How Harvard Business School hires its IT staff

CEOs, CFOs and a substantial number of CIOs try and keep an eye on the insights and analysis of Harvard Business School professors. But can the CIO at this elite institution offer insights into the recruitment of a team to deliver the infrastructure some of the world's leading business brains need? Amanda K. Brady thinks so.

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When Stephen Laster is looking to hire someone into his IT department at the Harvard Business School (HBS), a candidate's technical skill is the last requirement on the CIO's mind. Foremost is whether a candidate will create another strong link in his 100-plus person team.

Building a cohesive IT staff is paramount for Laster, who has served as Harvard Business School 's CIO since October 2006. His IT department is responsible for developing and supporting an IT infrastructure used by 1,900 MBA and doctoral students, 1,300 faculty and staff and more than 9,000 participants in HBS's executive education program. To meet the needs of these demanding stakeholders, everyone in the IT department has to get along with one another. They also need to cultivate strong relationships with the end users, especially the ones on campus.

But finding friendly IT professionals who are also intellectually curious, good problem-solvers and who can wear different hats isn't easy, especially in the Boston area, where there's so much competition for talent. To that end, Laster puts a tremendous amount of effort into determining whether a candidate is right for his organisation. His hiring process is lengthy. He spends time with candidates outside of his office. He involves many stakeholders in his hiring process. And IT staffers play active roles in job interviews with candidates. They also have a strong say in whom Laster hires. His process, which he further describes in this Q&A, may seem onerous to some, but it helps him get exactly the right people and it helps build trust and respect between him and his IT department.

All of Laster's techniques and hard work on the hiring front pay off. Today, he oversees a staff that he truly appreciates. Of his IT department, he says, "I would just like to clone them all forever. They are truly nice, smart, skilled, adaptable folks."

What are your IT staffing needs and challenges?

We have a large catalogue of Java-based applications running the school in a highly customised fashion. This lets us meet the unique needs of the business school. The challenge is that we have to commit to having a very sophisticated development staff to keep pace with all of those custom-made applications. We need very adaptable, engaged engineers who can work both as applications developers as well as system integrators and system extenders. We are a midsize shop and people have to wear many hats, so being adaptable is key.

The same holds true in our support organisation, which is fairly large. We're about 35 or so folks in support, and we pride ourselves on really giving a high level of support. As IT is everywhere on campus, one could easily outstrip one's support capability if you don't get creative in terms of how you deliver support.

Boston is a really competitive market. I think we offer a competitive compensation package, and one advantage we have is that we are never going to go out of business. We also have the advantage that we are doing a lot of creative work with new technology. We've been fortunate that we have been able to fill our open positions, but in some cases it takes three, four or five months to find the right candidate.

What criteria do you use to hire IT staff?

The first thing is, are you nice? The reason that's important is because there are very smart people who are not pleasant to work with. We don't have room for those people on our team. We want MVP's, not all-stars. We want people who can bring the team together.

The second criteria is, are you smart? Do you have a thirst for learning? Do you have an ability to learn? Are you adaptable? Are you willing to go out of your comfort zone and embrace something new?

Finally, Are you skilled for the job you are interviewing for? The reason that's last is because if you are smart, have a thirst for learning and you're adaptable, but you don't have all the skills I'm looking for, I still might hire you because you'll pick them up quickly.

What does a candidate need to do to impress you?

Doing background research is a really good idea. I was interviewing someone at HBS about a year ago, and it was evident that the person had done a lot of research on the school and a lot of research on IT at the school. They were interviewing to work directly for me, so they had done a lot of research on me, as well. What did that show?

1. That the candidate really cared about the job.

2. That he was inquisitive.

3. That he realised it was important to understand HBS so that he could maximise the interview time for himself and for me.

4. That he had really good questions.

He asked, What was the strategy? What was I looking for in the role? How would I measure success? Those kinds of things. I was pleasantly surprised--almost blown away. I thought, "Here's someone who really gets it. How do I clone him?"

How do you determine whether a candidate has the needed skills for a job?

Skills are pretty easy to determine. One of the things I pride myself on, for better or for worse, is that I am an extremely technologically literate chief information officer. I'll ask candidates about a pretty complex problem having to do with their domain. I'll see in conversation how they take it apart and analyse it. That will tell me their skill level.

What about cultural fit? How do you assess that?

Cultural fit is an unscientific gut feel. I determine a candidate's cultural fit by spending some quality time with the person--ideally at lunch and out of the office. Hearing them talk about how they view the world, what excites them, what their hopes and aspirations are. How comfortable are they with themselves? How honestly can they have that conversation with me?

How do you go about interviewing candidates for IT positions? What is your typical process?

We include a lot of people in the process, so a candidate may go through anywhere from 12 to 20 interviews. Everybody in the work group that the person will be working with has a chance to interview the candidate. For some roles, like the liaison roles within our project teams and project management office, candidates will also interview with HBS employees outside of IT.

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