Looking to hire (or be) the best? Here are the intangibles that make top IT performers stand out.
By Paul Heltzel, Contributing writer, CIO
NOV 7, 2022
The skills that make some IT pros invaluable can be hard to put your finger on, but tech leaders say the high-performers on their teams share similar traits that are helpful to identify when recruiting — and to keep teams running smoothly.
These indispensable technologists are always solving problems, and they consistently bring enthusiasm to their work, all while staying humble and continuing to keep the tools in their kit sharp.
Regardless of how they came up through the ranks, they’re always focused on the end result: meeting a user’s needs whether it’s a colleague or an external customer.
If you’re looking to join their ranks — or looking for signs of a hire you can rely on — here’s where to start.
Even inspired managers can only get so far with a tech pro who’s phoning it in, says Kelly Fleming, CIO at Cirrus Nexus.
“When I’m hiring, I often encounter several viable candidates with the skills to get the job done, but I only hire the ones who really care about what they’re working on,” Fleming says. “Only IT pros who are truly engaged and passionate about their work continue to exhibit the initiative required to stand out.”
Logan Spears, chief technology officer at Plainsight AI, says you can tell during interviews whether a candidate will bring energy to the job.
“If individuals seem like they could take or leave the opportunity, they’re going to need more direct, involved management just to move the needle,” Spears says. “You need something that’s attracting you to the keyboard, not scaring or guilting you into logging on. You need to be drawn by your passion for the work.”
“Without passion, an IT pro is just another cog in the machine,” says Jim Durham, CIO at Solar Panels Network US. “But with it, they have the potential to be truly indispensable.”
Starts with the end (user) in mind
Shadi Rostami, senior executive vice president of engineering at Amplitude, says it’s critical to have IT pros on staff who understand the problems of the person who’ll eventually be using the technology rather than simply focus on designing an elegant product.
“They make hundreds of microdecisions daily, and each one is more likely to be correct if they know the outcome they are trying to achieve,” Rostami says. “Top tech talent that can internalize the context of the problem can easily create 10 times the impact” of other technologists.
Sean Heritage, director of business operations at Horizon3, especially values tech pros who seek to proactively serve others.
“It’s not about responding to tickets, it’s about solving problems, delivering unique value, and realizing that no task is too big or too small.”
Especially with developers, the necessary technology is far easier to pick up than the skills around understanding customer needs, says Conor Winders, executive vice president of product and engineering at Administrate.
“Obsessing about the user will unlock so many more possibilities in how we deliver and measure our work,” Winders says. “And it shouldn’t stop there. Great software doesn’t stop when code is shipped, and great engineers understand that this is often just the beginning.”
Tech pros who are driven to learn and have the energy to keep it going stand out to Chase CIO Gill Haus. And many companies today, he says, will work with promising tech talent to fill skills gaps.
“You don’t necessarily need to have a four-year computer science degree,” Haus says. “There’s been a noticeable shift toward leveraging the latest technologies, such as machine learning, artificial intelligence, and cloud computing, to create tools that best address customer demand. Candidates who come in with experience and skills in this area are a plus, but we also offer learning opportunities for those who do not.”
Amplitude’s Rostami also values tech talent from varying backgrounds, whose drive and varied experience can provide an edge for the business.
“Many members of our team come from competition backgrounds, which we intentionally seek out because it is not about building the perfect feature, it’s about out-building everyone else,” Rostami says.
Mahesh Ramichetty, vice president of special projects at OvalEdge, looks for people who are inquisitive and unafraid to ask for assistance. “You have to be comfortable saying, ‘I don’t know; please show me.’ This is critical, as it illustrates a willingness to ensure the job is done right, as well as interest in learning something new,” Ramichetty says.
Successful tech pros know how to blend technical skills with the ability to communicate, collaborate, and lead, says Donna Ketler, Wiley’s senior vice president of global software engineering.
“Effective communication and collaboration are critical,” Ketler says. “Technology doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it’s a team effort — and technology touches every single part of the business. You need to know how to manage stakeholders — oftentimes multiple ones with competing agendas. You also need to be able to explain your solution, discuss dependencies with other teams, and present complex problems in a nontechnical way.”
Jim Flanagan, CIO at Hanscom Federal Credit Union, says empathy is the skill he needs most from tech colleagues, because it leads to better problem solving.
