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Personnel

How to hire a good tech for your library?

9th September 2008

I think that one of the most difficult hiring decisions a public library has to make is that of a tech.1
Although the systems that enable all of the digital resources of the library are truly mission-critical, they represent one realm that most library staff are likely the least comfortable with.  How does a hiring manager pick someone who can adequately support that which they don’t necessarily understand themselves?

I asked some questions to the tech folks on the OPLINTECH listserv2 and received some well-thought out responses. Here’s a summary of what they had to say:

What qualities do you MOST seek in a tech candidate?

Someone who knows how to solve a problem more than they know what the answer actually is.  Good techs can tell you the method by which they solved a sticky issue, and what resources they consulted to get to a resolution.  A prospective tech should be able to remain calm under pressure.  Adaptability is a must.  Technology changes all the time, and techs must keep up.  What worked yesterday may not work tomorrow.  This means you need a tech who is both self-motivated and curious.

What quality/qualities are immediate turn offs?

Almost universally, the “know-it-all” tech seems to be reviled by both library staff and other techs.  Additional turn-offs include techs who don’t know how to communicate without jargon or with eye contact.  People who are evangelists for only one operating system (e.g., Windows, Linux, Mac) were also cited several times.  The feeling among the respondents was that this may mean less flexibility and less willingness to learn new technologies that may not use their platform of choice.  One respondent wrote,

Consider looking for people who have experience with more than one operating system since they will more than likely have a better understanding of the underlying concepts of OSes [operating systems] and applications. This allows them to better troubleshoot at a deeper level than someone who is only familiar with the surface of the most popular products.

Does your library prefer/require candidates with degrees in computer science (or a job-related degree)?

Overwhelmingly, the responses were “no.”  Although most did not require or even prefer a computer science or related degree, several did stipulate that some kind of degree was mandatory.  Overall, the survey respondents felt that a degree was not as important as ability.

Does your library prefer/require candidates with at least one professional certification (e.g., A+, MCSE, CIW, etc)

The feelings about this question were almost identical to those about the previous question concerning degrees.  Only one library required/preferred candidates with some sort of certification.

Does your library require applicants to pass a written job skills exam as part of the hiring process?

This question resulted in much more of a mixed bag.  Interestingly, some of the responders, even though their library does not currently test tech applicants, felt that it would be useful to do so.  Written tests were cited as a good way to immediately sort serious candidates from those who don’t possess enough rudimentary knowledge to get to the next hiring stage.

Which avenues/web sites does your library use to advertise tech job openings?

Newspapers, regional library system job sites, library web sites, local trade magazines, word of mouth and local tech colleges were cited.  An interesting followup question for the future might be: “Which of these has proved most successful?”

What is the hardest thing about hiring a tech?

Most responses indicated that the lack of adequate salaries for IT professionals is an ongoing problem with hiring techs.  They acknowledged that many qualified candidates can get much better elsewhere.  The other most-cited issue is that of knowing if your candidate is really qualified.  Several responding techs recommended hiring a consultant to help with this task.  One says:

To weed out the “impostors”, have the short-list applicants talk to a trusted _real_ IT tech (even if you have to hire your IT consultant for a few hours). “Impostors” will easily snow a non-tech director or hiring manager, but will usually quickly fail a “real” tech’s smell-test.

What advice would you give to another library trying to hire a good tech?
Some of the comments:

  • Don’t hire the first person who seems to know more than you do (unless you’re an IT expert).
  • Be realistic in wants & needs vs. pay and benefits you offer.  You might be hard-pressed to find a super-tech willing to work real cheap.
  • Mentor. Look for talent and potential that you can feed. Know that if you’re successful, you’ll lose this person in a couple years — lose them because you’ve helped them grow into bigger and better things, not because you’ve drained them of the will to live.
  • Always find out what they do on their own time. The more they enjoy working on stuff at home, the more likely they will be able to bring those skills to work.
  • Take your time; your computer upgrade can wait. A poor IT person will do much more damage than you can possibly imagine and it can set you back years and many more times his/her salary in getting back up to speed. This is orders of magnitude more true if the IT person you’re hiring is the only IT person for your organization.

Thanks to all of the IT people from OPLINTECH who helped out by responding to my questions!

___________________________________________________________________________________
1 By tech, I mean someone who’s primary responsibilities (but not necessarily all of their responsibilities) relate to caring for the library’s network and/or  computers and/or web site development.

2 This is an OPLIN listserv for discussing tech-related topics. If you’d like to subscribe, go to http://oplin.org/content/oplintech.

Comments

  • Shane Ian Hoffman
    Posted at 9:20 am September 9, 2008
    Shane Ian Hoffman
    Author

    One other thing that I’ve always done during the hiring process is to require a writing sample. With this, I can judge the person’s ability to handle effective, written communication. One of my pet peeves in the IT industry is having people represent my department to others, both internally and externally, who can not write a complete, coherent sentence. It does neither me nor my “constituency” any good to have unreadable documentation.

    P.S.

    For some reason, about one quarter of all applicants seem to think I want a handwriting sample. Be prepared to explain what you are really wanting.

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