Can You Handle It?

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted September 01, 2000
by Karen J. Bannan

Eventually, every business hits a breaking point. The employees get grumpy, the executives get angry, and everyone begins to get frustrated. Tech support is important, they say, because technology is essential to our jobs. We need an expert to take care of it. So why don't we have one yet?

In many companies, owners, accountants, human resource managers ­ whoever's available and knows a USB port from a hole in the ground ­ still act as the IT department. They fix PCs, unjam printers, and keep the place from falling apart until a VAR or a consultant can be called in. But at some point ­ especially when business is good ­ companies get too large and IT needs begin to outpace budgeted resources. Then it's time to make some big changes, make a full assessment of what's needed, and then hire a full-time IT staff.

The question companies need to ask themselves when they're getting frustrated is: Have we reached that point yet? Still, there are a lot of good business reasons not to hire on a full-time staffer, not the least of which is cost. Most people assume that when it's time to get serious about technology, it's time to hire an IT staff. But much depends on what the companies current situation is, what its goals are, and what technology will be necessary to accomplish them. The decision to take a techie into the fold should come only after a thorough technological and strategic assessment. So don't put out the "Inquire Within" shingle just yet.

THE PROS AND CONS OF OUTSOURCING

In general, small businesses should explore every option short of bringing someone on staff. Today nearly every company relies on some sort of technology, and many turn over responsibility for their systems to part-time consultants or temporary help. This is the way most businesses handle IT at first ­ and if it's working, there's no reason to change.

Then there's the harsh facts of the current labor market: Even though more people than ever are entering the tech field, demand for such workers still far outstrips supply. According to the Information Technology Association of America, there are more than 10 million IT workers in the U.S., and 1.6 million new jobs will be created by the end of this year. But roughly half the positions ­ 843,328 ­ are likely to go unfilled. With that kind of competition, why bother?

Well, for one, because outsourcing can have its drawbacks, as well. In today's market, fewer consultants are willing to do piecemeal work. Instead, most contractors want temporary full-time work. If a business only needs someone a few hours a day, it will pay double or triple the price or have difficulty filling the position, Cameron says. All of this can make the idea of an on-site techie ­ someone to be finally, ultimately, responsible ­ seem appealing.

WHAT DO YOU REALLY NEED?

Before an ad is placed or call to a recruiter is made, a business must know its needs, recommends Don McLaurin, chief executive officer of the National Association of Computer Consultant Businesses. In other words, try to define what this person would do. "You need to get a picture of what technical skills you need," McLaurin says. "Your job needs to be scoped and you have to determine what skills you need and which ones would just be nice to have. A lot of people decide to hire someone and don't put enough thought into it."

Keep in mind that an IT person does more for a small business than at a large corporation, according to Bobby Cameron, a principal analyst with industry research firm Forrester Research. "If you look at what an IT shop does for a small company, it isn't just fixing computers," he says. "You're going to be hiring a person who implements and buys technology, manages business relationships, and handles services procurement."

Pay particular attention to any plans for a Web site, network, or custom software program or application. All three of these areas can require extremely specific knowledge, and the demand for experienced workers is high.

For instance, every company with a Web site doesn't necessarily need someone in-house when there are many sophisticated and reliable hosting services available. To decide which model suits you best, take a look at what type of customization the site needs. Sites that require custom-built applications will require in-house support, while those that consist mainly of HTML code don't. Likewise, any company building an intranet internally needs a Web developer with both Java programming and networking skills.

Because the cost for many of these services is so high, businesses that set up the network or Web site using consultants may discover they're paying them as much as they would a full-time employee. In general, if your business has two or more specific areas of need, a full-time staffer should be in your future.

And it's not just specific types of technology that require a dedicated staffer. In some cases, the time factor may trump all others concerns. Businesses that are located more than 50 miles from their consulting firm's office know that travel time is an issue since consultants can only fix problems if they are in the building. If a network goes down at noon and a consultant doesn't arrive until 2 p.m., that's two hours of wasted time and money. Companies that rely heavily on their IT infrastructure ­ professional service firms, for instance ­ may not be able to take the chance of using outside help. If a business' bottom line depends on the network's uptime, it's worth paying for the peace of mind of a permanent employee.

There are several other criteria to consider before committing to a permanent hire. Obviously, growth is always an issue. If technology needs are relatively flat ­ that is, the routine doesn't vary much from regular monthly spikes ­ a company may be able to get by with a temporary person. However, if a company is in a fast growth phase and other in-house staff levels rise, chances are that IT needs will rise, too. Even if needs are flat, it pays to take a look at the bottom line. If monthly IT staffing figures total more than $30,000 at the end of the year, consider a full-timer.

