Turn Your Recruits Into Vertical Veterans
To ensure niche market success for its storage and networking solutions, systems integrator KKL doesn't bring in technical experts. It grows its own.
No one in the systems integration business would dispute the importance of having an experienced technical staff. To win your clients' confidence (and, of course, continue to earn their business), your integration team must exude time- and battle-tested skill and knowledge. If your organization can't convincingly claim "been there, done that," it will find itself "not there" with alarming frequency.
With its 15 years of experience providing technology solutions for law firms, systems integration and consulting company Kraft Kennedy & Lesser, Inc. (KKL) is there on plenty of deals. And, its site teams always include senior technical consultants. But, not all of KKL's consultants could be considered "senior." In fact, KKL has for some time followed an increasingly deliberate course when it comes to hiring new consultants. It recruits only recent college graduates, and even more specifically, only those with degrees in computer science or engineering. KKL values the problem-solving abilities characteristic of students coming out of those programs. Says Peter Lesser, one of KKL's three managing directors, "Most small integration companies hire only experienced people who can start working on live projects the next day. We hire people with no practical experience and train them ourselves. While we do have people with 5 or 10 years of experience, we hired them with no experience. They've simply been with us for 5 or 10 years."
Despite its focus on a single niche market, KKL's solutions reflect a broad range of technologies, from document imaging and management to networking and storage. Developing in its consultants the skill sets necessary for implementing and servicing a varied product line takes time - particularly when the typical learner is a 21-year old IT neophyte. Plus, selling and installing solutions in the high-stress environment characteristic of most law firms requires no small degree of maturity. Nonetheless, KKL is convinced that long-term staff success stems from nurturing talented young graduates. "We end up with a much different kind of consultant - a team player, not a cowboy," says Lesser. That's why KKL continues to implement team-oriented training programs and ongoing evaluation processes that involve all KKL consultants, new and experienced.
Don't Trust The Resume
KKL's decision to hire and then train inexperienced staff evolved, to a large degree, from its early staffing experiences. As would most VARs and integrators, KKL used to bring on experienced technicians. It soon learned, however, that an industry veteran rarely made a good fit. "We did gain a few really competent people," Lesser explains. "But, we also got a higher number of people whose ingrained ways of doing things were completely contrary to what our organization sees as best practices." As KKL brought on more and more recent college graduates, it began to trust its own training and evaluation programs more than it trusted the fat resume. Plus, the fat resume usually accompanied a demand for a salary that didn't accurately reflect the true level of preparedness the experienced hire would actually bring to the company. Since few resume-heavy candidates had experience with the specific business and technology needs of law firms, they weren't really field-ready for KKL. "We would interview people with five years of experience, and our senior people would conclude that, in 90 days, we could make a 21-year-old fresh out of college more qualified than the experienced person," Lesser says.
Practice Your Best Practices
KKL's ability to ramp up new consultants fairly quickly speaks to the careful design of its training program. Nearly all trainees, or what KKL calls "associate consultants," come in with no professional experience, and some (e.g. those with degrees in engineering) arrive with little or no specific preparation in IT. So, KKL's training program includes focused segments on all technologies encountered at customer sites. Segments cover topics such as operating systems, database structure and management (primarily SQL Server), messaging systems (e.g. Exchange, Lotus Notes), and network design (e.g. configuring Cisco routers and switches). Following a training schedule devised by KKL's staff development coordinator, senior technical consultants with particular expertise lead various segments. "By the end of training, not only do our new people know the basics of all the technologies, they've also been introduced to all of our senior technical people," says Lesser. "So, when they join project teams at clients' sites, they know who has the expertise to help address particular integration challenges."
