Employers are always looking for qualified job candidates, and interviewers typically scan resumes for relevant certifications, professional accomplishments and universally useful soft skills.
But at Syrinx, a software consulting company with expanding national reach, interviewers are focused on one thing in particular: extensive work experience.
“People who have a broad range of experiences usually work best,” said CEO Andrew Gelina. “Our original and biggest business to date is developing really large-scale Web applications and Windows applications. [So] people who have experience developing large, scalable systems that deal with a ton of data or a ton of users, or both, is really [what] we need because that’s generally what our clients are calling on us for.”
In fact, 40 of the 44 employees at Syrinx are IT professionals who work on the two sides to the businesses: .NET and SharePoint. These professionals range from software developers all the way up to architect-level software developers. A secondary responsibility delegated to several employees is to provide support to the company’s salespeople.
“We will either [pitch] in to do one piece of a project or [undertake] an entire project, which could mean from soup to nuts: doing analysis, design, developing software, testing it, [meeting] with the client, deploying it, maintaining the software after it has been deployed [and] usually doing subsequent follow-on releases with them,” Gelina said.
Needless to say, a recent graduate who lacks significant on-the-job experience is not a candidate of choice at Syrinx.
“Our client needs one or two folks to come in with specific skills to get a project done, so it doesn’t really lend itself to growing someone’s skill set up from zero straight out of school,” Gelina explained. “We usually hire people with 10 to 20 years of experience.”
However, that doesn’t mean its new hires can’t aspire to something greater. It is not uncommon for Syrinx employees to join the company as developers but work toward becoming architects, taking lead roles on projects and coordinating the activities of other developers.
However, it’s important for candidates to diversify their interests. It would not serve the company well to hire someone who tends to have a relatively narrow skill set and only specializes in one area.
“We’re often the folks who are taking stewardship of things and shuttling [our clients] through the entire process,” Gelina explained. “So [our employees] might do front-end development [and] back-end development, design and build databases [and] do integration with other systems.”
Gaining a breadth of experience doesn’t have to undermine one’s loyalty to a company or client, Gelina added. He considers it a good sign when someone has had longer stints at just a few companies instead of job hopping every six months. Syrinx also is more inclined to hire IT consultants who have been able to attract new clients, as well as maintain and work with the same clients for longer periods of time.
When hiring, the first items Gelina looks is work experience, length of employment at each company and the types of roles.
Gelina also ensures the job seeker has a degree in, has taken classes in or has studied something similar to computer science. “Maybe you ask them a few questions to see if they remember what they learned in computer science [so you can be sure] they have the concepts down,” he said.
“When asking about their experience, [I] try to get them to go off-script,” Gelina said. “If you say, ‘Tell me about your experience to date,’ they’ll have a planned speech about what they did at each job. [You’ve] got to dive into ‘How did you solve a problem there?’ ‘Did you ever run into something where a piece of software didn’t work and you had to provide a work-around? How did that process work?’ ‘How did you track down a difficult-to-find bug?’”
Gelina said the trick is to have candidates accentuate the unique advantages they bring to the table as good software developers. Certifications are a big plus, but not if they come at the expense of on-the-job experience.
“We’ve seen some people who are ‘paper tigers:’ They’ve passed a bunch of certification exams but have no practical experience,” Gelina said. “It’s really hard for them to be able to perform on the job when they haven’t had a chance to do it before.”
That said, if a candidate does possess certifications, Syrinx puts a higher price on the vendor-specific ones.
“[For example, Microsoft credentials] show us that this person has specific experience developing on the Microsoft platform,” Gelina said. “A generic programmer certification [that shows] they have at least [some] level of general programmer knowledge is probably less of a plus for us.”
While the company does offer the opportunity for employees to train for certifications on nights and weekends, new hires shouldn’t expect much on-the-job training, Gelina said.
“In general, we’re expecting them to hit the ground running,” he said.
In addition to purely technical experience, Gelina stressed the need for candidates to possess certain soft skills — good communication skills being the most essential to effectively undertake the tasks at hand.
For example, communication skills come into play when the goals of a particular project might change over the course of its implementation. From time to time, changes in the client’s business affect its outcome, while sometimes clients change their minds after seeing a particular version.
This back-and-forth between the client and the Syrinx employee requires the employee to communicate effectively and provide feedback.
“It can be as little as knowing when to push back or question [the client] or say, ‘OK, that’s really what they want,’” Gelina said.
For example, say a client whimsically asks you to make life jackets out of concrete, Gelina said. Sure, it’s possible, but using such a device for flotation purposes would be impractical to say the least. In this instance, it would be wise to suggest the client use a more buoyant material.
“It’s that kind of feedback that you have to be able to give and have a natural conversation with the client about it,” Gelina said.
Another highly prized soft skill is project management. “We’re usually working on-site with our clients, and oftentimes we don’t have complete autonomy over a project,” Gelina said. “We’ll have to interface with them in order to get at least some part of the project done.”
For instance, the client’s infrastructure experts could be responsible for rolling out the code developed by Syrinx employees.
“Usually we’re not given carte blanche authority over these other groups, so we have to manage by influence — work with them and get them to work with you even though they don’t report to you per se,” he said. “So being able to do that and manage a lot of detail across a project, being able to self-project manage and also to coordinate the efforts of other people on-site at the client’s [would be] a great skill to have.”
In terms of future prospects, Syrinx provides opportunities for its employees to develop and broaden their skill sets.
“Some people will say, ‘OK, I want to take my core skill of being a Microsoft .NET developer and add on some specific tool or process experience around that, [such as] learning how to develop in SharePoint, which leverages my .NET knowledge but provides me with a whole new tool for my toolbox [around] solving problems and creating applications,’” Gelina said.
“Or maybe they work with a development tool set like Microsoft Team Foundation in order to figure out how to coordinate the activities of a large number of developers on simultaneous projects.”
– Deanna Hartley, firstname.lastname@example.org