Recruiting Q&A: Rational Software Corp.

Michael S. Messier on finding employees with the experience and smarts to go toe to toe with highly technical people at a customer site

At 19 years of age, Rational Software Corp. is a relative old-timer in the youthful world of high-tech companies. But don't think for a second that time has passed it by. On the contrary, in recent years Rational has prospered by becoming a leader in making tools that companies need to design software for everything from Web sites to cell phones.

Originally a developer of software used in the defense industry, Rational was founded in Silicon Valley in 1981 by two classmates from the Air Force Academy, Paul D. Levy and Michael T. Devlin. The two remain at the company's helm, Levy as chairman, Devlin as CEO. Reflecting acquisitions in Massachusetts, the company today is "co-headquartered" in Cupertino, Calif., and Lexington, Mass. It has about 3,500 employees, most of them in the U.S. Rational also has sales offices around the world, however, and product-development centers in India and Sweden. Last year, the company recorded profits of $85 million on $572 million in sales.

Recently, Michael S. Messier, Rational's vice-president for human resources, chatted with Business Week Online's Pamela Mendels about how the company goes about finding employees who are good enough to sell software to software developers. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:

Q: What professional, managerial, or executive-level jobs most need filling at Rational?


We're looking for technical people in three major silos, if you like. We've got general and administrative functions -- finance, accounting, HR, the support IT groups. Then we have product groups, [made up] largely of engineers and marketers. The third major area is what we call "the field" -- people in sales, both pre- and post-sales support, as well as consulting and customer or technical support.

Q: Can you give me an example of a job where you're looking for people?


Let's take the field first, because that's the largest population in the company. We have people all over the world, and frankly, this is the one area where the company could be growing even faster if we could build teams quicker in different geographic regions. The most common job is software-engineering specialist, [also called a] tech rep. These are highly technical people who work with the reps on sales teams [to] answer many of the technical questions that come up in selling. A typical profile would be someone [with] more than 10 years of development experience, able to go toe to toe with highly technical people at a customer site, answering the many questions about integrating our software into their environment. Minimally, they have a bachelor's degree in computer sciences.

Q: What about other areas?


[In] product groups, one of the positions most in demand is the software engineer who would help develop products. The unique thing about being a software engineer at Rational is that you're your own customer, [using in your own work the same software used by Rational customers]. [Another] position would be product manager. These people work closely with the developers, handling requests from customers and our salespeople for new features and product enhancements.

Q: What characteristics do you look for in a job candidate?


People who are self-motivated, driven, results-oriented. People who have a record of success. And people capable of working well with one another.

Q: What is the most common mistake you see job applicants make?


Not doing enough homework on who we are, what we represent, and the products we have. The other one would be underestimating the value we place as a company on teamwork. There are some people who don't have the patience to work in a highly collaborative environment, or the interest.

Q: How do you see that reflected in a job interview?


A lot of times we ask people [to] give examples of teams that [they have] worked on that have been successful in delivering product to market and what [their] role was on that team. We ask, "How do you feel about that team environment? What were ways that you contributed that maybe others didn't? What were your frustrations in being part of a team? How did you influence the team when the team got stuck?"

Q: So what would be a tip-off [that the candidate wouldn't work well collaboratively]?


A tip-off would be [a person saying], "There were a couple of people who were slackers, who didn't pull their weight, and I got frustrated by all the team meetings that we had. I would have been a lot more productive had I just been left on my own to do what I needed to do to get the product to market."

Q: Can you discuss compensation at Rational?


We have a tendency to pay very aggressive wages, [and] we have what we believe are market-leading benefit programs. We have very low cost-sharing for employees on medical and dental benefits. [All the standard employee benefits come] with a very attractive employee stock-option and stock-purchase program. [The latter] is somewhat unusual in that it provides a two-year window to acquire shares at a discounted rate. Many companies only provide a six-month window.

Q: Given what has happened to the market since last spring, have you found new recruits to be less excited about the stock-option plan?


It's something we actually feel very good about. One thing that has happened since this time last year is that many startups have, as you know, failed or been combined into other companies. [Therefore] people are more gun-shy today than they were 12 months ago about going to a startup. So recruiting has gotten easier, in my opinion, since last year. A lot of our new folks have joined us from startups [where they] got a lot of stock options [that] became wallpaper. We feel good about the fact that our stock has performed well over the last two years and the probability that [employees] will derive value from our options.

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