Waident Technology Solutions: IT Takes Back Seat to Soft Skills

Candidates who decide to interview at Chicago-based Waident Technology Solutions often return scratching their heads.

Contrary to what they expect to encounter during an interview at an IT company, they are not bombarded with technology-related questions; in fact, technology barely is discussed.

“When I write a job description, I [list] the technology [requirements], but what I’m looking to hire for is people skills,” said John Ahlberg, president of Waident Technology Solutions.

Based in the Chicagoland area, Waident’s five-member staff provides IT support to companies across the United States.

Strategic Hiring Process

Ahlberg said the most strategic proficiency his IT professionals must boast is people skills; the technical skills are almost secondary because, even though their work involves dealing with technology, they work with end users on a daily basis.

He reiterates the importance of soft skills — skills that are hard to effectively capture on a resume — in the hiring process. “[I tend] to hire someone who has business and people skills, someone who can communicate, someone who actually understands what responsiveness means and [knows] how to call somebody and say, ‘OK, what’s your problem? I’m here to help,’” Ahlberg said. Even if a problem takes several days to fix, he can rest easy knowing his employees are communicating with end users rather than ignoring them.

What differentiates the recruiting process at Waident is that Ahlberg makes it a point to look past an individual’s resume and focus on the person’s talent. So for instance, if a potential employee doesn’t know SonicWall, even though it may appear on the list of job requirements, but he or she understands how Cisco-related technology works, Ahlberg will try to determine in the interview process how one set of skills or expertise can translate to other areas.

Some of the technical capabilities he looks for in a candidate include familiarity in Exchange, Cram, SharePoint and Active Directory if it’s on the server end; Microsoft Office if it’s on the desktop; and SonicWall or Cisco routers and switches if it’s on the networking side.

Mere proficiency in a program won’t suffice, though. “It’s great that you know Microsoft Office,” Ahlberg said. “It’s more important how you’ve actually helped people with it. Have you actually looked at Office to see what kind of business value the tool can bring to the company?”

Ahlberg’s perfect hire is a person with business and people skills who is passionate about technology, but may not necessarily have a technology degree. That allows him to teach the candidate the technology instead of having to hone people skills.

“It’s easy to throw technology at the technology,” Ahlberg said. “If somebody calls and says, ‘My BlackBerry doesn’t sync,’ you can do an online search that will tell you exactly what you need to do to fix it.” It’s much harder to teach an expert on cell phones how to interact with people.

“If I created a job description and listed all the technologies that we work on, I’m never going to be able to hire anyone because nobody knows all that,” Ahlberg said.

Considering Education, Certification and Experience

Although the educational background and relevant certifications are important in the evaluation of a potential hire, Ahlberg doesn’t gauge one versus the other.

“The value of the education is the experience and what you learned from it,” he said. Earning a degree in technology is not a prerequisite.

Ahlberg validates his theory based on what he has observed over the years: Headhunters often are less successful when they ignore a candidate’s transferable skills.

For instance, someone may not have Cisco router experience listed on a resume, but he or she may have other router experience. “You may find out when he gets home, he has a Cisco router, and on weekends he likes to play with it,” Ahlberg said. “On the sideline, he’s set up Cisco routers for other people, but he didn’t put it on his resume because it’s not really work-oriented.”

Training New Hires

Though new hires don’t go through an extensive training process at Waident, Ahlberg said it’s important to teach them about the company’s two main applications.

The first is what he calls “people support,” the tool that enables employees to communicate with and update each other on support requests and any projects they’re working on. The second is what he refers to as “the technology management tool” that monitors the servers and shows the blog files, modems and other things managing the technology.

New hires are additionally given a crash course on the company’s approach to interacting with customers. For instance, one of the first things they are required to say when communicating with clients is, “I’m here to help you. When would you like me to work on this?”

Ahlberg said that unlike the usual help-desk experience of expecting customers to drop whatever they’re doing, Waident employees work around their customers’ schedules. “Half the stuff we do is on what I call ‘my time,’” he said.

But the interaction with the customer doesn’t end with the completion of the job. Employees are to e-mail customers exactly what they did, how they did it and ask them whether or not the problem is solved.

“We want to know that the [client] is happy,” Ahlberg said. In fact, if it doesn’t hear back, the company has established a process that automatically sends e-mails to customers every 12 hours to check in with them and ensure their technology-related problem is solved. “It’s important for us to know [the task is done] and the client is happy with it rather than make assumptions and find out a month later that it has never worked,” Ahlberg said.

He likens the trainee routine to a time in college when he waited tables and had to shadow another waiter for a week to observe his interactions with customers.

To Be Certified or Not?

There’s a lot of value in getting certified, but what Ahlberg seeks out is the post-certification experience. This comes as a result of his experience working with people right out of college who were newly certified.

“They didn’t know anything because they lacked the real-world experience,” he said. The best value in certified candidates is their experiences in real-world environments because they then can leverage that learning with their technical knowledge.

The business model of a company typically determines whether the company will adopt vendor-neutral or vendor-specific certifications.

Ahlberg explained that several managed service providers adopt vendor-specific certifications depending on two criteria: what clients deal with and what’s efficient for the company to support.

Waident’s business model, on the other hand, makes it beneficial to deal with vendor-neutral certifications since it supports a wide range of products, including HP, Dell and Mac.

Ahlberg doesn’t view obtaining a certification as an end goal, though. He sits down with employees to determine which classes they can take that would be pertinent to their jobs, even if obtaining the certification takes a few years. “There’s a whole bunch of companies that need somebody certified [immediately],” Ahlberg said. “It’s a ‘to do.’ In my world, it’s a ‘to think.’”

Evaluating Recent Graduates

It would be a first if Waident Technology Solutions hired someone fresh out of college. “That concept is on our radar, and it’s nothing we shy away from,” Ahlberg said. “We’ve just never [had] the opportunity to do that.”

The company is eager to pursue this avenue because of what it perceives as an advantage: Ahlberg’s assumption that recent graduates haven’t acquired any bad technology habits. “No college tells them that if anyone calls for help to say, ‘I’m too busy doing technology stuff,’” Ahlberg said.

A lack of sufficient experience shouldn’t deter a candidate’s chance of landing the job, Ahlberg said, because he can provide help for that.

– Deanna Hartley, dhartley@certmag.com

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Deanna Hartley

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