, you might have to question why they bothered becoming engineers in the first place. But you do not want them to be obsessed with technology. Anyone who has ever done any hiring knows a well-rounded person is almost always a better fit within a company than a single-minded, one-trick pony. If job candidates come in looking lost without a keyboard under their fingers, think twice about hiring them. Yes, it is good to have a healthy relationship with technology. But the minute that relationship becomes an obsession, things are going to get a bit strange. Such candidates may have trouble relating to clients or fitting in with other employees, and they could easily suffer from a severe lack of social skills, which could be a disaster in the field.

8: Strong communication skills

One of the things we do on a moment-to-moment basis is communicate. This is especially true for engineers who have to do any remote support. Without the ability to communicate, an engineer is going to have a tough time helping clients understand what is going on. And when that engineer is called in for remote support, things will quickly go south. Handling remote support is a job for a calm, understanding, patient person who knows how to fully and easily communicate with end users. But the importance of communication skills does not end at remote support. Even out in the field, engineers must know how to talk to clients. When something goes wrong onsite, the engineer must be able to explain the problem and how it is going to be handled. On top of that, engineers must be able to effectively communicate with the home office.

9: Patience in all situations

An impatient engineer is an engineer who's destined for failure. When an engineer displays impatience with a client, that client is not going to be happy. They may even file a complaint against the engineer. Engineers must understand that not everyone has their expertise level, so they may not grasp the concepts quickly. This is especially true with remote support, when an engineer can't always grab the mouse and keyboard from the user and say, "Here, let me show you." A potential employer once used an interesting trick on me: He made me sit quite a while in a waiting room before my interview. The employer wanted to see how I would react to having to wait. Fortunately, I am a patient person, so I won that employer over with my reaction. Although that device might seem underhanded, it is a good way to judge how candidates may react when things are completely out of their control.

10: Even tempered

I have seen it -- engineers punching walls, tossing keyboards, swearing at clients. It's ugly and generally winds up bad for everyone involved. One of the best engineers I have ever worked with was the most even-keeled person I have ever known. Nothing fazed this gentleman, and clients often asked to have him either take on or take over a job. This wasn't about skills, as there were engineers with far more skills available. This was all about personality and temperament. Hire engineers who aren't frustrated easily and do not display signs of temper to the public. Those engineers will prove to be your best workers.

The best fit

There are many facets to an engineer. Determining who will be a perfect fit requires more than just asking questions and administering tests. You must evaluate how candidates act, interact, and react to their surroundings, situations, and others. If you look for the qualities in the above list, you will have a head start on hiring the right people for the job.

By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....