Scoping for Hot Talent

SAN MATEO (04/03/2000) - What do an Austin Powers look-alike and a lava lamp giveaway have to do with e-commerce hiring? Give up? Just ask Lante.When the rapidly growing e-commerce consulting company had a mere four weeks to open and staff its office in Austin, Texas, the company did what many self-respecting technology companies would do. Lante threw a party -- an "Austin Power" party, baby.

Get it? Enough qualified candidates did as well. Fifty prescreened candidates showed up at the groovy, 1960s-style party to schmooze, meet 25 Lante employees, and peddle their skills. In the end, Lante hired 15 new employees, including several of the party-goers.

Despite the light tone, there was serious business at hand: To succeed at e-commerce, companies know they have to attract candidates who have more than an assortment of technical skills under their belts. The desirable attributes for e-commerce professionals include good communication and project-management skills, energy, enthusiasm, creativity, flexibility, business savvy, and a team spirit.

So often, that even means the companies have to compete in terms of the images they project. When recruiting, Lante wants to send the message that "having fun and doing our jobs is important," says Jim O'Malley, director of strategic staffing at Lante, in Chicago. Lante seeks candidates who -- like company employees -- are team-oriented, market-focused, dedicated to constantly learning and improving, and results-oriented, he says.

That formula has helped the now 500-person company quickly ramp up and move in to its 10 offices. In just the first three months of the year, Lante hired 135 e-commerce professionals. That number is impressive considering the company had a total head count of 140 roughly a year ago. Most of the increase came from what recruiters call "organic growth," meaning the new hires came from the company's own recruiting efforts, rather than through the acquisitions of other companies.

Hybrid skills shortage

The stakes for getting the right candidates are high. There's a widening gap between the number of skilled e-commerce professionals and e-commerce-related jobs that need to be filled, industry observers say. According to a study by RHI Consulting, an IT-focused division of the staffing services firm Robert Half International, 22 percent of surveyed CIOs felt that their inability to get the qualified people they needed would hold back their e-commerce projects.

Even though the gap between supply and demand makes it tempting to hire candidates with just some of the technical skills needed, IT managers still have to be selective, recruiting professionals warn.

Individual candidates who don't have energy, enthusiasm, and the ability to make and change decisions quickly "aren't going to be happy in e-commerce," says Katherine Moody, vice president of Candidate Community at Leaders Online, in Irvine, Calif. "They aren't going to be successful because the environment will drive you crazy."

These so-called soft skills are more difficult to imbue than hard technical know-how is. "You can teach some HTML, but it's much harder to teach someone to make decisions quickly," Moody says.

Recognizing the lack of hybrid e-commerce skills in the marketplace, IT education leaders such as Carnegie Mellon University are targeting education tracks toward e-commerce. This May, Carnegie Mellon's School of Computer Science, in partnership with its Graduate School of Industrial Administration, will graduate students with a MSEC (master's degree in electronic commerce) who have gone through a year of combined technical and business training.

When evaluating candidates for e-commerce positions, companies start by assessing their technical and business skills. The skills in demand obviously vary depending on business needs. Generally, companies involved in e-commerce -- especially consulting firms -- look for people who fall into one of three camps: technical professionals, creative professionals, and business strategists. The jobs for technical professionals may focus on developing user interfaces, coding, or tackling Web applications, databases, and servers.

Many companies seek individuals with general skills in these areas. But increasingly, companies are looking for individuals who have experience with specific e-commerce-related software, says Leslie Stevens, a regional sales manager in Irvine, Calif., for RHI Consulting.

For example, Stevens has seen requests for expertise in Vignette's content management products or Blue Martini Software's e-merchandising solutions.

The lines between technical, business, and creative professionals in e-commerce blur. A company may seek employees to handle technical issues but require they have enough business savvy to understand how those technical decisions may impact the company's image or bottom line.

"If [the job candidates] don't have an eye toward business as well as a strength toward their specific skill set or core competencies, it just doesn't work," Lante's O'Malley says.

"We could [employ] the best technical people in the world," he says, "but if they didn't understand what the business drivers and business issues were, they probably would be ineffective."

How to land and keep good employees

Landing good employees requires the right mixture of the "four Ps": pay, perks, people, and projects, says Doug Berg, who holds the title "chief techie" for online recruiting company techies.com, in Edina, Minn. Generally speaking, Berg says, IT professionals want fair pay; perks that may range from stock options to casual dress; and the chance to work on cutting-edge projects with people they like. The emphasis on one "P" or another will vary by individual, he says.

And the "Ps" are relative. The pay scale for IT professionals varies widely.

According to RHI Consulting's 2000 Salary Guide, an e-commerce specialist is expected to earn an average of $53,000 to $82,500 per year. A Web developer may see a salary of $48,750 to $71,250. An Internet programmer may bring in $50,000 to $72,250. And the financial rewards potentially can be much larger for professionals who head to pre-IPO dot-coms and secure stock options.

Ultimately, however, talented people are hooked to a company if they believe it has an exciting environment that challenges them, says David Osborne, senior vice president and CTO at Plural, an e-commerce consultancy formerly known as Micro Modeling Associates, in New York. "This is an environment where you want to keep people around," Osborne says. "To keep people around, you need to keep them challenged."

