It’s always been tough finding great technical people for your team. Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger Keil Hubert examines just how crazy things have gotten now that hiring has devolved into a maze of nonsensical ‘requirements.’
I received an enquiry over social media yesterday morning from a young squaddie who’s about to separate from the service. He wanted some advice on looking for employment in the tech sector. The young man expected to be hired as a tech manager in a medium-sized company immediately because of his three years’ worth of experience working in a tech support role. I didn’t want to discourage the fellow, but I felt morally obligated to set him straight on a few points. One of the most bitter pills he’ll have to swallow is that he’s going to be irrationally excluded from 99 per cent of the jobs he qualifies to compete for thanks to arbitrary and nonsensical administrative barriers that Human Resources screeners have deliberately put in his way.
It didn’t used to be this way. We used to hire tech people based on competence and potential, not text strings. Pull up a stool, order a pint, and let’s work through how our career field got to this ridiculous place.
I first started screening and hiring people to do IT work a really long time ago. We’re not talking about the ENIAC era, but we are talking about the days when we got our e-mail through a campus mainframe, and original IBM PCs were still chugging along on people’s desks. 
Every hiring action that we embarked on back then was a daunting challenge. We had a wild mix of technologies to support. We needed people who were comfortable working on (or, at least, learning about) several dissimilar operating systems and applications. This proved to be a massive pain in the neck because computer support was still a relatively new field… and most people only had experience in one system type. There were always candidates who had the general aptitude but lacked the specific experience, and vice versa. The only way to figure out who would be a decent ‘fit’ for the team was to talk to each applicant face-to-face.
Unfortunately, our colleagues in HR refused to allow us to do that. HR wanted us to simply list out all of the required technical skills in the advertised position description so that The One True Applicant™ would immediately rise to the top of the submission stack. Many HR people didn’t understand jack about our work, our needs, or our culture. HR wanted the process to be simple enough that they could handle the screening themselves without us nerds getting involved. Fat chance of that. These were people who believed that their VDT was their computer, and that e-mail was hand-delivered from office to office by the postal clerk.
I’d go round and round with the HR clerks about what knowledge, skills, and abilities were required, desirable, and/or immaterial for a given position. The personnelists would insist that there had to be an inflexible barrier-to-entry for applicants, and urged us to pile on as many technical experience hurdles as possible.
I pushed back, arguing that no one would ever possess the totality of arcane skills that we needed – we needed to find someone that have enough experience to prove that they could learn, and we’d then teach them the rest. This logic made the HR types gnash their teeth with fury. They countered that every ‘requirement’ could be meticulously codified.
During one of my more vicious arguments, I got hold of an advertisement for a junior sysadmin position at the hospital down the road from us. The hard ‘requirements’ included the mandatory ownership and piloting of a time machine: specifically, all applicants must have a minimum of 15 years’ experience administeringVMS and Windows NT. VMS, sure… but NT had only been on the market for three years. How, then, did anyone prove that they had 15 years’ experience with it? Ergo, time machine. Please staple a photo of your TARDIS to your CV.
Undaunted, the HR clerks fell back on the tried-and-true process that they used for other positions. Did this tech support job require the applicant to have a university degree?
No, I said. There are no university degrees offered in technical support. Any other degree would be immaterial to the position.
They asked about requirements for professional licensure. Was there a specific license that the applicants had to have, like being a board-certified physician, or a Certified Public Accountant?
No, I said. There are no professional certifications offered in technical support.
Well, then, how many years of experience does an applicant need to have in order to qualify?
That’s completely arbitrary, I said. How is it that one year of experience is ‘better’ than eleven months’ of experience? Why are two years of experience better than eighteen months? You’re pulling those numbers out of the aether, and they don’t mean anything.
The HR clerks got quite bent out of shape. In once instance, I was accused of deliberately obfuscating a help desk position’s ‘hard’ requirements. In the end, though, I’d win: the HR people would published our PD with lots of desired attributes, and very few silly disqualifiers. We got some good candidates, and hired the best ones. Everything worked out.
Then, towards the second half of the 1990s, the certification craze struck and HR people everywhere rejoiced. Huzzah! They (probably) shouted. We now have an objective metric with which to disregard applicants so as to winnow down our candidate pool!
I ran into that problem during a Dot Com build and it infuriating me to no end. I was trying to hire an e-mail server administrator. Our HR team decided that these shiny new Microsoft certifications that they’d read about must be the best way to separate the wheat from the chaff. I wasted a week interviewing useless applicants with useless certifications. Most every discussion went (more or less) like this:
Me: So, what’s the largest network that you’ve managed?
Candidate: I… uh… I’ve never managed a network before.
Me: How many users did you support on the largest e-mail server that you’ve managed?
Candidate: I’ve never actually managed an e-mail server before.
Me: It says here on your CV that you hold an MCSE+I certification… 
Candidate: I went to a two-week boot camp last month and they taught us all the answers to the exam. I wanted to change careers and work in IT, and they said this course would hand me a six-figure job even though I had no practical experience.
