IT hiring's big miss: How to hire for aptitude

If you're struggling to fill key IT roles, consider who you're missing - and shift your recruitment strategy to focus more on aptitude. Use this expert advice to broaden your talent pool
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On the surface, it’s easy to see IT hiring difficulties as a symptom of the pandemic. 2020 alone was an exercise in roller-coaster talent economics, and some recent reports indicate that hiring is slowing as fears of rising case numbers swell.

But to place the blame solely at the feet of the pandemic belies the fact that there’s been a consistent widespread need for exceptional IT talent for years. As recently as 2019 organizations struggled to find the right people for their IT positions.

At issue is the hiring process itself. Understandably, many recruitment efforts have emphasized technical experience over soft skills, which are harder to measure but by no means less important. By narrowing their focus, potential employers have limited their talent pool and left no room for less traditional, more diverse applicants. What’s missing, it seems, is a focus on aptitude – the unstated skillset that breeds innovation and drives new ways of thinking.

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Emphasizing aptitude rather than technical experience might seem counterintuitive for an industry that operates structurally on hard data. But that is exactly why candidates who display the right aptitude are more likely to challenge pervading views and offer diverse, distinctive, and unique perspectives.

If you’re looking to attract top-tier talent for your organization, here are a few things to keep in mind:

1. Who are you putting in front of candidates? Aptitude attracts aptitude

Aptitude, in a hiring sense, doesn’t represent the technical experience that fills out a resume. Rather, it characterizes an underlying personality that is eager to learn and grow, committed to collaborative success, and undaunted in the face of disruption. These are powerful skills that are too often overlooked in recruiting strategies.

Attracting these candidates doesn’t happen by simply changing talent criteria (although this is important, hiring managers should make sure they aren’t unintentionally ruling out strong candidates with overly restrictive application requirements). It starts by understanding how the talent landscape has fundamentally shifted as Gen Z and Millennials grow into positions of leadership. Today’s generation of tech talent overwhelmingly values who they’re working with and the mission they are contributing to. They want to see themselves within your company’s culture, understand their growth path, and be excited about the people they’ll be learning from.

Therefore, it’s imperative to identify tech leaders who display the characteristics of ideal candidates – those who are charismatic, passionate team builders – and make them active participants in the recruitment process. This not only humanizes your organization, but gets potential candidates invested in the possibility of working with someone they admire, respect, and see themselves in. That connection yields candidates who view your opportunity as a career, not just a job.

Identify tech leaders who display the characteristics of ideal candidates – those who are charismatic, passionate team builders – and make them active participants in the recruitment process.

One way to identify aptitude is to make skills assessments part of the hiring process. Skills assessments allow organizations to look beyond a candidate’s resume, interview, and potential biases to measure actual real-world skills. When implemented appropriately and combined with other selection methods, these tests can be highly predictive of job performance, and may open hiring managers’ eyes to unique strengths in potential candidates they wouldn’t pick up on in a typical interview.

It’s also imperative for hiring managers to keep an open mind when hiring for aptitude – the candidates may look different from the ones they’re accustomed to seeing, but beneath the surface of their resumes, there could be a wealth of untapped, innate potential.

[ What technology skills are most in demand now? Read also: Open source IT jobs in 2021: 15 statistics. ]

2. Recognize the shifting power dynamics for candidates

For years, the culture of hiring put the power squarely in the hands of employers. Particularly early in their career, applicants were encouraged to take what they could get for the sake of building out a resume and collecting new experience. It would be unthinkable for an employee to leave their job if their employer required them to be in the office five days a week. Today, a majority are considering just that.

A coalition of factors – from the rise of remote and hybrid work environments to employees’ changing relationship to their careers – has flipped the script. Aptitude-driven candidates are being judicious in their decision-making, asking more of potential employers to demonstrate they align on their values and priorities, such as workplace flexibility and personalized learning opportunities.

This reinforces the flawed nature of the technical-first hiring strategy, which does little to communicate to the candidate the subtle attributes that make your IT organization special and worth joining. Employers need to start doing the work.

That means changing the way interviewers and hiring managers position opportunities at large, including a deeper emphasis on long-term career mapping and goals. Rather than narrowly focusing job descriptions on day-to-day minutiae, finding the right talent should lend itself to growing a community of like-minded professionals. Rewrite the narrative that speaks to the soft skills and attributes you want to see thrive in your department.

3. Culture change journeys require diverse talent pools

Given the long-term needs of both public and private institutions, the demand for exceptional talent will not abate anytime soon. With the Senate’s recent budget approval for an increase in technology spending, the shortage of talent will become more acute given the scope of tech innovation the government is looking to implement. Recruiting the right people, however, will hinge on balancing traditional competencies with the personalities and traits that lead to excellence.

That journey, wherever it may begin, ends with a diverse, driven, and inclusive workforce that’s ready for tomorrow.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Executive Vice President Julie McPherson leads Booz Allen’s Digital Solutions business, one of Booz Allen’s fastest-growing segments focused on transforming the nation’s top agencies with innovative digital applications and services.
Senior Vice President Haluk Saker is a modern software architecture and technology leader. He has been with Booz Allen for more than 20 years and is co-author of the Enterprise DevOps Playbook. Haluk is responsible for the design, development, deployment, and operations of cloud-native applications.