Osborne says his company tries to foster an entrepreneurial environment that encourages individuals to carve out their own career path. The message that his company tries to suggest to new recruits, he says, is that at this company, " 'everyone can impact the business in a significant way.' I think that [statement] appeals to a lot of people," he says.

Jamie Lerner, chairman and CTO at Xuma, an e-commerce development company in San Francisco, agrees that a stimulating environment is key to attracting and holding on to top-notch e-commerce experts.

"When we hire people, we look for people who will promote our culture and the team-focused environment," Lerner said. "Many engineers seem to be inwardly focused. Those people can be detrimental to the culture. Hiring decisions have to take into account people's ability to be team players."

Even the perks are designed to reinforce the culture. This year, Xuma's 180 engineers selected 12 peers to win such Academy Award-like titles as "greatest technical achievement" and "greatest display of customer service." Winners received a week's vacation at a Mexican resort.

A recent InfoWorld survey reveals that the most significant obstacles to successful implementations of companies' e-commerce strategies are people-oriented. Insufficient time and the perception that skilled personnel are too busy were cited as the two main obstacles, garnering 45.7 percent and 34.3 percent, respectively, of all responses. A full third of all respondents agreed that insufficient e-commerce technical skills was the next biggest hurdle.

How, then, do companies solve the crunch?

Getting and keeping the right people in place for e-commerce starts at the top.

"It's very top-down [oriented]," says Richard Spitz, the Los Angeles-based managing director of the Internet practice at executive search firm Korn/Ferry International. "Without the right organizational strategy, without the right culture, you are not going to get the right performers," Spitz says.

A good manager knows how to encourage peak performance out of employees, he says. "You have to be able to evaluate some one on their core competencies and train them through their weaknesses," Spitz says, "then move people to their highest and best use."

How one company finds talented E-commerce workersDiamond Technology Partners is a fast growing e-commerce consultancy, claiming revenue growth in excess of 70 percent per year. Based in Chicago, the 6-year-old firm has about 550 employees worldwide. When Diamond CEO Michael J.

Connolly joined the firm in 1995, it had 50 employees. InfoWorld Senior Editor Susan E. Fisher asked Connolly how the company selects and attracts e-commerce talent.

InfoWorld: Describe an ideal candidate for your e-commerce staff.

Connolly: We have eight competencies: There's strategy, marketing strategy, business operations, solutions delivery, value management, technical architecture, e-learning, and media design. And so those are the skills that [allow us] to actually help people create new e-commerce businesses. So when you ask me my ideal candidate, I would segment that into three areas, because it's our belief that no one person can have all those skills.

InfoWorld: Who are your ideal candidates on the technology side?

Connolly: People with very deep hands-on expertise in software engineering -- that expertise can come from a couple [of] places: One, they worked in an actual e-commerce business building a business, so they're actually fairly experienced with the tools and technologies that we use today.

The [second] would be from other consulting firms, where they've gotten some reasonable experience.

And the third would be from certain high-tech firms, where people get some really good experience at a very detailed level with things like wireless technology and networking and other fairly hard technology skills. The third ideal candidate is someone that's come out of an interactive shop or some other marketing or branding-centered role to help on the creative side. Those are really -- as I said, given the breadth and depth of the work we do -- where there's [going to] be [the] different types of people we look for.

InfoWorld: What skills do you seek?

Connolly: The work that we do is fairly complex, and it's really focused on developing concepts and ideas around digital strategies and in actually helping people launch the ventures. As a function of that, we need people with skills fairly broad but deep skills. So, across the firm, we need people with strategy skills, marketing strategy skills, software engineering skills, creative and media design skills, and skills around business operations.

On the technology side, for people that are working in senior architecture roles, we want them to have an exposure and appreciation for the business dynamics around ability; mostly around building e-commerce businesses [and] having gone through the experience of building one of these businesses.

On the strategy side, we would like them to have an exposure to both the creative skills and technology skills but preferably to have some experience in former lives in one of the other.

In terms of the creative side, it's critical that they have exposure to all dimensions, because the creative people are really acting in a core intersection role between strategy and technology and creation of a solution.

So if the creative people don't understand the business context, or if the creative people don't understand the context in which the solution needs to be delivered, they can be fairly ineffective.

InfoWorld: Where do you look for people?

Connolly: On the technology side, we recruit at both [top MBA] campuses, [and] for undergraduate master's degree candidates at about eight fairly well-regarded technical schools like Carnegie Mellon, Georgia Tech, [and] Illinois. Then, we also have a very large and successful recruiting program for hiring technology-talented people focused primarily in Chicago and San Francisco. For instance, in Chicago, there's a large base of consulting firms where people are looking for new opportunities.

InfoWorld: Have you ever had clients come to you and say, 'We really want to do this in our company, but we just can't do it because we don't have the people?'

Connolly: Every single day, more than once a day. The demand for talent to launch new businesses is in a vertical growth spike. And so that vertical demand is creating a huge drain of resources, a huge pressure for both Web integration, consulting, and corporations on the talent side. There's just not enough people to do the work. Have you talked to any consulting firm or Web solution development firm today that doesn't say that they're totally tapped out of people? Because it is not a competitor-constrained market. There's more work than there are people to do it.

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