IT hiring strategy: Why culture adds are the new rockstars

Broad Institute CIO Bill Mayo rethought IT hiring strategy to prioritize candidates who would add to the culture from day one. Here’s how his team did it, and what they learned along the way
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Making the right hire for your IT group is never easy. First, you need to find that perfect set of skills for your Python programmer, SAP expert, network engineer, security analyst, etc. Then you have to negotiate the package, train on your business, manage integration to the team, and start focusing on retention. All of this points to why we’ve started thinking more broadly about hiring criteria.

We prioritize attitude, raw talent, and a combination of commitment, interest, and energy over all other criteria.

Specifically, we prioritize attitude, raw talent, and a combination of commitment, interest, and energy over all other criteria. In short, we make what we call “culture-focused” hires.

To be clear, we don’t just hire a “nice” candidate if we don’t think they can do the job. But we only hire someone who can do the job if we also think s/he can add to our culture from day one. It may take a little time to come up to speed on some component of the tech stack we have in-house, but every new hire is expected to be a positive influence on the culture right from the start. 

[ Want advice and data for IT hiring managers and job applicants? Download our free eBook: IT job searching in 2019: A practical guide. ]

3 challenges in our new IT hiring strategy

This approach has risks. First, we need to be sure we are not building an unhealthy, uninspiring monoculture. That is why we use words like “adding” to our culture and having a “positive” impact over simply “fitting in.” At Broad Institute, we work in biomedical research at the intersection of academia, life sciences, health care, and high-tech. In this environment, we have a high tolerance for creative debate, the interplay of many different ideas, and a clear focus on the ability to get things done.

The recruiting observation here is that sometimes the value we get from a different voice is able to lift entire teams to new levels of achievement. 

To enable a great start, we assign new hires two mentors.

Another risk is that this can inadvertently create a hurdle for the new hire: gaining the respect of team members. This is critical, as we believe that respect is the foundation on which successful teams are built. To enable a great start, we assign new hires two mentors – one skill-based and one more as a guide to the culture. As appropriate, we also start with rotational assignments and carefully curated initial tasks that allow an individual to build a track record of success.  

A final challenge is that in effect, this puts a great deal of pressure on new employees to be culture-carriers right from the beginning. In a more traditional approach, your seasoned employees are setting the cultural tone. In this design, new hires are intended to have much more influence on the tone of the organization. They are expected to challenge the status quo, not just adapt to a new culture.

The end goal: more sustainable IT teams

Despite these challenges, there are reasons to believe this works. First, we have been intentional in designing this approach and have built a number of supports to ensure success.  

More importantly, this notion of building a culture by hiring the complete individual instead of just the skills allows us to build sustainable teams. In the end, we can’t predict the technical challenges we’ll be facing in the next three or five years as an IT organization. What we can predict is that we will need strong, diverse, confident teams to meet whatever challenges arise. This approach to hiring is ensuring that we’re prepared for just that. 

[ Is your interview process reasonable? Read also 5 IT hiring mistakes leaders are in denial about. ]

William (Bill) Mayo is the Chief Information Officer of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge Massachusetts. He also serves as the Chairman of the Board of Directors for Ascentria Care Alliance, and as an advisor to a private silicon valley technology company.