MIT: Think Differently to Succeed in IT

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One of the most common strategies today’s career development professionals recommend is for job-seekers to think “outside the box” when searching for opportunities. In other words, don’t submit your resume only to the IBMs and Microsofts of the world. Examine opportunities in non-technology-based fields such as banking, health care or entertainment. Thinking differently also could lead you to an academic environment where non-traditional is frequently the norm. An institution such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) might be the perfect place to submit your qualifications.


MIT caters to approximately 10,000 students, and because of its extensive research activities, it has almost the same number of faculty. The Institute’s computing environment offers members of its community access to a variety of technologies and information resources for academic, research and administrative use. Many of these resources, including networks and telecommunications, fall into the coffers of information services and technology (IS&T), the largest of roughly 20 IT departments, with more than 300 employees. Its scope of responsibilities touches nearly every corner of MIT.


“We provide a wide range of infrastructure IT services, such as the telephone system, the network, an enterprise data warehouse, the enterprise resource planning system and SAP, and the mainframe,” said Allison Dolan, director of telephony and IS&T. “We have computer operators, telephone operators, customer service people, help desk, various desktop support people, programmer analysts, business systems analysts, project managers, the manager and director level, technical architects and Web designers.”


Dolan’s specific area of responsibility is essentially the internal HR that supports IS&T, and all hiring comes through her team of four, who focus on new hires, retention, layoffs, terminations and performance management. When examining the résumé pot for potential IT candidates, Dolan said there always is a challenge between what her HR group recommends and encourages, and what MIT’s hiring managers are biased toward. “Left to their own devices, the hiring managers tend to focus on the technical skills,” she said. “Our role is to get them to at least pay attention to the soft skills, and in certain jobs put it at least at equal weight. Certainly for managerial positions, we’re looking for people with managerial skills in addition to the technical. For the help-desk positions, there is a strong focus on communication and client-orientation-type skills.”


Dolan said it is far easier to train someone to be technically proficient than to train a technical person in people management or business-related skills, and these soft skills are critically important in some positions. Project management is one area where a varied skill set is a necessity to enjoy a high level of success, and soft skills play a major focus. “It’s about how you manage an organization—things like financial skills, being able to budget, performance management,” Dolan said. “Project managers definitely have a whole suite of skills. We use competency models from the Project Management Institute as one input of what we’re looking for in that arena. Customer skills, communication skills are pretty pervasive. Our vice president was very specific that our title is Information Services & Technology, and the slogan is, ‘Services come first. The technology doesn’t come second.’ The orientation is that we are here to enable the organization to effectively use information technology to achieve the teaching, learning, research mission of the Institute. The Institute does not exist because we exist—we exist to serve their mission.”


MIT’s established mission is to advance knowledge and educate students in science, technology and other areas of scholarship that will best serve the nation and the world in the 21st century. To fulfill the technology piece, Dolan said that certification plays some role, but not a large one, even for the more technically sophisticated positions such as technical architects, analysts and programmers. “We do not have any area that will focus on certification,” she said. “Part of it is because the culture here is such a meritocracy. The belief is that how you have achieved your skills is less important than your ability to demonstrate those skills. In certain areas there is a disdain for certification because they’ve seen plenty of people who have had certifications who are incapable of applying the certification. That will certainly vary by certification. For some of them, you can’t be certified without having also demonstrated that you know how to apply it.”


Certifications earned via performance-based exams are more favorable, but perhaps even more important to get your résumé to the top of the pile at MIT is your skill set and level of job experience. Education plays a role, but MIT’s non-traditional environment understands that while academia certainly is valuable, sometimes it is not the end-all, be-all indicator of a candidate’s potential for success. “Within the IT field there hasn’t been any correlation between success and any particular formal higher education,” Dolan explained. “Bill Gates was a dropout, I think (Michael) Dell was a dropout, and we certainly have people who have been students at MIT who may not have completed their degree but have been very successful in the organization. There is a habit of starting job descriptions with a bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience, and when I press people and say, ‘What does that really mean?’ they don’t have a good answer. We’ve tried to eliminate that from our job postings and focus more on specific experiences. So we might say at least five years of increasingly responsible systems administration experience. It may say bachelor’s preferred, but so many people that have success in IT don’t even have a computer science degree, so it’s sort of like, ‘What does a degree say?’ It says that you’ve been able to achieve a particular goal. You can talk about that in other ways, or explore that in other ways. A degree tends to show some ability to learn, but again, you can assess somebody’s ability to learn via other mechanisms.”


On the other hand, academic experience does hold weight, as does a business degree if you’re trying for a business-related position such as business analyst. “It’s typically not a requirement, but could be something that sets them apart,” Dolan said. “Other higher-ed experience does carry a lot of weight. The view is that the culture within higher ed is typically sufficiently different from industry that it does tend to be something that is valued.”


MIT has a different value system as far as skills are concerned, thus its IT recruiting efforts are outside what might be considered normal. “It’s ‘Can you talk with other people?’” Dolan said. “When they have the technical interviews, can the candidate being interviewed satisfy the interviewer, who has the technical skills, that this person is technically competent? They’ll say, ‘We’re trying to solve this problem. How would you go about doing it?’ Or, ‘If you were told that the packet didn’t get from point A to point B in a network design, where would you start looking?’ So the person can talk through it, and if they’re not using the right terminology, they get caught out pretty quickly.”


Like most academic environments, MIT believes strongly in developing skills via mentoring. “MIT is very team-oriented, and certainly we place significant value on an individual’s professional development in allowing them to attend training classes. For example, if there is a very specific technical arena, there are a lot of people who will just study on their own. They’ll just get books, and we’ll pay for the books. Maybe they want equipment, and we’ll pay for the equipment. If they think classes outside of M

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