Hiring and firing: an example of a stellar employee

I plan to make a couple of posts surrounding the very thorny issue of hiring (and firing) IT staff. To start off, here’s a recommendation letter I wrote a couple of years ago, at the request of a former employee. It shows at least one executive’s (i.e., my own) view of what matters in a job candidate most of all, and how certain characteristics can (sometimes, not always) make up for lack of background or experience. I’ll call him Harry. What I sought (and found) in Harry doesn’t necessarily pertain equally to all IT positions, but I offer it for consideration:

I have known Harry for over four years, ever since I hired him into the role of Project Manager at XYZ, where I was the VP of Information Technology.

Harry didn’t have an IT background, although he had certainly worked in and around high tech before. I went into the hiring process believing that I very much needed someone specifically with an IT operations background, so Harry’s resume, even though he came enthusiastically recommended by another XYZ executive who had worked with him before, didn’t make it into the interview pile initially. Hearing this from our HR recruiter, Harry then wrote me a polite but assertive letter, pointing out, with specific examples and in characteristically articulate and very persuasive fashion, his myriad skills, ability to be a quick study, and absolute passion for any task he takes on. I’d seldom encountered such a persistent and articulate individual, and as I reflected on what I most wanted in the individual who would fill the open position, I decided that those characteristics counted, and counted a lot.

I was anything but wrong. In my subsequent experiences with Harry as an employee, I found out that he exemplified all those traits and more, including the following:

  • Ability to create order out of chaos, taking on sometimes vaguely formulated assignments, defining meaningfully what was really needed, and then delivering it beyond my expectations;
  • Ability to reason, thinking out all the angles;
  • Ability to forge consensus and, even while pushing hard on people to get things accomplished, still be well-liked, even by my (extremely) ornery sysadmins and DBAs;
  • Versatility; ability to be a quick study, taking on tasks where he initially had zero background;
  • A solid work ethic. This was an individual who “showed up,” organized his tasks, and simply got things done;
  • Ability to accept feedback and coaching, adjusting his work as a result;
  • Ability to hang in at an organization through ups and downs;
  • Self-educating (reading 1-2 business-related books a month)

In short, this was an exemplary employee, exactly the profile that I wish I could hire each and every time in terms of basic, raw ability and attitude alone. And his actual output once he had the job? Harry exceeded my expectations every single time. Interestingly, I’ve actually hung on to some sample documents that Harry created, not so much for their specific content as for their overall quality and ability to serve as a compelling example as I push to get the best from my current employees. “Give me something like this,” I tell them.

If I currently had a suitable position available in my organization, you can be sure that I’d be trying to hire Harry myself, because his presence strengthens any company.

I recommend nearly any book by Joel Spolsky, as I do with anything by Steve McConnell as well. This book is a sterling little gem with tons of wisdom and specific, actionable examples.

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