The Cranky Admin

Help Wanted: Nerd

There's a right way and a wrong way to hire and retain an IT pro. Do it the right way.

There is a longstanding debate between IT practitioners and business owners over the supply of skilled IT professionals. Business owners in every region claim loudly that there is a desperate skills shortage. IT practitioners can almost universally explain how this isn't true.

There are the traditional reasons for this gap in understanding. Business owners want individuals with multiple Ph.D.'s, every certification known to man and 20 years experience in technologies that have only existed for five years -- all for poverty wages. Or less.

Practitioners, of course, want to be well compensated for their time. They also understand that the IT industry is undergoing constant rapid evolution. You can't tell who is "good" at what they do based on completion of a given post-secondary course or by holding various certifications (top-end certs like CCIE, VCDX and so on are excluded. You must know your stuff to get those.)

Perhaps most importantly, IT practitioners don't like being treated poorly. They don't like the finger of blame being pointed at them. Responsibility for something without the authority to enact required changes is never a recipe for success, and yet it is considered perfectly normal in IT. Most systems administrators have considered quitting due to stress (I did, in fact). Of late, it seems to be all anyone in the various IT communities I occupy is talking about.

As a society, we just don't treat nerds -- or really, anyone in a subordinate position -- particularly well. Is it any wonder that employee loyalty is essentially non-existent when, let's face it, companies that show any to their employees are few and far between?

So what can a company looking for a decent sysadmin do to fill the human resources gap in their IT infrastructure?

Speak Geek
If you've got a yen to find a top nerd to twiddle your knobs, the best place to start are the IT communities. Even if the person you contact isn't themselves interested in a job, there's a good chance they know someone who knows someone… like it or not, this is how our industry works.

Professional headhunters are amusing, but they're horribly inefficient and they usually don't understand anything about the industry. That's how we end up with ridiculous asks like 20 years experience for a technology that's five years old. If you need a nerd and aren't bound by some weird government regulations about how you source your wetware, consider recruitment agencies an absolute last resort.

If you're looking for a more entry-level position, Spiceworks and Mango Lassi are good places to start. There are a seemingly unlimited number of help desk or junior sysadmin types peopling those communities.

If you need folks a little more experienced, virtualization communities in particular seem to produce well-rounded geeks, and there are user groups everywhere. Try headhunting at your local VMUG, contacting vExperts on Twitter, or looking into the communities around Microsoft, Red Hat, Citrix or Scale Computing's virtualization offerings.

If you have trouble breaking into an IT community, start looking for IT-themed podcasts that talk about the area of IT that you're looking to find a nerd to cover. Podcasters tend to be pretty involved in the community. At the very least, they should be able to direct you to community resources more tailored to the specialty you desire.

Here's An Idea: Hire a Woman
There are a reasonable number of ladies practicing IT. Many of them self-identify with the #womenintech community, often participating in podcasts, speaking at events or otherwise bolstering their personal and professional profiles through networking. Often, these women are exceptional.

Putting politics aside, female IT practitioners do legitimately have to put up with a lot of crap in order to do their jobs. They get treated badly, and many of them leave in order to find more rewarding and less awful jobs. Women in tech also tend to be underrated, get less credit for their work and be far more humble regarding their accomplishments.

The end result is that the ladies wrangling servers (and, frequently, their fellow sysadmins) are, quite simply, the best of the best. In my own assessment, the best systems administrators I've ever had the honor of interacting with have generally been female.

The #womenintech community can thus offer one potential path to pitch your job offering to a high-caliber technology professional. There's less weeding out of mediocre practitioners because, sadly, we have pretty much just treated them so badly anyone who wasn't a steely-eyed rock star left.

Beyond Salary
What a lot of people fail to understand about IT professionals is that we are, by nature, very conservative individuals. This might seem paradoxical to some; nerds are known to be pretty socially progressive. Despite this, the industry as a whole is also rather libertarian.

More importantly, the "Finger Of Blame" hangs over the heads of all systems administrators like the swords of Damocles. System administrators spend our professional lives having risk aversion beaten into us, support-ticket-by-support-ticket.

A decade of marketing hype about the public cloud, how it was going to come for all of our jobs, and repeated mass firings, contraction, consolidation and mergers of household name IT vendors hasn't helped, either. We're a paranoid lot. That means many, if not most, of us care about more than just money.

Security matters to IT types. Benefits. Contracts. Some indication that their job won't evaporate. Even if your organization can't realistically sign on for these sorts of assurances, a willingness to invest in training can send much of the same signal. If you help an IT practitioner keep their skills sharp, provide them with a reasonable working environment and pay them a living wage, you'll likely find that most have no interest in leaving. We just don't like risk.

Training is a useful consideration for another reason: nerds are very good at learning. I can take any virtualization administrator and turn them into a public cloud specialist in relatively short order. The worlds are not that far apart. Similarly, I can take a Linux admin and make a great virtual admin. So on and so forth.

Investing in People
When you go looking for your admins, bear in mind that the investment is in a person. Actual and whole. Bear that in mind, and you'll find there are plenty of IT practitioners, from help desk operators to architects, that can help you meet your goals. Skills shortage? Most likely not.

About the Author

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley startups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.

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