E-business ventures seem to make extreme demands on their employees, but super-staffers are not that difficult to find. Rob McLuchan reports
Dotcom fever may have abated somewhat since last year's shares slump, but with companies racing to get online operations up and running, e-business is still a major preoccupation. And for those working on these projects, the demands can be intense. Most e-business directors know exactly the kind of staffer they want: someone with plenty of stamina who thrives on cold pizza and late nights, is fluent in XML and Java, and has a canny grasp of business issues.
This person will know exactly what the challenges are, perhaps having had front-line experience of an Internet start-up. And crucially they will be ideal teamworkers, with an outgoing personality that charms colleagues, partners and customers alike.
But does such a super-staffer actually exist? Certainly not in any quantity, concedes Tom Smith, sales director of Networking People UK, which places personnel for finance, telecoms and IT services companies.
"Not everyone can find people with the right blend of maturity, technical awareness and understanding of how business works," he says.
However, the situation is much improved compared to 18 months ago, Smith points out, with the rush to e-business having created a fund of highly experienced candidates.
That is confirmed by Tim Hammett, head of the new media practice at Harvey Nash, where B2B has come to stand for "back to banking", as disillusioned high-flyers head back to the companies they abandoned for the speculative riches of online ventures.
As well as experience, Hammett looks for high levels of resilience in e-business job-seekers. As well as the stamina to cope with the workload, they need the flexibility to adapt quickly to an ever-changing environment, he says.
You should also be capable of thinking on your feet. One candidate Hammett interviewed recently had once gone into a meeting expecting to sell £500,000 worth of services, but came away having invested £1,000,000 in a new partnership.
Hammett also stresses how essential communication skills are. "Dotcom people know they need the support of others, and being able to work in partnerships is hugely important," he says. "In sectors such as travel and automotive particularly, we are seeing portals being put together by an alliance of companies that used to be the fiercest competitors."
At IBM E-Business Solutions the perceived need is for unity, and staff need to take a broad view of how various projects complement each other. Rob Sharpe, regional sales manager, says, "It can be a challenge to glue them together. Marketing, finance, logistics and production departments all have different requirements, but for suppliers and customers you need to provide a holistic view."
Sharpe cites a recent e-business project for the Royal Bank of Scotland as an example where IBM employees required a melange of skills. "They not only had to work under conditions of the utmost security, they also needed creativity grounded in a solid business sense and firm technical know-how. This is the ideal balance for this environment."
Recruiters must also take account of an individual's track record, and here tradition is not necessarily the best guide. Old economy recruiters tended to dismiss a varied background as signs of dilettantism, but for e-business it is often welcomed.
"Diversity is one of the most attractive attributes a prospective employee can possess, a reliable indicator of an intellectual mind and practical curiosity," asserts Nathan Doughty, director of product development at Bidcom, an e-business services provider to the construction industry.
He adds, "In my experience, some of the best software developers had previous careers as musicians, while top commercial analysts may have been chemical engineers."
Many of the ideal personal skills are actually quite similar to those sought for other activities, according to Niels Bryan-Low, managing director of consultancy Proteus. But they are more important in e-business, where staff need to act fast and consistently get it right first time.
On the technical side, Bryan-Low's shopping list of competencies includes an ability to think around a problem in an innovative way, while at the same time being able to apply a structured methodology. "It doesn't help to come up with a better way of coding after half a million lines have been completed. You want someone who can apply the right method from the outset," he says.
A thorough grounding in databases is also an essential asset, stresses Aine McGuire, business development director at Pygmalion Computer Group, which provides business development and technical training for Microsoft. She classes this as one of three classic skills that any employee will need, next to problem-solving abilities and knowledge of a good programming language.
Ultimately, recruiters concede, few e-business candidates will be completely free of weaknesses, but this will not matter as long as all the required competencies are present in the department as a whole.
Bryan-Low says, "Clients want a structured solution staffed with the right mix of skills to implement it. No one human being can excel at everything, but when you are building a team you can certainly aim for perfection."
Ideal qualities for an e-business staffer
- Flexibility and stamina
- Business acumen
- Innovative thinking
- Good teamworking and sociability
- Knowledge of Internet programming language and some legacy skills
- Experience of Internet projects.
What to look for in e-business candidates
- An energetic, outgoing personality with an imaginative grasp of the e-business environment
- Experience in an Internet start-up: one that crashed in flames could provide experience just as valuable as one that succeeded
- Knowledge of relevant programming languages is evidence of determination to get ahead in e-business
- A background in the humanities may indicate an individual with creative skills
- An interest in the commercial opportunities that technology offers, rather than in toys for their own sake.
Job-seekers: how to land that plum role
- Master the programming languages that are much in demand, such as Java and XML
- Dazzle recruiters with your ideas about how the latest developments in e-technology can open up business opportunities
- Broaden your skills portfolio, for instance by gaining a diploma in marketing or business management
- Gather relevant experience, perhaps by getting involved in a small-scale Internet project
- Demonstrate a knowledge of the e-business environment, being able to identify examples of success and failure in Internet projects.
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