COULD THERE BE A BETTER WAY?

Still, there are creative ways to solve problems rather than just throwing money and employees at them. Explore every option short of hiring someone full-time. For instance, it may be possible to hire a part-time employee to handle the load on specific days or weeks. Again, this requires asking tough questions about what exactly it is that you need.

Take a look at the types of calls the consultant usually makes. If they're all hardware-related, it may be time to take a look at the company's IT infrastructure. Instead of replacing the consultant, it might be better to just replace the equipment. Older machines and technology often require more updating and tweaking than a brand-new set-up, and many vendors offer one-year, in-house support. Putting off that hire in favor of a technology upgrade could save anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 ­ which goes a long way in today's hardware market.

Also consider different hiring strategies. Keep track of the types of problems and when they come up. Are all of them clustered around a specific week or month? Think about temporary or seasonal workers. Are the problems all desktop related? Look into hiring a desktop support person. It may be possible to hire a part-time employee to handle the load on specific days or weeks.

Finally, when it is time to hire someone in-house, consider making the process a lot easier by simply hiring on your current consultant. They're already familiar with your IT infrastructure and business practices, after all. Further, if you like temporary employees' work ethics, if they are knowledgeable, and if they possess technically solid skills, they could make fine permanent hires. Someone from an agency doesn't come cheaply but this route will save you a lot of time and aggravation in the long run, says Jim McNabb, president and chief executive officer of Staffing Technologies, an Atlanta-based hiring firm. Agencies earn a placement fee of between 15 and 40 percent of a candidate's yearly salary. But Elece Otten, president of Login Consulting Services Inc., a staffing service in El Segundo, Calif., says the fee really depends on how long the person has worked for you. "If someone has already been there, we'll typically ask for a lower fee," she says. "In the end, it's really about helping your clients."

HOW TO GIVE IN WITHOUT GIVING UP

When the fateful choice has finally been made, there's just the small matter of finding and hiring the perfect candidate. While the process isn't that different than for any other job, the specialized knowledge these folks have does mean special considerations need to be made [see "Talking It Over" sidebar]. For many employers, the first instinct may be to head to the Web and peruse the many IT recruiting Web sites like Dice.com, ComputerJobs.com, and CareerBuilder.com. But the best bet still may be an offline staffing firm.

High-profile sites attract major corporations and mid-size businesses that provide stiff competition for a small business. In many cases, they can afford higher salaries and extra perks like stock options and profit sharing, making offers that are hard ­ if not impossible ­ to beat. An offline staffing firm, offering specialized service, might have a better time matching the opening with a person who is specifically looking for the more personal work environment that a small business can offer.

Even if you choose not to contract with a recruiter, make sure to do more than just place want ads. Smart companies whose business depends on technology ­ and these days, whose doesn't? ­ know that the extra effort it takes is worth it. Jim Scoggins, vice president of information systems for The Meyers Group, a real-estate information company, has become an expert at hiring IT staff. He finds job fairs are a good place to start an employee search. Most cities and states hold periodic events that bring out some of the best-qualified candidates for the job.

Scoggins took this route to find the last six people he hired (when he came on board last year the 200-person company had five IT people, and still depended too much on consultants). "We had 100 people visit our booth and access to more than 800 resumes," Scoggins says. "Out of that pool, we interviewed 20 people and got great results."

Finally, when it comes to salary, offer candidates what they are worth. The days of under-hiring are over, says Network Dynamics' Sheridan. If anything, overpay. Today's employees spend an average of eight months with a company before looking for the next notch on their belt ­ and their paycheck. Paying an above-average salary may keep them loyal longer.

Expect to pay between $35,000 and $50,000 for a junior-level staffer; seasoned IT professionals can garner more than $100,000. The Meyers Group's Scoggins makes sure to pay his staff a salary that's a little above average. "I try to make sure that salary is never an issue if someone is leaving," he says. "I don't overpay grossly, but I make sure that I pay them more than the going rate."

Hiring is never an easy or quick process, and today's labor market makes it harder. When a business decides to take IT in-house, it should go into the process with eyes open and wallets out. When a company can feel confident about its decisions, they can forget about the money spent on salaries, and remember the costs and frustration an IT staff saves. Says Forrester's Cameron: "They are worth what you're paying for them."

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