IT hiring: 5 signs of a continuous learner

IT leaders want to hire people who can adapt and stay ahead of the curve. Are you a continuous learner? Are you hiring them? Consider these indicators
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Deep into the digital transformation age, IT leaders recognize that change is the one constant. As a result, their hiring needs have shifted from seeking out those employees who are highly skilled in a single area to pursuing professionals who are capable of acquiring new aptitudes on an ongoing basis. Continuous learning is the name of the game.

“The pace of digital innovation across industries was already rapid, but COVID accelerated change,” says Charley Betzig, managing director, IT executive recruiting firm Heller Search Associates. “It is more important than ever to have continuous learners in positions of leadership. Companies need IT leaders who not only are on top of the most modern technology but are curious and creative around how those technologies can influence current business models or even create new ones.”

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Keeping up isn’t easy. “There are the primary disciplines of infrastructure, software development, cybersecurity, and data, but each one of these areas has multiple specialized facets and the four areas have significant overlap in enterprise systems,” says Seth Robinson, senior director of technology analysis at CompTIA. “All of this complexity puts pressure on the IT worker.”

The value of continuous learners

Those who can stay ahead of the curve are in high demand. “A continuous learner with an inquisitive demeanor is incredibly valued as they can be instrumental in making business cases for why certain technologies, frameworks, or practices make the most sense to implement for their company,” says Jenna Spathis, unit manager at technology staffing and recruiting firm LaSalle Network. Jesse Sostrin, director of PwC’s U.S. Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, has dubbed this capacity “learning (or thinking) agility.”

[ Want more on continuous learning? Read IT careers: 3 habits of continuous learners. ] 

Whatever you call it, it’s an important attribute to consider when hiring or grooming the most capable IT professionals today. A continuous learner can offer more bang for the buck in one of the strongest job markets in recent years. “We have found that many companies, while their job descriptions state they are looking for a certain number of years of experience in a laundry list of technologies, are being more flexible and hiring candidates that may be more junior, or those who lack a few main technologies,” Spathis says, noting that many organizations are willing to take the risk on more junior or less specifically experienced candidates who are eager, trainable, and able to learn new skills.

There’s definite agreement on the demand for continuous learners in the IT function today. “To thrive during these changing times, it’s imperative that IT organizations continuously grow and change with changing needs,” says Dr. Sunni Lampasso, executive coach and founder of Shaping Success. “As a result, IT organizations that employ continuous learners are better equipped to navigate the changing work world and meet changing demands.”

How to recognize continuous learners

What’s less clear is how to recognize that in potential hires or existing employees. Many IT professionals are faltering due to the complexity of IT. There’s no certificate that confirms someone’s ability to adjust and learn new things. A variety of certifications, coursework, seminars, professional affiliations, and training program participation can be good indicators, notes Spathis. But there are other signs IT leaders and managers can look for when hiring or grooming these individuals.

1. Listen for initiative

Interviews are a great opportunity to plumb for good examples of continuous learning. Consider asking or looking for demonstrations of when the candidate joined a company without knowing a specific skill or technology and how they took it upon themselves to learn it, and use in practice in their role, Spathis advises. Hiring managers may also check for highlight and quantifying achievements on resumes or within LinkedIn profiles.

2. Identify the risk-takers

Continuous learners aren’t afraid to take on risks. They understand that if they try to solve a problem and fail, they still gain knowledge. Continuous learners look to learn from challenges and mistakes and view them as opportunities for growth," Lampasso says.

3. Follow the career path

Career progression and promotions within the company that include title and responsibility changes point to learning agility and the desire to acquire new capabilities. Stunted career growth and lack of progression in title and responsibilities, on the other hand, suggest the opposite, says Spathis.

4. Demand diversity of experience

It’s a sign of an inquisitive spirit. Or at least wider exposure. Often those who have completed a consulting stint are ahead of the game since it subjects a professional to a variety of environments. “But once someone has made the transition into corporate,” says Betzig of Heller Search Associates, “exposure to roles within the different subfunctions of IT shows a candidate who is always open to learning and tackling new challenges.”

5. Look for a growth mindset

 If you’re trying to identify the learners in your midst, they often make themselves known. “Continuous learners seek growth opportunities, desire professional development, and ask for feedback about their performance,” says Lampasso. Those with a fixed mindset, on the other hand, are not lifelong learners. You’ll know them because they tend to resist change, avoid challenges and professional development, and ignore feedback.

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Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.