“Of course we want the resume to reflect proper technical aptitude, but I’m looking for the person to be empathetic,” Flanagan says. “The individuals IT supports are often not as technical as us, and being empathetic removes any embarrassment or defensiveness, which lends to better dialogue and faster resolution of the issue. Empathetic tech pros create a culture of comfort where people feel supported to ask for the help they need in order to accomplish great things.”
The IT pros who stand out to Avnet CIO Max Chan, communicate effectively with the rest of the business to enact positive change.
“They need the ability to tell a good story,” Chen says. “As a good IT professional, you would want to be able to clearly articulate why the technology is important and how it can help the business achieve its objectives, and more often than not, you will need to explain — or even negotiate — with the business why this is better than the old way of doing business. IT professionals need to clearly understand and articulate what business problems they are solving for, or what business value they are bringing to the table.”
In addition to more frequently named soft skills, Erik Gaston, vice president of global executive engagement for global sales at Tanium, prizes tech colleagues who are intelligent yet humble enough to hear others.
“IT people need to listen and understand first, then focus only on what needs to be addressed and not overcomplicate the situation,” Gaston says. “People who listen first generally find simple ways to resolve issues in a way that is easily understood. The attitude that I used to see in many heavily opinionated tech engineers that ‘our customers just don’t understand that this is the best tech ever,’ is something that no longer holds up. Customers are too tech savvy nowadays and they know what business features they like and dislike and what the end user experience should be.”
Inclusive team members are more likely to work well with others across the organization and break down silos, says Mike Anderson, chief digital and information officer at Netskope.
“I want someone who values the input of others,” Anderson says. “Like in sports, the best players make the people around them better. A tech staff member makes themselves standout by highlighting and recognizing the contribution of others, being available to help others meet their goals, challenging others to think differently, and making sure their actions match their words.”
Cirrus Nexus CIO Fleming says great IT pros differentiate themselves by following up after the work is completed.
“If the work is development-related, good IT pros ensure their work continues to function well down the road while helping colleagues understand it and finding new ways to improve it,” Fleming says. “If the work is support-related, it’s important to follow up with the affected parties even after their issues are resolved, not just to limit recurrences but to learn of and help with issues the affected parties may have missed. When receiving or providing feedback, good IT pros ensure that feedback was heard.”
Fleming says a good technologist will solve a problem — then automate it so it doesn’t need to be resolved again manually later.
“Most assignments, either support or development-focused, can be done in one of two ways: the way that just solves the problem — or the way that addresses the cause, preventing similar problems from emerging in the future,” Fleming says. “A good IT pro will never need to do the same work more than once. They know that the limited extra time spent automating today will save far more time in the future.”
IT pros who can grasp fast-moving technology needs amid shifting priorities are prized finds for Adam Glaser, senior vice president of engineering at Appian.
“The best technical talent is comfortable innovating in new areas, experimenting with new approaches, and helping teams achieve new levels of impact,” Glaser says. “It’s no longer an IQ test, brainteasers, or textbook knowledge that helps sort the good from the great. The essence of hiring talent is about assessing the candidate’s experiences, and how they have shaped them and prepared them for future challenges and team culture.”
IT pros who take an entrepreneurial approach to the projects they’re working on are invaluable to Nathan Sutter, vice president of engineering at CoderPad.
“One of the biggest challenges as a technical leader in a growing organization is finding people you rely on to be scale multipliers on the team,” Sutter says. “People with a high degree of ownership can be trusted with most anything you give them as long as the objectives are clear, and lend themselves well to growing into bigger roles, which is absolutely required as a team and company scales.”
The best tech employees can admit mistakes and learn from them, says Alexander De Ridder, INK co-founder and CTO.
“A manager won’t be upset with an IT employee who is blocked from solving an issue,” De Ridder says. “A manager will, however, be frustrated with an employee who persists in pursuing a non-successful solution and resists admitting they need help. A strong team and inspiring leader will unblock an employee and work together as a team to find a solution to a particularly perplexing problem. The invaluable team player knows when to ask for help and collaborate rather than going it alone.”
Self-awareness and the willingness to learn new things are a powerful combination, he says.
“The perfect IT employee doesn’t exist — the one who knows all. But the one who realizes what key information they need to learn to improve and is willing to do so, that is a solid IT employee any company would love to have on their team,” De Ridder says.