How to hire IT people when you're not an IT person: 4 tips

When you need to hire technologists, but you're not one yourself, you need to think creatively. Consider these four approaches we adopted to find and hire IT talent
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Hiring can be a challenging and time-intensive process, especially when you’re trying to fill tech roles. Time-to-hire for tech roles can take up to 45 days or longer. Technical skills – including artificial intelligence, cloud computing, and analytical reasoning – continue to be the most in-demand skills companies need today. And despite this year’s COVID-related high unemployment levels and economic volatility, tech roles have proven to be highly resilient: Employment in technology is projected to grow much faster than average for all occupations.

At ZeroEyes, an AI weapons detection technology startup, we’ve been actively hiring software engineers, security engineers, and machine learning experts this year as we continue to rapidly grow and scale. But as a former U.S. Navy SEAL for over a decade working with a founding team of former military veterans, I’ve been challenged to grow our tech team from the ground up because I don’t have the same background and number of technical connections that other tech startup founders can typically tap into.

That calls for a little creative thinking: Here are four approaches ZeroEyes has adopted to find and hire top tech talent.

[ Why is DevOps engineer an in-demand IT title that's here to stay? Eveline Oehrlich explains. ]

1. Make your mission count

In the military, the mission is always clear from the onset, whether we are being deployed with other Navy SEALs or foreign forces on a training or combat mission. In the corporate world, the same concept – setting a corporate mission statement – applies.

[ For more advice on how to reach a wider range of candidates, read How to build a more diverse IT team. ]

Your mission statement should clearly and concisely articulate your company’s goals and values, and it should affect every part of your business, from hiring and dealing with prospects and customers to establishing a positive reputation across all your stakeholders. Mission statements ultimately unify a team towards a long-term goal and give everyone a sense of purpose to guide their work.

At ZeroEyes, our mission is clear: to put an end to mass shootings. And while not every company will have a mission statement or vision that is as depicted in such life-and-death terms, a mission statement sits at the heart of every business. When nearly nine out of 10 Millennials would consider a pay cut to work at a company whose mission and values align with their own, incorporating your mission throughout the hiring process – including in the job listing and during interviews among your team – is key.

Incorporating your mission throughout the hiring process – including in the job listing and during interviews among your team – is key.

2. Look beyond the standard (tech) channels

When you think of job postings, you probably think of the usual sites: LinkedIn, Indeed, Vettery, and a slew of others. But instead of simply posting a job, sharing it across your social media connections, and expecting top applicants to find it and apply, consider taking a more active approach.

At ZeroEyes, that means focusing on non-tech avenues for referrals. Because our business wasn’t founded by “techies” with strong tech networks, we’ve needed to look at broader connections, such as sharing job postings with our business incubator, our VC firms, the veteran startup community, and other business colleagues and contacts.

Even if you do have a strong tech founding team, be sure to also tap what sociologists have termed “weak ties.” These are people who can offer stronger recommendations for your business because they bridge into other networks beyond your own.

Some of our best tech hires, including our system administrator and tech operations lead, came from connections within the Philadelphia business community, and we may not have found them had we relied solely on the standard recruiting websites and platforms.

3. Get outside experts involved in the evaluation process

It’s important to know when to ask for help, especially when you’re not an expert in the space. Particularly for startups, every single hire is crucial to your business.

At ZeroEyes, we’ve been fortunate to have access to outside experts who can help with the evaluation process. Our VCs, for example, have expertise and resources in certain areas and have occasionally stepped in to do a “pressure test” on candidates to make sure they possess the right skills for the role. Also, since one of my cofounders and I both studied at the Wharton Business School, some of our employees came from our connections with faculty and staff members.

If you have outside resources who may be able to help with critical hiring decisions, don’t be afraid to use them.

4. Hire for will, not just skill

While certain skills are necessary when hiring for tech talent, some qualifications – such as requiring a four-year degree – are increasingly being considered less necessary. In recent years, tech companies have started to place less emphasis on filling their hiring pipeline with candidates from the same elite universities to encourage greater diversity and perspectives in the workplace.

There is immense value in a self-starter who takes the initiative to uplevel their skills. Depending on the immediate needs of your organization, a candidate who is self-taught and has years of experience tinkering on their own projects could be a better fit than someone with an advanced degree. We offer courses such as Nvidia’s Deep Learning Institute to help upskill our tech team, for example, and prioritize candidates who demonstrate the drive and initiative to succeed in a startup.

While hiring top tech talent can be an extensive undertaking, thinking beyond the traditional recruitment approaches can help your business reach a wider pool of top candidates. A core mission, relevant connections, the humility to involve experts in the evaluation process, and a focus on the right attitude and enthusiasm for the role will make a tangible difference to your business.

[ What are the key trends in IT talent? Read the Harvard Business Review Analytic Services report: IT Talent Strategy: New Tactics for a New Era. ]

Mike Lahiff is the co-founder and CEO of ZeroEyes, an AI weapons detection platform. Mike served as a U.S. Navy SEAL for over a decade, where his deployments in various warzones led to the idea for ZeroEyes, which detects visible weapons before any shots are fired, to keep people safe and save lives.