CoStar: In Search of the Complete IT Package

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We live in the age of information, or some might say, the age of gathering and disseminating information. Technology has eased the information-sharing process tremendously, thankfully, because with the global marketplace moving almost as fast as technology can change, the ability to share data is a business requirement. The CoStar Group has cashed in on these facts. As a leading commercial-real-estate-information company in the United States and the United Kingdom, CoStar offers brokers, investors, owners and others researched, verifiable commercial-real-estate listings and sales information.

A medium-sized company with roughly 1,000 employees, CoStar’s IT department includes roughly 85 people and runs the gamut of job roles including system architects, Microsoft .NET developers, database administrators, network engineers and help-desk professionals. When it adds IT staff, the company looks for well-rounded candidates with advanced technical IT skills, significant on-the-job experience and at least one specialty or area of expertise.

“For example, if you’re going to hire a database professional, does he or she have depth in database modeling or replication?” said Frank Simuro, senior vice president of information systems, CoStar Group. “Is he or she well rounded? Does he or she bring depth in certain areas that’s going to add a skill set to our team? One of the biggest things that we look for, because we’re not a huge organization, is people who not only have that depth but have that proven track record of delivering mission-critical systems. Given the number of people in our organization, everyone has to contribute at a high level.”

Although CoStar doesn’t test to evaluate a potential candidate’s skill level, Simuro says it’s easy to surmise that information during the interview. IT professionals are subject to an extensive, consistent multi-person interview process that allows for effective comparisons when two similar candidates reach the final round. “During the interview, you talk about the projects they’ve worked on historically, and you can really get a sense of, ‘Was that a make-or-break project for the company?’ or ‘Was that some sort of fluff project that really didn’t have an impact?’” Simuro said. “Given the size of our company and where we are, we’re in this sort of high-growth mode. We need people who are comfortable in that (mission-critical) role where it’s like, ‘I need to build this system. It needs to work, and it’s going to be mission critical for the company.’ A lot of people that you meet out there, they don’t have that experience.”

So, interview suit? Check. Experience working with mission-critical systems, and/or a specialty? Check. The other important consideration if you want to make it to the top of the interview heap? Soft skills. They play an important role in the candidate-selection process at CoStar. “Our experience is if we promote from within, it’s a win-win for both CoStar and the employee,” Simuro said. “When we’re hiring new employees, we’re looking for people that have good project-management skills and good elocution skills because we’re kind of looking for, ‘Who are the future tech leads? Who are the future managers?’ If you can, hire people with those skills into your staff. Some people gravitate toward that track. ‘I want to be a technical lead. I want to be a manager.’ Other people gravitate toward more of a technical track, and both are good, but you do need that mix.”

Aside from requisite technical skills, a prospective IT professionals’ soft-skill repertoire should include top-tier communication skills. In today’s business-centric IT environment, few professionals work in isolation. IT pros often have to work with other departments, with other groups within their own department or with clients outside the organization. Simuro said people that lack communication skills visibly struggle and can actually become an obstacle to success. “I think everyone needs to bring that package to the table. That includes good communication skills. You also look for people with the potential to mentor. You have a mix of senior people, mid-people and junior people, and you’re looking for people who are comfortable in that role. ‘I’m going to mentor. I’m going to spread the knowledge that I have, and there are areas where I can mentor, and there are areas where I can learn.’ You’re trying to create that win-win by having those people who are willing to share their experiences with others.”

Mentoring is especially important in a smaller organization. Simuro said an IT organization with thousands of professionals probably will have formal training processes established because they have the infrastructure and capital to invest in that. In a smaller organization it’s important that each individual is willing to share knowledge with others, contribute to an on-the-job learning experience and to a learning culture that all employees can enjoy.

Like any savvy, modern business, CoStar values training and development. The company proves this by subsidizing formal learning opportunities and certification programs, but IT professionals interested in joining the staff do not have to have specialized commercial-real-estate experience. The company has a large research department with roughly 700 researchers, some who act as full-time trainers and provide commercial-real-estate fundamentals to new employees without prior industry knowledge. Simuro said understanding the industry basics is important if the IT staff is to build the mission-critical systems that will maximize performance of CoStar’s staff and clientele. The initial six-week program on industry-related information is not the extent of training. CoStar development is a continuous process that enables IT candidates to build on their knowledge of the commercial-real-estate industry as well as technology.

“When you ask IT people what’s important and what do they like about their job, the thing that’s always at the top of the list is training,” Simuro said. “Everyone wants training. Everyone wants to stay current, and I think we provide that in two ways. We provide educational assistance. So if people want to take formal degree programs, we’ll support them in that. Then we have a pretty robust training budget where throughout the year we provide training opportunities for as many people on the staff as we can. They have to pick topics that are relevant to IT, but we really like to have the staff pick the things they’re most interested in, and then we support them by funding those classes.”

Simuro said that it’s rare for IT staffers not to pick something that is relevant or of interest to the company because most people enjoy what they’re doing and are trying to add to their experience by taking the initiative and capitalizing on the company’s continuous learning culture. And although CoStar isn’t large enough to have specific career paths, Simuro said there are concentrations in areas such as database technology, .NET development or quality assurance. “We encourage people to learn and expand their knowledge in those areas, and whether that’s a degree program or certification, both are equally beneficial.”

CoStar demands a complete package from its IT professionals and is willing to provide comprehensive on-the-job technical and industry training as well as mentoring opportunities. Of course, that’s not all there is, but neither certification, work experience nor formal education weighs more heavily when a candidate is considered for a position. Instead, it’s more of an overall assessment and a comparison between what a person is offering and what the company’s needs are at that time. “When we interview, we’re looking for people with strong fundamental skills and a proven track record of delivering on mission-critical systems. People can acquire those skills and experience in a number of ways that are equally relevant,” Simuro s

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