In training new consultants, senior staff members follow a standard curriculum KKL has developed for teaching particular technologies in the context of law firms' specific business requirements. Associate consultants learn, for example, that certain applications may require dedicated servers - for example, the firm's litigation support system. (The core application at a law firm, a litigation support system is a type of document management suite specifically designed for collecting, archiving, and retrieving materials for legal cases.) They also learn KKL's recommended best practices for backing those various servers with storage. They learn, for example, which servers, applications, and users are best served by direct attached storage, which by NAS (network attached storage), and which by SANs (storage area networks).
Over the course of a training program lasting several months, associate consultants advance from 100% classroom-based learning to an interim stage during which they shadow senior consultants at customer sites.
A key part of the classroom portion of their education is "break and fix." After an associate consultant has built a system in the training lab, senior consultants go in and break the system. It's then up to the new hire to identify the source of the failure and restore the system. Says Lesser, "That's real life. They'll have to be able to figure out what's broken when clients call in to report a problem."
Typically by the six-month mark, associate consultants are assigned to actual project teams. If they are showing inadequate progress at that point, KKL doesn't hesitate to discuss the likely end of the relationship. "The pace is faster for some, slower for others," says Lesser. "But, generally, at the end of six months, we can tell whether or not the new hire has a future with our company. We've built a model for turning A-minus training class performers into A-level field consultants. We caution new hires during the process that B and B-minus performers will probably be let go."
Crisis-Hardened Technicians Need Soft Skills
When associate consultants do join project teams, all of their technical work is still subject to supervision. For instance, associate consultants are expected to be able to install basic file servers and back them up to tape. At some client sites, they may also need to connect a NAS box to a network and configure access rights for users and apps. However, the initial designs for the client's file serving and storage infrastructure, as well as the quality assurance checks done before the system goes live, would be handled by senior consultants.
That layer of oversight extends beyond technical issues into "soft skill" areas such as confidence, poise, and grace under pressure. KKL recognizes that the maturity levels and verbal skills of 21-year-olds can vary widely, especially in the face of clients' potentially testy reactions to problems. "Our senior consultants are quite protective of our younger people," says Lesser. "Lawyers tend to be very bright but also very aggressive. They respond best to people whom they perceive to be bright and knowledgeable. So, we try to start associate consultants on projects at smaller law firms where the systems aren't as complex and the number of user nodes is relatively low." That strategy gives KKL's senior consultants a better chance of preparing associate consultants for - and, if need be, shielding them from - difficult questions from attorneys and others at the client site.
Evaluation Doesn't End With Experience
After an additional six months to a year beyond the initial training period, successful associate consultants are promoted to the rank of full "consultant." At that level, they are expected to develop specialist-level expertise in one area (e.g. clustering servers for high availability). Proven expertise in an area brings the designation "senior consultant" and, along with the title, responsibility for serving as lead technical consultant on individual projects. Senior consultants who have demonstrated the ability to lead increasingly larger rollouts advance to KKL's highest technical level, "managing consultant." Managing consultants may be given oversight responsibilities for several simultaneously occurring projects.
No matter what role KKL consultants play, the training program never really ends. All of KKL's more than 40 consultants attend weekly seminars on focused topics, led by colleagues with expertise in those areas. Those seminars also contribute to documents outlining KKL's standard recommendations for particular integration scenarios. "To the recommendations already posted on our intranet, we add information that emerges from the seminars," Lesser explains. "We post best practices guidelines on mundane topics, such as our standard recommendation for a desktop workstation, as well as on complex topics, such as our standard design scheme for a multi-office client that wants to use IP [Internet Protocol] telephony or Wi-Fi."
At KKL, staff training is an ongoing activity, as is staff evaluation. All consultants, at all levels, are evaluated every 90 days. Lesser attributes the enthusiastic embrace of ongoing professional development to the team-oriented nature of KKL's work. "No consultant wants to be on a project team where the other consultants can't be trusted to do work of equal or higher quality," says Lesser. "So, if our less experienced consultants struggle, the senior people tend to blame themselves and step up the quality of the training and mentoring. There's clearly a sense of pride that emerges from having everyone involved in staff development."