At XNET, It's All About Attitude
BackBy Lindsay Edmonds Wickman — March 2008
Wanted: Passionate, independent, right-brained geeks.
From the mass of resumes on his desk, Arthur Zards, president and co-founder of Internet solutions provider XNET, searches for these traits in potential hires.
“I almost don’t want to tell you because then the secret’s out,” he said. “[But] I want the tinkerer, the person who’s passionate about what they’re doing. I’m looking for that guy who wasn’t stuck in a company for 20 years just doing Oracle administration.
“One of my favorite questions is ‘How many computers do you have at your house?’ If they say: ‘Oh, just one computer,’ they’re not technically savvy enough for me. I want the guy who says: ‘Oh, I’ve got four computers. One’s a Pentium 4, I’ve got a network in my house [and] I’ve got a VPN.’ I want true geeks here because we’re a small company, and we have to move quickly.”
To find his “true geeks,” Zards uses the age-old adage: Hire for attitude, train for skill.
“With the Internet, and especially the IT realm, what you’re hiring for now, five years from now is going to be different,” he said. “It’s not like you can hire somebody [who] for the last 10 years [has] done this technology and they’re going to be doing this technology the next 10 years. Whatever technology I’m hiring for now is going to change fairly quickly, so I’m looking for people who can really adapt and learn quickly.”
Zards’ company was started in 1992 with three employees working out of a basement. Having survived the Internet bust, the Illinois-based business is now the largest independently owned ISP in Chicagoland and works with small to large clients.
XNET is still a relatively small company, but it is looking to double its staff within the next year.
As Zards begins reviewing resumes, one aspect that catches his eye is certifications. Why? Because they show candidates are interested in learning and broadening their knowledge.
“I find [that] people who have the attitude that I want have certifications,” he said. “I’ve come across a lot of people who are out of work and looking for a job, but they are still furthering their knowledge by going through a certification process versus just looking for a job. And that’s the type of person who I’m looking for.”
The best certifications for XNET are Cisco certifications, especially those dealing with networking and engineering. Zards said one advantage of certifications is they prove a candidate has core knowledge and skills because they’ve been tested.
“When people have training certifications it is a bonus to find how they got those certifications and why they got the certifications,” Zards said. “Again I’m really big on attitude, and our process is a lot of initiative and self-learning from our employees. If I find a person who had a job and they say: ‘Yeah I [was] working at this company XYZ for three years, and I wasn’t happy with my career path, so I decided to take CCNE certification on the side,’ that’s a big plus. It shows that they’ve got initiative [and] that they want to learn.”
There’s no defined skill set for XNET employees other than a varied background, as the company deals with Internet connectivity, complex Web hosting and managed hosting, and co-location. Zards said XNET hires for anything from an entry-level technical support position to a senior-level systems engineer.
“Since we are an ISP, we like a lot of variety if possible in an IT employee,” he said. “In the past we’ve [looked] for Web developers, programmers, junior-level network administrators. We run the full gamut of a large corporation on a smaller scale.”
XNET needs this level of diversity to be versatile.
“Since we’re so solutions driven, we really need people who can cover all facets of the technical Internet realm,” he said. “We’re not specifically focused on just routers or just development or just systems. We need to have staff that can do all those things, and that’s been our challenge for hiring in the past. You don’t have to have full expertise in all the facets, but they have to have familiarity with it.”
Because of the need for a diverse skill set, Zards typically looks for more seasoned professionals instead of young, green talent, which is a big change from hiring in the Internet boom.
“It’s harder for us to get somebody green trained up with our environment than it is to just get a more senior-level person who can pretty much start with their feet running,” he said.
In addition to technical expertise, Zards wants to find self-starters who have a thirst for knowledge.
“If they’ve been with a company for a long time, I like to see people who started out as a junior-level something and a year or two later moved up to a higher level,” Zards said. “But I also like variety; if I see someone who hasn’t grown a lot vertically but has grown horizontally, I like that, too. I’ve seen a lot of people who have started out as a software developer and then switch to network administration and now are a systems administrator. I just like the fact that they’ve gotten their hands into different pots of technology throughout that company.”
Employees’ responsibilities include but are not limited to general technical support, managing Web clusters, router programming and maintenance, VPN development and network design and administration.
“Our specifics are usually a little bit different, a little more complex, and we’re never going to find that perfect fit, so we need to find people who have enough experience in different technologies who can pick up on what they need to learn here,” Zards said.
Now, with the Monster.coms of the world dominating the hiring field, the one characteristic Zards looks for — passion — has been drained from most job application materials, as candidates submit their cookie cutter resume to hundreds of companies with the click of a button.
“It’s too easy for people to submit resumes these days. My qualification process is that I specifically put in the job posting: ‘Please send resume, cover letter and answer the following questions,’” he said. “One of the questions is always relevant to that core technology we’re looking for. Another question would be something more toward attitude; saying what new technology you are excited about. It’s pretty sad that it has gotten to the point where anybody who actually answers those questions gets put in the keep pile because I’m finding that a lot of people don’t do that.”
At XNET, there is no on-the-job training, as employees should initiate their own training programs, which goes back to Zards’ hiring practice. If employees find conferences or seminars in aspects of technology that interest them and it’s applicable to the company, Zards said he would support them all the way.
“This goes back to how we hire for attitude,” Zards said. “We like getting employees with initiative, and we do a lot of pushing on the employee to pick which path they want to go into, and as long as it’s OK with us, we’ll support that path. We want people who have the initiative to ask the questions that push the envelope saying, ‘Hey, I want to learn this.’”
Because of the nature of XNET, the typical job path of an employee is one where he or she can start out in an entry-level position and then progress to an engineer-level position.
“Our philosophy is engineer a product or service so that you don’t have to administer it,” he said. “You don’t have to maintain it. In a nutshell, get people to a spot where they grow themselves out of their job and what they did maintains itself, and they can engineer new products and new services.”
Each employee also needs good communication skills, as they deal with customers on a firsthand basis. In addition, Zards looks for candidates who have the right thought process and ask relevant questions when dealing with clients. But in the end, what puts a candidate far above the rest is the interest to further one’s knowledge, passion and attitude.
“One of my favorite questions is, ‘What are you doing to continue your education?’” he said. “And if they don’t have an answer it’s a big minus. I want to hear people saying [they] go to a whole bunch of different Web sites and [are] constantly learning about new technology. I need people who are constantly tinkering, playing [and] learning. That legacy enterprise guy who had an unlimited budget, who was managing 100 servers is not the guy who’s going to be on his tiptoes at night learning about the latest technology that we’re going to be using three years down the road.”
– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, email@example.com