Five tips for hiring a new IT staff member

Finding the best person for an IT position requires more than just matching up skills with job requirements. Brien Posey shares some creative -- even unorthodox -- tricks for making a successful hire.

Prior to going freelance, I worked several jobs at various levels of management in corporate IT departments. During this time, I occasionally had to hire new IT staff members. To be perfectly frank, I never really cared for traditional interview techniques. So I developed some of my own techniques for hiring IT staff members. In this article, I will share with you five of my best tips.

1: Take advantage of practice tests

When I'm looking to hire a new IT employee, I usually need the employee to be proficient in certain technologies. One way I test for proficiency is to take advantage of IT certification practice exams (such as those made by Trancender). Most candidates aren't going to be able to pass an IT certification exam they haven't studied for. Even so, I have found the practice exams to be useful. For starters, these exams allow me to make sure candidates have at least a minimal level of knowledge about a particular technology. That way, I can tell whether I'll need to send them out for additional training if I hired them.

Giving candidates practice exams is also a great way of determining whether they've lied on their resume. For example, if someone claims to be a Microsoft Exchange Server expert but scores only 10% on a practice exam, you know that candidate has lied on the resume and can't be trusted.

2: Ask about accomplishments

When I interview prospective IT employees, I don't bother asking detailed questions about which technologies they have experience with. As long as they have mastered the basics, I can always get them additional training in whatever area they may be lacking. What I am interested in is their accomplishments.

At the end of the day, the role of IT is to support business. All the IT certifications in the world are useless if those certifications can't be used in a practical way. By asking candidates about their accomplishments on the job, I can get a feel for not only what they know, but also how they use that knowledge.

3: Never underestimate the importance of chemistry

Most of the IT professionals I know work a lot of hours, which means that they spend a lot of time with their coworkers. I have found that the IT department seems to function more smoothly if the employees get along with each other relatively well.

When I get to the point in the interview process where I am seriously considering hiring someone, I like to get the rest of the IT staff involved in the process, since they will be working with the person. Initially, I bring everyone in on an interview to give them the chance to ask questions of the prospective employee. If the interview seems to go well, I also try to put everyone together in a social situation just to see how well everyone gets along. For example, I have taken everyone out to dinner and once or twice I invited everyone for an afternoon out on my boat.

In the end, I have passed over extremely well-qualified candidates just because they had no social skills or because they didn't seem to mesh well with my staff. Even though technical knowledge is important, I find it equally important for candidates to get along well with the people they will be spending so many hours with each day.

4: Use the Lego test

Anyone who has worked in IT for very long knows that sometimes you have to be creative when solving business problems. So I like to test a candidate's creativity as a part of the interview process. To do so, I developed something I call the Lego test.

For this test, I give candidates a box of random Legos and tell them that they have 20 minutes to build whatever they like. At the end of the time, I ask them to show me what they have built. What I'm looking for is a creative design that candidates are proud of. I figure that if someone can be creative with Legos, they can be creative in solving other types of problems as well.

5: Be creative with the compensation

Let's say your candidate came through those first four challenges with flying colors -- he or she is technically proficient, results-oriented, a good fit for your team, and a creative problem-solver -- but the salary requirements are beyond your budget. When this happens, all is not necessarily lost. Depending on the amount of corporate bureaucracy where you work, you might be able to win the candidate over by being creative with your compensation package.

I have found that the best approach to making this work is to simply have a frank discussion with the potential employee. Tell the candidate the maximum salary you can pay but explain that you may be able to make the job worthwhile by offering other perks.

You would be amazed by the types of perks that can win people over. For example, I once took a job that I otherwise wouldn't have because they offered to give me every Friday afternoon off. Another company I worked for couldn't meet my salary requirements, but they gave me a nice company car and made it available for personal use.

I have used the same types of techniques when hiring others. One guy asked for too much money, but I was able to hire him anyway by arranging for him to receive a couple of extra weeks of paid vacation each year. Someone else I hired actually asked me for season tickets to his favorite sports team's home games and a guarantee that his work schedule would not cause him to miss a home game. In case you're wondering, the season tickets cost far less than the amount of money the employee was originally asking for. In fact, this deal worked out extremely well. The employee ended up being thrilled with the deal he got, and I ended up with a happy and productive employee without breaking the bank.

Bonus tip: Be flexible with the interview schedule

IT can be a demanding career, and some of the best candidates may not be able to come for an interview during normal business hours. As a result, you many need to schedule interviews at night, early in the morning, or on weekends.