Wanted: Systems Guru

For small businesses, hiring the right geek is a special challenge

Mary Clark knew that she was looking for the rarest of gems. When her company, a 116-person electronic-payment processor called Cibernet, relocated from downtown Washington to Bethesda, Md., she lost her in-house computer guru. That meant that Cibernet's networks and e-mail systems would be running primarily on hope. Clark had to find a replacement who could troubleshoot a network, fix the printer, and handle pretty much anything in between. As a veteran manager, Clark had a good idea of what she had to avoid, too. "I didn't need an IT snob," she says. "IT people are very capable of pissing off everybody they're supposed to support."

HIRING THAT jack-of-all-trades technology pro -- also called a system administrator, or sysadmin -- is especially challenging for smaller companies. For one thing, the résumé of even the most qualified applicant can look a lot like gibberish to someone without a similar background. While a big company may be able to get away with hiring a brilliant but antisocial geek to program in a darkened room, the rest of us "need somebody who is very flexible about taking on whatever there is to do," says Adam S. Moskowitz, an IT consultant and principal with Menlo Computing in Cheltham, Mass. Equally important are interpersonal skills -- no one wants to be laughed at because she finds her computer confusing. For all of the above, expect to pay $50,000 to $100,000 per year depending on location, says the System Administrators Guild.

Timing, at least, is on your side: The dot-com bust left thousands of experienced network engineers, programmers, and hardware technicians out of work. As you pore over résumés, look for practical knowhow rather than academic accolades. Hiring managers hoping to be reassured by a degree from a prestigious university will usually be disappointed. Most four-year schools offer computer science degrees heavily slanted toward programming, not the IT equivalent of a Swiss army knife. Instead, you're more likely to see an associate degree from a local technical school. Banish any thought of pooh-poohing it. Technical schools are the best source for talented, entry-level sysadmins. Some of your applicants might also sport credentials from companies such as Microsoft (MSFT ), Cisco Systems (CSCO ), and IBM (IBM ), which offer technical certification programs for sysadmins. These mini-degrees are increasingly useful when vetting candidates, as they guarantee a certain level of competence.

Certifications and degrees aside, a system administrator should generally be familiar with network design, hardware/software integration, load balancing (making sure a single server doesn't get overwhelmed with requests), and security, according to the Information Technology Assn. They also should be able to figure out which hardware you need and how to make a network run smoothly.

That's just for starters. A good system administrator also needs to know a variety of protocols, or procedures for regulating data flow between machines, and computing languages. (On résumés, these are mere acronyms; see table for interpretations.) But sysadmins don't need to be world-class programmers. Rather, they need to have enough knowledge of common computer languages to troubleshoot.

IF YOU'RE THINKING it's not reasonable to expect one person to know all of this cold -- plus perform the occasional hardware repair -- you're on to something. That's why it's equally important to find someone who knows how to get answers to questions that initially leave them stumped. In the highly connected world of sysadmins, the key is belonging to technical societies and online chat groups where nearly every question gets a quick answer, Moskowitz says. Nationally, that might be the System Administrators Guild. In the Bay Area, there's the Bay Area Large Installation System Administrators (Bay LISA), and in Boston, the Back Bay LISA.

Of course, finding the right sysadmin is also about matching the candidate's experience to your existing systems. Cibernet's Clark drew up a list of key qualifications. With offices in Hyderabad, India, and London, she needed someone who could run a virtual private network, maintain an intranet, and handle Apple Computer's (AAPL ) Mac OS X platform. She also needed an administrator who could build her a software bug tracking system. Not to mention someone who could go toe-to-toe with tech-savvy managers without burning down the office. "They have to be able to stand up to our research and development folks and be able to spot a dumb idea and say so," Clark says.

To make sure you're not hiring a hothead, try role-playing with job candidates -- with you in the role of irate customer -- to see how they react. Watch the candidate's body language and determine if the interviewee is able to clearly articulate solutions to complex problems.

The last step: Before hiring a new system administrator, smart managers insist on criminal background checks. "They're the gatekeepers for the whole system," says Phil Conein, president of Techead, a Richmond (Va.)-based technical staffing company.

After sorting through 100 résumés and conducting 15 interviews, Clark hired Tom Limoncelli, a veteran sysadmin with all the right qualities. Limoncelli had run internal and external systems and possessed hands-on knowledge of both UNIX and OS X server platforms. Plus, he had an excellent bedside manner. Says Clark: "Tom is a gift from the gods." We always suspected there was a minor deity in charge of business technology.

By Randy Barrett

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.