Aquent IT Solutions: Character Counts

The emphasis on people skills in the IT profession is a relatively new phenomenon, although perhaps not an unpredictable one, given techies’ increasing exposure to high-level job responsibilities. For IT personnel at Aquent, a provider of marketing and creative staffing solutions, these interpersonal qualities help them interact frequently with customers and co-workers not focused on technology, as well as cultivate an overall culture of performance.

“We have created a corporate culture here that respects excellence,” said Dan Neff, division president of IT Solutions. “There’s a lot of peer feedback about how people are doing. When the problem is solved, and the customer’s thrilled, it’s not just management that makes you feel good about it — it’s all of your peers too. The culture that we have here inspires people to be top performers.”

Aquent maintains a database of 400,000 freelancers in a variety of creative fields for contract and full-time work (more than 3,000 of whom are billing at any given time) and also provides technology support to marketing organizations.

Within the company, the IT Solutions Group has 70 full-time employees. Although this unit is involved in a range of technical spheres, the main areas of focus are Web development and business intelligence. Specifically, the staff regularly deals with Web servers and database solutions.

In spite of their deep technical knowledge and experience, it would be a mistake to think of these employees as mere technology pros, Neff said.

“It’s a more holistic view,” he explained. “To get an effective solution, you often have to impact the business processes and the technology and work on the adoption of that solution. Technology is our specialization, but our role is solving business problems. When we work for a client, we want to have a clear picture of what success looks like from a business point of view, then bring the right solution to bear with the right process changes, training and adoption in order to make it work.”

New-hire candidates for the IT Solutions division are vetted through a rigorous multi-tiered recruitment process, Neff said. With the organization’s emphasis on character, that consideration comes before all the others in this progression.

“That’s the first screen. No. 1 is going to be whether they have the personality type and communications skills to fit into our organization — it doesn’t matter what their experience is if they can’t fit into the teams we have,” he said. “We have a recruiting staff that assesses the person in terms of communication skills, attitude and how they think and operate. We’re a team-based organization, and in order to do what we do, there’s a lot of communication with the customer. It’s really important that everybody can communicate effectively in writing and verbally.

“Obviously, it’s very difficult to interview for integrity, but we look hard at anything that might signal the integrity of an individual. For example, if we have someone who’s trying to fake their way through something they don’t know, that would eliminate them rapidly on the basis that they’re trying to trick us.”

After applicants clear the character part of this process, the spotlight turns to their technical skills and practical knowledge. To get past the hiring gatekeepers, all candidates have to have at least five years of credible experience and a four-year degree (although not necessarily one in a technical field).

Neff said the company judges applicants’ skills based on their importance to the needs of the business. To assess their familiarity with germane technologies, candidates go through technical interviews with experienced employees from Aquent IT Solutions.

“They go through this technical interviewing process and evaluate the person’s capabilities,” he said. “That gets reported back to the recruiting manager, and we then evaluate whether they move forward in the recruiting process based on how they fit our needs. We’re very interested in what they can do in a practical sense. We talk about how they solve problems and communicate their focus. It’s amazing how many people can build applications that function but aren’t all that well thought-out. We want to go beyond that — we want to know that they can produce solutions that have proper error-handling and maintainable code. Practical experience is a huge weight in our hiring process.

“In my group, we do salaried hires, so in my part of the company, virtually everyone is long term. We’re not just looking at the immediate problem we’re trying to solve but how we supplement our organization with the right mix of skills and experience.”

Although certifications show a certain level of knowledge and commitment in a particular realm of technology, they don’t necessarily play a large part in determining whether someone gets hired or promoted at Aquent IT Solutions.

“Certifications are useful in that they signal a certain level of rigor on the part of the candidate, that they’re willing to go through the process and get a certification,” Neff said. “A certification by itself doesn’t tell you they can operate in the practical world.

They tell you [certificants] have a certain level of academic knowledge about the subject and that they’re capable of passing exams. We have to go further in evaluating them to see if they have practical experience with applying the technology and if they have good judgment about the trade-offs they have to make in the real world.”

That said, many employees in the group have gone through IT credentialing programs at the behest of the company or through their own volition, Neff said.

“We have gone through various stages where certifications are important to us,” he said. “Usually, we promote them when there’s some specific business driver, like when we try to build a relationship with a technology partner, and they require certain certifications to get access to the level of training we want. In those situations, where you need to have, say, four people with a certification, then we pay for training and the exams. We have a standing policy that if someone is seeking a certification in alignment with our business, then we’ll pay for their exam at any point.”

The greatest need in terms of technical capabilities for Aquent’s IT Solutions group is in business intelligence and analytics. To attract and retain employees in this crucial discipline, the company offers ample opportunities for promotion, additional responsibility and chances to train other people, and it also maintains a competitive salary and bonus structure.

The main incentive in recruitment and retention, though, is the division’s performance-driven culture, Neff said.

“We’re a group that has a tremendous performance record. We have delivery statistics that are well above the industry norm,” he said. “Our organization takes a lot of pride in our ability to sustain that level of performance. We have an extremely positive relationship to our customers, and a lot of that is around the fact that we meet every commitment we put in front of them.

“Our environment is attractive. We have a very high retention — when people join here, they tend to stay for a long time. I have people who came here as H1-B (visa) employees, and they’ve been here so long that last week, four of them became U.S. citizens. We have continuity, and when you’ve got this kind of knowledge sharing between people who’ve been solving problems together for a very long time, then it becomes a very exciting environment for new people to join. People tell us they’ve learned twice as much in half the time from when they were out on their own because of the support they get here.”

Neff advises IT professionals who value productive and meaningful work to find employers who offer an atmosphere in which experiential development and frequent feedback are matter of course.

“As an IT professional who’s been in the business for 33 years and someone who’s basically built an organization that delivers tremendous performance for our customers, if someone really wants to learn and be an outstanding performer, then they should be seeking out organizations where they have an opportunity to learn from people who are experienced in the field — those who have been there and done it before, learned how to do it the right way and understand the pitfalls you can get into. It’s difficult to train someone in a classroom environment to get all that.”

– Brian Summerfield, bsummerfield@certmag.com

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Brian Summerfield

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