5 ways to find non-traditional IT talent

Are you facing a talent gap – or just hanging onto old ideas about IT hiring? CIOs and recruiters share strategies to locate valuable candidates
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Good people can be hard to find. For IT teams, it might be getting even harder. The labor market is as tight as it’s been in a long while, says Kitty Brandtner, director of major accounts, technology services, at LaSalle Network, a recruiting and staffing firm. “There may not be enough talent out there for the number of open technology positions,” Brandtner says.

Are you doing enough to proactively solve that problem?

Probably not. In fact, some of the oft-discussed IT skills “shortage” might reasonably be attributed to recruiting staff and/or hiring managers focusing too narrowly on technical skills and not enough on the whole candidate and what they bring to the table – as well as their future potential. (That’s not the only issue, of course – salaries and geography play a big role, as both hiring managers and job hunters will tell you.)

Still, if you’ve been fishing in the same place for hours without so much as a nibble, that’s often a cue to try a different spot.

[ Are you hiring for agile and DevOps teams? Read How to spot a DevOps faker. ] 

“It’s crucial organizations get creative and consider non-traditional candidates they may not have thought of before,” Brandtner says.

That might sound like a strategy that sounds good but is challenging to execute. So let’s look at some proactive ideas from CIOs and recruiters for widening your talent identification parameters. The goal is to include people who may not match up with your needs perfectly on paper but still have a high likelihood of developing into valuable team members.

1. Seek out the hikers and kayakers

When Brian Wilson, CISO at SAS, meets with prospective hires, he’s trying to get a feel for the whole person rather than just a particular set of technical skills.

“I often ask about what people do in their downtime to get an idea of how involved with IT they are outside of their day job,” Wilson says. And he’s not looking for someone who says they live, eat, and breathe IT: “The hikers and kayakers seem to be happier than those who are doing all IT, all the time,” he notes.

You can substitute plenty of other hobbies and pursuits for hiking and kayaking. The point, Wilson says, is that people with a wider range of interests and pursuits may be more likely to have the attitude, balance, and penchant for continuous learning that indicate they are likely to grow on the job if you give them the support and resources to do so.

This means is that if you find someone with a background in technology X when you really need someone who knows Y and Z, well, that might be just fine if they check off enough other boxes.

“I simply want to hire someone who’s professional and has a good work ethic,” Wilson says. “The people who have a life outside of IT usually come into the office ready for business, and they tend to be well suited for extending their capabilities to new technologies. As a manager, it’s up to you to provide them with the flexibility needed to research and absorb these new technologies.”

2. Prioritize soft skills

If your job descriptions are a laundry list of technical qualifications but downplay soft skills – “Strong communications skills a plus” as a bullet-point at the end, for example – you may be missing people with strong potential.

You can ask about how they’ve previously played roles on a larger team, or pose hypothetical questions about how they’d handle a difficult situation.

“Hard skills can be taught, but a strong work ethic, positive attitude, and emotional intelligence can’t,” Brandtner says. “It’s important to ask questions that uncover soft skills, not just hard skills. Skills like strong communication, flexibility, and the ability to work well in a team environment are all crucial in a strong technology professional, but [they] can’t be easily taught, unlike learning a new coding language.”

[ How do you screen candidates for soft skills? Read 8 unusual IT interview questions and approaches: CIOs share. ]

Brandtner notes that you can ask about how they’ve previously played roles on a larger team, or pose hypothetical questions about how they’d handle a difficult situation.

“Pay attention to how they explain their actions and the reasoning behind them,” Brandtner says. “Do they seem self-aware? Are they comfortable working with others?”

Finally, Brandtner notes that people who are naturally curious and like to learn tend to be a good bet when considering people with non-traditional backgrounds.

“Does a candidate like to tinker? Take things apart and put them back together? That is extremely transferable to a career in IT,” Brandtner says.

3. Consider candidates who don’t have STEM degrees

If you’re struggling to fill open positions, especially in junior and mid-level positions, reconsider your education parameters: If you’re ignoring people who don’t have a computer science or other technology-oriented degree or certification, people with high potential are likely swimming right past your recruiting nets.

“Be open to candidates who have degrees other than technology-specific ones, as they may have transferable skills that can relate to IT roles, such as analytical skills or strong writing skills,” Brandtner says.

“Degrees that require research or analysis, even liberal arts degrees like history, can be extremely beneficial for technical positions, so don’t rule someone out just because they don’t have a technical degree. A history major who honed their analytical and writing skills can do really well in a project management position.”

Indeed, Federal Reserve Bank of Boston CIO Don Anderson recently wrote that he welcomes economics, math, and history majors into his security team. Read the full article by Anderson: How one CIO thinks outside the box to fill cybersecurity jobs.

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.