As a followup to the Head Meets Desk posts, I asked techs and administrators from around the Web to send me their best advice on hiring IT staff for a library. What follows, here in Part Four, is the advice received from both administrators and library techs. (See Part One here, Part Two here and Part Three here.)
***If you have anything to add here, please post it in the comments!***
- Don’t hire a tech who is not also interested in the goals and ideals of libraries. There are many unique aspects of library technology. A library tech needs to have a dual focus, that of technology and of libraries. An interest in libraries will manifest itself in better technological applications and solutions for the library.
- The tech has to be personable and have a “customer service” attitude. I believe that this is so important that I now hire with this a one of my primary concerns. Techs have to work with staff, of course, but they also will interface with patrons at some point. It is inevitable. A tech that can only talk “tech speak” really doesn’t fit well in the library environment.
- I’m the “tech” guy at our library and I’ve been told time and time again that the best qualification for a techy person is the ability to translate technical skills into plain English that the average person can understand.
- Especially in a small organization where everyone is going to have to work with staff and maybe even the public, people skills are critical. I’ve worked at places where they hired people as smart as whips, but they were all called “Satan” by the staff. No one likes to be talked down to or made to feel stupid because they don’t understand syn/ack and network handshakes.
- Biggest turn-offs and warning:
- Someone who pretends to be more tech savvy than they actually are. This person often worms his/her way into the IT position because (s)he has good social skills (and often talks more than listens) and know just barely enough tech to BS the non-tech person doing the hiring and keep their position. I’ve run into this several times over the years. It usually becomes pretty obvious after spending a short time with a tech, and invariably, this type of person is no good for the library.
- In fact, this one is a deal-breaker for me, especially when combined with the opposite of the above useful qualities. I’ve stopped working with one library that hired a tech like this. No ill-will towards the library (nor the tech, really, for that matter), but I just simply couldn’t help him and it wasn’t worth my effort (or sanity!) to try. Without any of the above good qualities, there isn’t really any hope for a positive change.
- Don’t hire the first person who seems to know more than you do (unless you’re an IT expert).
- your computer upgrade can wait. A poor IT person will do much more damage than you can possibly imagine and it can set you back years and many more times his/her salary in getting back up to speed. This is orders of magnitude more true if the IT person you’re hiring is the only IT person for your organization.
- Check some references, particularly technical ones. Verbally is best.
- Before getting to deep in testing, make sure what you want to do is legal. You don’t want the ACLU calling on you for a rights violation.
- The qualities one would want, say, in a Unix administrator are going to differ from the qualities one would want in an in-house desktop tech or somebody who works with classroom AV equipment. Yet I’d call all of those people “IT”. If I were going to extrapolate out yet not try to go so generic that the extrapolation was useless, I’d say what you’re looking for in good IT staff is openness. Openness to change, openness to staff. Dogmatism in IT is rampant and it is almost always bloody awful.
- I have not been in a position to hire or fire IT staff for a good long while, but about… oh… man, like in 1998 we hired an IT person who we had to “let go” after approximately 5 months as he was not showing up to his assigned shifts and had a piss-poor customer service ethic. The place I was working wasn’t unionized but did have a probationary period where after 6 months you would be considered permanent staff, so after that time it would have been difficult to fire the guy. So there’s a regret. I’ve had explicitly-temporary IT staff (co-op students) that I’ve nominally been involved with the hiring and regretted also — these almost always boiled down service ethic issues, not technical competency. Unless you’re completely unsuited to technical work, a decent ethic can trump inconsistencies in technical experience.
- IT staff often have a problem dealing with non IT staff when it comes to issues that are blatantly completely amazingly obvious to the IT staff but are somewhat less obvious to non ITs. If this happens repeatedly (for values of “repeatedly” that can range from as little as twice, depending on the attitude of the IT staffer in question) then IT staff will almost always start downgrading the requests of the non IT staffer. Sometimes explicitly, most of the time not. In librarianship, we have sort of a compounded problem — a lot of our work is, and in the future will increasingly be, non-Taylorist in nature — that is, we’re going to want to do things that are experimental, agilely implemented, and may not have clear and defined outcomes — this is anathema to a lot of IT folks as they tend to like their universes very ordered and secured. So that’s gives IT staff a problem scenario — if it’s easier to, say, go to a cloud service to set up something in five minutes rather than have to fill out forms in triplicate and wait 6 months for any action if you try to do it locally, which choice will staff tend to make? Too much of that and you start to think why do you need an IT staff at all.
- I’ve come to look for more extroverted staff, as I think strong introverts tend to get isolated and begin building barriers between themselves and the service needs of the rest
of the library staff. At worst, we get situations where IT staff sit alone in their office playing games, not initiating projects and pushing them forward. I call this “Maytag Repairman” syndrome, where they set up barely adequate systems that
require no work from them. I have not, myself, had to fire anyone, but my expectations of their performance have caused those who could not meet my requirements to seek other jobs.
- What do you think are the main issues you see in communication between IT staff and non-IT staff? In libraries, it is a continued belief that the technology is something separate from what the library does, that the technology itself is not the service, but is just a necessary (and unpleasant?) tool for delivering the service.
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Very interesting piece, although I would say the responses also reveal a lot about prejudices and preconceptions about tech people (as well as serving as a guide for those hiring).
For example: “I’ve worked at places where they hired people as smart as whips, but they were all called “Satan” by the staff. No one likes to be talked down to or made to feel stupid because they don’t understand syn/ack and network handshakes.”
Perhaps true, but maybe people also don’t like to be known as ‘Satan’ just because their role means their colleagues don’t understand what they’re doing. My experience is that often people with technical expertise are often victimised and shunned by people who aren’t interested in learning what they do. The best technical people are certainly those who can explain what they do in language easy to understand, but it takes a willingness on the part of others to engage with the technical problems and difficulties. If you’re going to attract people who you want to be engaged with the overall service, every member of that service needs to engage with the technical issues, otherwise the extent of the communication with the tech person will be (and often is) ‘i’ve told satan over there to fix it’.
“I’ve come to look for more extroverted staff, as I think strong introverts tend to get isolated and begin building barriers between themselves and the service needs of the rest of the library staff.”
Regardless of the question as to who is really building the barriers, introverts are as likely to be engaged with the service as anyone, they are probably just less likely to stand up for themselves when they’re not treated as part of that service.
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