Being well rounded isn’t just for college applications or dinner parties anymore.
At Savid Technologies Inc., a software development and IT consulting agency, employees are expected to chat with a client’s CIO just as easily as they repair a broken network.
“A lot of the work that we have with customers isn’t just solving the problem, but then explaining to them, as well as to the rest of the business, how that problem was solved and how we’re going to make sure it’s not going to happen again,” said Michael A. Davis, CEO of Savid Technologies.
Operating out of two offices — one in Chicago and one in Washington, D.C. — Savid Technologies has a total of 16 employees, more than three-quarters of whom work as IT professionals.
Its small size allows the company to focus on harvesting quality talent capable of solving a wide range of IT issues, rather than on simply selling product.
“That allows us to work with a lot of different parts of the IT organization,” Davis said. “We’re a very broad company.”
Indeed it is, providing technology consulting, security consulting, network maintenance, application development and training services.
Being a small business and hunting for versatile, multitalented individuals also results in a unique interviewing method, Davis said.
“We have a much longer hiring process than probably most places; it’s going to be a couple weeks, not just a two-day thing,” he said. “The biggest thing we pride ourselves on is on understanding the skill set, so our first interview is usually to get to know them, get to know their experience: Do they have some of this deepness that we’re looking for?
“If they do, we bring them in for a second interview and put them into technology that doesn’t meet some of their resume bullet points; we watch to see how they go about solving that problem.”
For example, Davis said, a candidate with a Cisco Certified Network Associate (CCNA) certification might be presented with a Dell switch and asked to configure it for something.
“We make him have the proof in the pudding,” Davis said. “He may not have the experience, but if he understands the technology, he’ll be able to figure it out within, say, 15 to 20 minutes. [It’s important] because the customers usually hire us not to implement a switch on their network, but to solve a problem on that network.”
Additionally, interviews are “360,” Davis said, so candidates not only meet one-on-one with the tech experts, but they also walk around and speak with various other employees with whom they might not even eventually work.
“We want you to interview us,” Davis said. “There can’t be ambiguities; there can’t be misunderstandings. [Interviewees] have to fit with our culture. If they don’t fit in our culture, they’re not going to fit in the customer’s culture either.”
If an IT pro does fit the bill, he is expected to fill two roles: that of engineer and that of strategic advisor. It is for the latter role that soft skills and the ability to communicate well are highly valued at Savid Technologies. Though some engineers won’t be interested in pursuing higher managerial roles, Davis acknowledged, possessing soft skills is increasingly important, even in basic IT operations.
“More and more, part of our work is project planning, making sure we’re communicating with the IT director, making sure all the people that are involved are actually staying involved,” he said.
Those who do have dreams of becoming managers or moving into the business side of IT have the opportunity to sit in on some related jobs, Davis said.
“We bring them into some of these strategic engagements with our larger customers in which we’re doing more policy or process work. They may be ancillary, or on the side of the project, but they’re involved with it to understand what’s happening.”
Additionally, management and communication exercises have been woven into much of Savid Technologies’ general job training. For example, IT pros alternate leading an informal weekly technology seminar.
“My goal is to get the engineers to do it not only to enable their technology skills — they’re learning new stuff — but also to learn the soft skills, which is leading the meeting, communicating with other engineers,” Davis said.
In addition to the seminars, Savid Technologies also has a lab — which Davis called “a big virtual farm” — set up in-house so employees can learn and play with technology at their leisure. It comes in particularly handy when new technology has been introduced but not yet released to the public, Davis said.
“We’ll spend a Saturday playing with it, and we’ll learn more in that one Saturday than going off and actually reading the manual or something like that, because we actually play with it in a real environment,” he said.
The lab is also useful for gaining client business that the company otherwise might have lost.
“We’ve done a couple of engagements for clients in which we’ve said, ‘We don’t know this technology as well as somebody you could go get, but we’ll be willing to give it a shot at a discounted rate for you, if you give us the time to learn a little bit,’” Davis said. “If it’s a customer where we have a good relationship with them, they have no problem with it. And in that situation, you not only get to learn the technology by playing with it, but [you experience it in a] real customer environment with real problems and real people using it.”
Of course, on-the-job training isn’t the only kind of education Savid Technologies encourages. Employees are given incentives to take classes or earn certifications to further their development.
“We subsidize any certification that they really want to go after as long it’s applicable to our business,” Davis said. “Also, if you get it within a certain time frame and hit a certain score on it, we’ll give you an extra incentive. So instead of just, ‘Did you get the certification?’ it’s, ‘How well did you get the certification?’”
MBA degrees also can be covered, although not to the same extent. If an IT engineer decides to pursue business school and wants to be reimbursed, Davis said, he must qualify as a high-potential employee and also must agree to continue working at Savid Technologies for at least six months after the completion date.
The company also budgets a generous amount for books, filling multiple bookcases in its Chicago office and allowing unlimited access to a company Amazon.com account.
“We spend more every year in books than we do in marketing,” Davis said. “If it’s going to help you solve a problem or you’re going to learn something new, we’re there to support it.”
Yet, despite the company’s inclusive attitude toward education, Davis is decidedly more hesitant when it comes to evaluating it.
“I definitely think there’s weights when it comes to certifications,” he said. “If you just want to put paper on [your resume] — ‘I got a degree’ — but don’t actually have the knowledge to back that up, to me it’s worthless.”
He added: “We look at all of that as, if they’re trying to better themselves, that’s a good point in the first place. [But] we can usually pretty quickly weed out the person who got the certification for money from the guy who got the certification because he really wanted to learn it.”
True to Savid Technologies’ general business model, Davis also said he would prefer to hire an engineer who simply knew the technology, regardless of product, but acknowledged that clients do sometimes request engineers with vendor-specific certifications.
“So, when I look at resumes, I look at certifications first: what type, how recent, [and] what areas are they in, [compared to] other bullet points they have on their resume,” Davis said. “We use it as a barometer first, see where we’re at, and follow with our own interview process to see how much of that certification has stuck.”
So, for potential hires, how much does experience play into the mix? Davis said that it’s not as important for honing technical knowledge as it is for developing soft skills.
“If you find those guys who’ve been out in the consumer world — they’ve worked maybe a retail job in the past — they usually know how to relate something using analogies or metaphors to the person,” he said. “We’ve found that the best IT person, engineer-wise, is one that understands the technology and has had that forced consumer interaction back in the day.”
– Agatha Gilmore, firstname.lastname@example.org