Working for a hardware supplier may not have the cachet of a software house or a consultancy, but there are plenty of opportunities to build a solid career in hardware.
Steady growth in revenues - analysts at Gartner estimate PC sales will grow globally by more than 10% in both 2007 and 2008, and the storage hardware market is up by as much as 5% year on year - means hardware suppliers are actively recruiting.
Roles within hardware suppliers
Roles in hardware suppliers in the UK tend to be in sales, pre-sales and support rather than product design or production, as most of the latter are based overseas. Sales roles may cover sales to end-users and channel development, selling to other companies in the supply chain.
For all of these positions, hardware suppliers are looking for a successful track record in selling a particular technology coupled with technical knowledge about the products they are selling, says Dan Rhodes, managing director of Channel Search International, which focuses on recruitment into suppliers of networking and security systems.
For pre-sales positions, commercial expertise as well as technical knowledge is essential. "You need to be able to spot and qualify sales opportunities, as well as have the technical knowledge of how the product will fit into customers' existing investments.
"These roles are often the most difficult to recruit for, because many technically excellent people are not good at speaking to customers," says Rhodes.
The skills necessary for success
Technical skills are the key in most support roles. However, although paper qualifications are appreciated, they are rarely essential.
"What is more important is experience, ability and aptitude," says David Ravenhill, a consultant with the T3 Group who recruits almost exclusively for storage suppliers such as Hitachi Data Systems, EMC and StorageTek.
"We sometimes see people who have high ability and the right aptitude getting jobs that, on paper, they would not be considered for," he says.
Of key importance, even in these more technical roles, is to have strong soft skills. "Good verbal communication is essential. You need to be able to describe complex technical issues to non-technical people, and to understand their business issues and how to apply the technology to meet those needs," says Ravenhill.
With hardware suppliers now deriving an increasing proportion of their revenue from support and professional services, there are also increasing numbers of openings for people with strong software skills as well as hardware knowledge.
Ravenhill cites the demand in storage suppliers for "people who have an understanding of the major backup software products and the databases customers will be backing up, and experience in implementing backup software".
Candidates with a mix of hardware and software skills are rare and usually easy to place. However, says Ben Leeds, team leader at recruiters Matchtech, who recruits for IT suppliers, hardware suppliers often turn down candidates with a broad range of skills because they fear they will become bored and leave when they find there is less diversity in the role than they are used to.
Within the hardware sector, there are also differences in the recruitment practices of suppliers that manufacture products, distributors serving the channel, and resellers working directly with end-user customers.
From entry level to senior roles
Rhodes says entry-level positions are typically found in larger distributors, which are more geared up to providing basic training. Big suppliers such as IBM and Hewlett-Packard may also employ graduates, but most suppliers looking to fill junior roles recruit staff who have worked in distributors. Resellers and smaller specialist hardware suppliers are almost always after experienced people who can hit the ground running.
At senior levels, Ravenhill says, candidates are more likely to move from roles in channel partners such as resellers to working directly for suppliers than the other way around. "That may be because the benefits are better, and the projects bigger and more interesting, while suppliers' revenues tend to be less volatile than resellers, so there is greater job security," he says.
Working for a supplier can also be easier compared with working for a distributor or reseller because there are fewer products to master. However, says Rhodes, working for a supplier for some time can narrow your options to just competitors of your current employer, because your expertise becomes limited to that supplier's technology.
Suppliers do also frequently recruit staff working in end-user firms. Ravenhill says it can be a good move for people who "want to do something more customer-focused than sitting in a datacentre, or who want an opportunity to work with a broader range of technologies or to apply the same technology in different environments".
He says that staff coming from end-users often join a supplier with whom they already have a relationship. "When a vacancy comes up, both employer and candidate are already a known quantity to each other," he says.
Where jobs in hardware lead
In general, career progression within hardware suppliers tends to involve becoming more expert in a particular technology, although in some roles you may progress by gaining a broader knowledge across a wider range of technologies.
In either case, Leeds says, "Because the sector is very busy, it is a candidates' market and there are good opportunities to progress and good training on offer."
The downside is that training does tend to be closely tied to the company's immediate needs to get the job done rather than for wider or longer-term personal development.