Notes from the Hiring Table, Part 4: Become the Ultimate Employee

Through this series, we've heard from managers at a consulting firm on why they hire, gotten the skinny on IT hiring from a top recruiter, and learned how to use your resume and interview tactics to best impress all of the characters you'll encounter in the hiring process.

In this final piece, I've compiled notes from a dozen responses and interviews I've had since this series started, and am presenting the definitive list of the most critical skills needed to succeed in IT (and in many cases, in any career).

Like any trade in a capitalist society, IT serves the role of business. Make no mistake: you must understand business and economics to succeed in IT. OK, if you're an MIT alumnus super genius, you can probably get away with simply doing/creating super complex concepts and processes and letting everyone else figure out what to do with it. But for the rest of us, understanding business is critical to success.

Where to start: If you're currently working, you have a great source of learning about business—your current organization. Take great interest in all those big boring corporate strategy meetings. Understand the business and what your company needs to succeed. Make friends with salespeople.

Even if you're not currently employed, there's a lot you can do. I won't suggest taking business classes because I know cost is kicker, but do immerse yourself in publications such as the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and even marketing-focused sites like Marketing Professionals. It might seem odd, but given that marketing is the fundamental communication tool for business (it's a lot more than just advertising), understanding marketing is understanding business in many ways. Books about starting a new business are also great resources (even if you don't want to start your own business), because you need to grasp all the fundamentals of business to launch a startup.

Problem Solving/Critical Thinking

"A train is traveling from Seattle to Phoenix at 55 miles per hour…"

That was a joke. Problem solving might hearken back to 5th grade mathematics, but it's a whole lot more. Being able to be approached with a problem, and then have the drive, focus, and critical thinking skills to outline the problem, research it, and solve it, is one of the most critical skills an employee can have. And in IT, no amount of experience can prepare you for every possible situation that can arise, so you need to demonstrate to a potential or current employer that you're capable of analyzing a problem and driving a solution. This is a skill that many people in the current workforce lack, and its importance cannot be overstated.

Where to start: Browse technical forums and try your hand at solving complex problems, including those outside your range of expertise. Go to, search 'problem solving', and peruse the books out there. Find something that sounds interesting and valuable. And as a last tip, try your hand at Yahoo! Chess when you have some free time, or visit your local game store and play some strategy-focused board games or card games. You'd be amazed how well these games can cultivate critical-thinking skills.

Technical Expertise

This might seem like a no brainer, but technical expertise is an essential to your success. Just as you can't get into your local grocery store without a pair of shoes and t-shirt, you can't get anywhere in the job market without a base of technical experience.

Where to start: If you're new to IT and want to move into the field because you "like computers," save yourself some time and get the education you need first. Find a technical college that offers virtual labs or start working on relevant certifications (preferably both). As for those that are already experienced in IT, don't stop learning new skills and technologies. Research the new and upcoming software programs in your field, and learn everything you can about them. Read technical sites for continuing education. Get additional certifications. You get the point.

On page two we'll cover the final two skills.

Empathy might sound like the art of knowing what to get your spouse for Christmas, but it's actually a lot more than that. Empathy, put simply, is the ability to understand other people. There is little science or logic to the ways that humans act and interact. Therefore, you need to cultivate a knack for interpreting other peoples' thoughts, motives, and more based on body language, voice intonation, and the types of things they say.

Where to start: Go to your local mall on a weekend and spend a few hours observing people (often called "people watching"). Observe how people interact, and see what messages you can pick up based on body language, even if you can't hear what the people are saying. Take note of facial expressions. Talk to people that you are close to and get their honest feedback about how you can improve your conversation skills. Finally, consider purchasing a book on how to read body language and nonverbal cues, or just making a day out of a trip to your local bookstore to peruse some of the texts on this subject.

Aptitude and Motivation
Having aptitude (the capacity and ability to succeed) and motivation (the desire and drive to succeed) are probably the most important skills anyone can have in terms of career enhancement. It's the thread the binds every successful person in this world, and they are skills that are completely accessible to all of us. Aptitude and motivation are how Michael Jordan went from failing to make the varsity basketball team as a high school sophomore to being the greatest basketball player of all time, or how Cesar Millan (the Dog Whisperer) went from an illegal immigrant who could barely speak English to one of the most celebrated dog trainers in the world.

There are a million cases, and I won't bore you with them. But the bottom line is that people from more humble beginnings have conquered far greater challenges than the current economic crisis, outsourcing, and layoffs. It's not fair, and it's not easy. But with aptitude and motivation, anything is possible.

Where to start: Just as aptitude and motivation are some of the hardest skills to quantify, they're some of the hardest skills to acquire. Consider picking up The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, one of the most celebrated books on this topic.

If you struggle to stay motivated, focused, and driven, that's normal. But if you feel that it's a chronic problem that no amount of effort has been able to remedy, consider meeting with a career counselor and reevaluating your current career path. It's possible that there's something else out there that can help you live up to your full potential.

A Lifelong Process
Building the skills that I have outlined is a lifelong process. You need not wait until you feel like a superhero to jumpstart your job search, but I do strongly encourage you to take these points to heart and craft a plan to build these skills starting with today. Not every one will be instrumental to getting you the job, but every one of these will help enhance your professional and personal life in a profound way.

Thank you for taking the time to read through this series. I hope the insights shared will be of some value to you. If you have any questions, please feel free to send me an email or chat on Twitter.

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