It staff need better interpersonal skills

Are you the ideal IT staffer? Rob McLuhan uncovers the rising demand for interpersonal skills within the coding community

Are you the ideal IT staffer? Rob McLuhan uncovers the rising demand for interpersonal skills within the coding community

"It's easy to be seduced by the sexiness of a new system, but instead of telling everyone how mind-blowing it is you need to think whether it has a practical application or is really just a solution looking for a problem," he says.

An ability to learn fast is crucial, Charlton adds. "The pace of change is phenomenal, and what you learned about last year may well be dead by now, so if you're the type that takes a long time to get to grips with new technology you'll really struggle."

Surviving in this pressured environment means being able to communicate, says Asher Rickayzen, head of commercial change management at One 2 One. "We are often being squeezed for time," he says, "Working with badly defined requirements to tight budget constraints. The business is very unforgiving if IT holds it back, but quite often project leaders can't express what they need to function effectively."

Rickayzen's 14 years in IT have made him realise how difficult it is to train interpersonal skills. "If an individual can understand patterns and logic, then you can teach the technical side, whereas showing them how to communicate is quite hard," he says. Rickayzen himself recently attended a course at Cranfield School of Management, which encourages executives to balance out the logical side of their personality by nurturing the intuitive aspects.

A logical person who communicates well can be seen as a contradiction in terms, agrees recruitment consultant Carol Mote, director of online career development agency Henri Mote. She says, "This type is often pedantic and won't let go of the detail, which can be very irritating. Good people don't bore their colleagues by talking endlessly at meetings. They know what needs to be done and get on with it."

Mote compares two staffers she knows who are both competent, but demonstrate opposite extremes in the way they work. One, a technical writer who works with media organisations like the BBC and Granada, listens carefully to what people want and then gets to work, while the other, an Oracle consultant, gets lost in his own verbiage.

"The media staffer is always probing to find out what the expectation level is, and then tries to exceed it," Mote says. "He has a personal sense of pride about that and is very successful. People like working with him, because he does the job far in excess of what they expect, and within the agreed time-scale. The consultant, on the other hand, always has to have the last word on everything and as a result is quite unpopular. People seek information from him but find it hard to get what they need. Also his projects never seem to get finished, because as the picture gets bigger he loses sight of the original objectives."

In practice, the perfect individual is hard to find. Instead the aim should be to create a balanced team, in which individuals complement each other's strengths and weaknesses.

Some characteristics will depend on the role. For instance, a candidate who has shown dogged loyalty to the same company for 18 years may be ideal for a position in a big traditional organisation like IBM or Unilever. However, in an Internet start-up company such a person would soon get frustrated at the lack of structures and procedures.

To identify the right person they prefer to use proven techniques such as behavioural interviews, assessment centres or psychometric tests, which can precisely identify whether an individual has the qualities needed for the role (see box).

A bit of pressure at the assessment stage is useful to determine a candidate's resilience to stress, a personal characteristic that in these technology-driven times no IT staffer can be without. Signs of fluster during an interview or role-play exercises could signal an inability to cope when the going gets rough.

"Meeting deadlines is imperative, and even the best can crumble at times," says Tom Bannister, marketing manager at recruitment consultancy DPP. "The more laid-back person is indispensable in these situations, because they can absorb the pain but still deliver results."

What job advertisements euphemistically call "a sense of humour" means not so much an ability to crack jokes but a willingness to put up with abuse, Bannister says.

"In IT you will often have to work with someone who is your best mate at one moment, and then at the next is screaming and threatening to sack you. Afterwards you'll probably have to sit down with them in the pub as though nothing had happened."

Selecting potential programmers The use of psychometric tests with job applicants is controversial, but advocates say the method is ideal for identifying the mental attributes needed for specific roles, for instance those with a strong technical or problem-solving element.

The Oxford Psychologists Press has just written a new test to help identify the qualities needed to be a good programmer. It asks the candidate to set up the lighting for a stage play, conveying an understanding of the effects that the director wants to create.

"With programming you need a deductive approach, first building up the big picture of where you want to end up, and then assembling the building blocks to achieve it," says director Robert McHenry. "We found that these skills have more in common with the technical director of a theatre than with a mathematician."

Filling the role: it takes two

Recruiters

  • Think ahead, to be sure that the technical role you are recruiting for now will still be there in six months or a year
  • Establish the competencies that are required for the job
  • Don't rely too much on instinct. Behavioural interviews and assessment centres are proven methods of establishing an individual's suitability for a particular role
  • When interviewing, test for stress by creating artificial interruptions. An applicant who appears ill-at-ease may perform badly under pressure
  • Take interviewees round the offices or perhaps even to the canteen for a coffee. They will often be more candid with you there than in the interview room
  • Applicants

  • Be clear in your mind about why you want the job and what you can offer
  • Dress appropriately and don't try to convey that you are fun to be with by wearing a wacky novelty tie
  • Be yourself. Pretending to be someone you aren't will make you behave awkwardly and could cause problems down the line
  • Do your homework so that you can show a detailed understanding of the company's activities and the sector in which it operates
  • If you have done something you are proud of summarise it on a single sheet of paper to leave with the interviewers
  • Ideal personal characteristics

    • Business understanding. To know how the systems serve the overall strategy
    • Interpersonal skills. To negotiate with colleagues and represent the company to customers
    • A capacity to absorb information and turn it into a practical solution
    • Resistance to stress
    • An ability to learn new technologies quickly

    Myers-Briggs who?

    If you are a typical IT professional you will be strong on sensing and thinking but poor on intuition and feeling, according to Cranfield School of Management. The School is running a five-day course to help IT executives extend their interpersonal skills, based on the widely-used Myers-Briggs Type Indicator.

    "Common sense and pragmatism are the natural characteristics of such people," says course lecturer Robina Chatham. "That makes them good at implementing systems and processes to make businesses run smoothly. The downside is they tend to be impatient, poor at delegation, and more inclined to focus on short-term tactics at the expense of long-term strategy."

    Where IT professionals can bring out their feeling and intuitive side they will become more naturally empathic, Chatham says, and better able to listen and negotiate effectively. "They will be good at building networks in relationships and initiating change, and will engender loyalty in the people who work for them. They will also find it easier to deal with customers, enabling them to show genuine concern and address individual needs."

    But the more rational components are important too, and the ideal is to get a good balance, Chatham says. Her own problem is the reverse. A relative lack of sensing and thinking qualities made her somewhat atypical during a 14-year career in IT, latterly as the European IT director of a merchant bank.

    "I found it difficult to handle the politics, and didn't have the degree of influence at senior levels that I needed. Also I found it difficult to manage people," she says. But she put her assets to good use by joining Cranfield to teach skills she was sure there was a demand for. Her hunch paid off. The course, held four times a year, is now always over subscribed.

    Cranfield School of Management 01234-751122

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