Me: P**s off.
I pitched a fit over the candidate pool I was given and convinced HR to give me the CVs of the people that they’d screened out. We hired our IT support staff from those applicants. As predicted, arbitrary titles on a CV weren’t nearly as good a predictor of success as were attitudes, creativity, curiosity, and other intangible factors that can only be assessed through a personal interview.
Still, I’m the plucky rebel in this fight. For the past twenty years, HR types everywhere seem to have become addicted to keyword screening, and they get to run amok with it when it comes to tech positions. This has become much, much worse in recent years thanks to the huge surplus of applicants that flooded the market during the Great Recession. HR screeners needed tools with which to cull the majority of applicants for every posted job. As a result, certifications, degrees, and arbitrary years of experience ‘requirements’ have all saturated advertised positions.
It’s no wonder that our economies are in shambles worldwide; we’re letting the HR chickens rule the metaphorical barnyard instead of letting the farmer choose which animal to yoke to the plough. HR folks adore certs, degrees, and numbers because they’re accepted benchmarks, and don’t have to be understood to be implemented.
I respectfully non-concur.  Looking at the problem from a leadership perspective, it’s gotten much, much harder to get access to the best available candidates for any given need thanks to the arbitrary and capricious barriers that we’ve collectively allowed our HR types to erect between our jobs and our job seekers. We’re locked in an eternal struggle between non-technical HR people who think that keyword discriminators that can be cheerfully plugged into an AMS are the be-all and end-all of engineering competence, and us IT people who know better. It’s aggravating.
I ran an unscientific survey of posted IT positions within ten miles of my hometown last month as part of the research for this column. Among my favourite posts were:
For an entry-level IT auditor position: Must have CISA certification, and a bachelor’s degree in IT Auditing. I get the desire for auditor certification; that makes sense, although it’s a bit of a high bar to clear for an entry-level position. But a university degree? I’ve never seen a university offer a formal degree program in ‘IT Auditing.’ Even if you could find someone that had one, I can’t imagine how it could possibly be any more useful than the basic technical certification.
For a business consulting position: Must have ten years’ experience delivering Business Process Re-engineering. I completely understand the need for practical experience. BPR can be a tricky activity. But a decade’s worth? What makes 10 years’ experience the correct amount? How can 8 or 9 not be enough? Honestly, anything over ‘a couple’ of years ought be sufficient. But, then, if 10 years is ‘fully’ qualified, why not ask for 11? Why not just say ‘as much as possible’?
For an IT Director role: Must be proficient with database programming, including SQL, FoxPro, and Access. Eh, what? A ‘director’, by definition, is a high-level leader who has authority over multiple senior managers (who, in turn, supervise managers, who supervise individual contributors). Why does a third-tier senior leadership position require database programming skills? Is this person going to be creating strategic policy or spending all day nose-down on a keyboard writing SQL queries? That’s not leadership – that’s an individual contributor role with a grossly-inflated title.
These sorts of self-defeating, counter-productive job adverts do serve a purpose: they drastically reduce the number of CVs that the HR screeners have to review before sending the package over the hiring manager. What they don’t and can’t do is identify the best possible candidates for the position. Tech recruiters and headhunters understand this, and find the ‘arbitrary barrier’ practice just as revolting as those of us in IT leadership do.
To be sure, there are some dynamite HR people working out there in industry. The ones that truly get us – and help us! – are each worth their weight in Starbucks beverages. I adore working with responsible professionals, and go out of my way to keep them happy. Unfortunately, like in most occupations, the absolute gems constitute a depressingly small percentage of the overall population.
As a result, the long arc of this trend suggests that eventually one of two things is likely to happen. Either we’re going to start hiring in-house HR specialists as part of the IT team in order to handle all IT hiring internal to the division (and shutting down traditional generalist IT), or the HR profession is going to be replaced by a commercial SaaS solution. Funny thing, that… IT is now critical to the survival of most modern companies. We cannot afford to lose our best possible candidates to other firms because of flawed internal hiring processes. We need talent, and we need it now. Anyone that stands opposed to that need is likely to get run over… and that would be a crazy position to gamble your career on.
 God, writing this column is making me feel old.
 Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer plus Internet. Yes, you could get ‘certified’ as a bloody ‘engineer’ based entirely on an easy-to-game multiple-choice exam.
 To be clear, I’m a huge advocate for some technical certification programs. Just not most of them. The SANS Technical Institute is, for my money, the absolute best source of cyber security education in the world.
Keil Hubert is a retired U.S. Air Force ‘Cyberspace Operations’ officer, with over ten years of military command experience. He currently consults on business, security and technology issues in Texas. He’s built dot-com start-ups for KPMG Consulting, created an in-house consulting practice for Yahoo!, and helped to launch four small businesses (including his own).
Keil’s experience creating and leading IT teams in the defense, healthcare, media, government and non-profit sectors has afforded him an eclectic perspective on the integration of business needs, technical services and creative employee development… This serves him well as Business Technology’s resident U.S. blogger