IT Professionals See the Big Picture at PSC Group

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When it comes to staying consistent with its company tagline, “PSC listens,” PSC Group means business.

That’s why the IT and professional services consulting firm looks for solid business skills in its IT professionals, who make up 90 of its 100 employees. The Schaumburg, Ill.-based company primarily works in the Midwest, but some of its projects are national and international in scope. PSC Group’s services include collaboration, e-business, enterprise systems, business intelligence, portals and architecture design and development.

Given the nature of its services, most of PSC Group’s employees are known as senior consultants, said John Quirk, vice president of operations.

“We have people who are also doing business analysis, architecture and design as well as some who have moved into technical project management roles,” he said.

Four Technology Stacks

PSC Group hires in four technology stacks: Microsoft, Oracle, IBM and Open Source. For each category, the company seeks out candidates with multiple skill sets within one of these stacks.

Microsoft: “In our Microsoft stack, we have primarily, over the past year and a half, been hiring for both SharePoint and .NET development skills,” Quirk said.

Oracle: “In the Oracle stack, we primarily hire in the Middleware space — so [these] architects [work on] BEA WebLogic application server that Oracle recently bought, Oracle Portal and WebCenter,” Quirk said.

IBM: “In the IBM space, it’s around WebSphere Portal primarily [and] other WebSphere application development skills [such as] J2EE [and] EJB. We also have a good size Lotus Notes and Domino practice, so we periodically hire for those skills, [as well].”

Open Source: Since it’s mainly the development side of Open Source, “[we look for] a lot of Python, Ruby on Rails, Jingo and Linux administration skills,” Quirk said.

Experience Matters

For PSC Group, it’s important for a potential hire to come in with a few miles under his or her belt in terms of experience. The company rarely hires talent fresh out of college.

“Once you’re looking for someone who already has three to five years of experience, what they’ve done and achieved in that three to five years is as, or more, important than the education they had, especially in the newer technologies, which are changing so fast,” Quirk said.

“So I’m more interested in how fast a person can learn new things [and] how able they are to do abstract thinking as opposed to something they just know or have been taught in the past. That allows us to put people into new situations.”

However, PSC Group is open to hiring young professionals who have been out of school for a while, but are still early enough in their careers to be molded.

“We like to find talented, successful 24- to 25-year-olds because we have a success path of developing those people over a period of time where, in five to seven years, they are very often our leading architects — and that’s a good spot,” Quirk explained.

Right alongside experience, certifications play a big role in assessing whether or not a candidate is qualified, particularly vendor-specific ones, given the nature of the company’s business model, Quirk said.

One interesting facet, Quirk pointed out, is that on the IBM side, the company has people who are writing certification tests for IBM. “I have one guy helping write a Redbook,” he said. “We take that very seriously — somebody [who’s] really getting involved with the technology. I think getting that involved is a great sign of a person’s interest.”

Determining a Candidate’s Fit

The interview process at the PSC Group consists of two different meetings. First, he or she meets with Quirk or one of his other practice leaders to discuss soft skills and the cultural fit. If all goes well, he or she then meets the more technical leaders and managers.

For PSC, a good cultural fit translates into people who are comfortable doing multiple things, people who can jump in — often in the middle of a situation — and quickly get their “sea legs” and understand what’s going on around them.

As for soft skills, flexibility matters, as do analytical skills. But Quirk said an open communication style is critical, and it’s what ultimately allows those other soft skills to thrive.

“It’s not only your ability to analyze a situation,” Quirk said. “There are things that are bad to hear and good to know, and we can’t be afraid to say them. I don’t think our clients have expectations that every single thing we do is going to go unbelievably perfectly, but they do expect that as we run into things that take longer than we thought, we’re going to let them know. That open communication style is critically important.”

Being a quick learner also is a must, Quirk explained.

“Clients usually engage us to work either with new technologies or to solve a new business problem,” Quirk said. “We don’t usually do the same thing twice. That ability to be flexible and to learn quickly and [take] past lessons and abstract them into current situations is probably as important as any formal education background.”

Assuming the first meeting goes well, individuals move on to the second interview, with the practice leader and a few senior consultants in the appropriate practice.

If an immediate opportunity does not exist for the candidate, Quirk said he’s implementing a new strategy to keep in contact with good talent for future openings.

“We now do a quarterly ‘come hang out with the PSC management team’ for people we know who we’ve maybe talked to and the fit wasn’t exactly right, or maybe the timing on the candidate’s side wasn’t quite right, but [who] have the attributes we would like to have.”

On the other hand, if the candidate is hired, there are a few possible career paths, Quirk said. The individual can become a “rock star” in a particular technology, but more often, he or she transitions from a purely technical role to full immersion in the business process. Therefore, it helps when candidates can show their potential business savvy from the get-go, he said.

As for training, all of PSC Group’s practices have training budgets that are typically negotiated between a consultant and his or her direct manager. Every year, managers put together a career development plan for each of their employees, and that typically involves some kind of training. Everyone completes about three to five days of training a year — some more than that, if there are some specifics that are strategically important.

The training usually is directly relevant to either an applicable niche industry or a technology that the consultant has an interest in, Quirk explained. PSC Group fully reimburses and pays for that training as long as it’s moving toward certification.

Advice for Young Talent

Hiring talent fresh out of school isn’t a complete anomaly at PSC Group, but it only occurs about twice a year on average. Quirk is open to hiring bright young technologists seeking work at PSC Group, but said they must be aware of and willing to adapt to the nature of a consulting firm.

“Creativity is a good skill, and I don’t want to downplay it,” he said. “Our market — middle market companies — they’re often not leading-edge, but they’re often doing things for the first time and they need to do them right. So I would encourage people in that age group — with as much as they have invested in the technology and becoming technically highly proficient — to take a step back and understand why a business organization would want to use the technology. What problems is it helping them solve? Are they thinking about their technology in a big-picture way?”

There’s really a whole package of things that have to surround the work of a technologist for the company to be seen as successful in the eyes of its clients, Quirk explained.

“You can be a terrific .NET developer when it comes to the application side of it,” he said. “But are you taking into account all the things that an organization has to take into account around testing, security and how this code has to be moved from a development environment to a [quality assurance] environment [and] ultimately into production? How does it get supported? What kind of documentation do I have to write?

“I think people who, in an interview, are able to demonstrate that they [understand] that technology is a tool of business tend to do better here,” he said. 

–  Elizabeth Lisican, editor (at) certmag (dot) com

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