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5 secrets to hiring IT Ops teams

Kevin McGibben CEO, LogicMonitor

For SaaS companies, hiring IT operations is job priority number one. Without the right team, SaaS businesses risk downtime, customer churn, and lost revenue.

In my experience there are five key steps to hiring IT staff:

  1. Seek candidates with intellectual curiosity.
  2. Watch for signs of empathy.
  3. Find people that enjoy building things.
  4. Hire for skills, not pedigrees.
  5. Look for shared values.

By following this pattern, we've been able to grow our company aggressively. Here's how you can copy our success.

Why you need a great IT Ops team

Within SaaS companies, IT operations (aka TechOps or just Ops ) is the life blood of the business. Five 9s, or 99.999 percent uptime, is a requirement in our business. If a customer can't access his or her application, or if he or she doesn't receive an alert about degrading performance in the infrastructure, it can cost him or her real money.

One of our customers handles hundreds of millions of dollars of credit card transactions. Every minute costs major money, so any downtime is unacceptable. If our infrastructure monitoring platform wasn't reliable, customers would churn. (We have a great Ops team, so they don't!)

IT Ops is responsible for our infrastructure performance, so the pressure is on them to maintain delivery to our customers. Regular software releases—one of the huge merits of SaaS—mean that IT Ops is always in a state of change. They're always rolling out product or increasing our infrastructure.

IT Ops is also the intermediary between our dev (software development engineering) organization and our customer-facing business. They must balance the needs of both sides actively and precisely.

IT Ops shops are usually small teams in comparison to the overall company head count. In our business we have over 100 employees. Although we have about 80 engineers and lots of operations expertise, fewer than 10 are actually in IT Ops.

Why so small if the function is so important? First, it's lean by design. The more automated the operations environment, the better we avoid errors. As our head of Ops says, "The less human involvement the better." Precisely because Ops is the lifeblood, the fewer people who have to coordinate critical tasks the better the communication and outcomes.

Finally, these team members have incredibly concentrated skills since they're focused on one thing: performance. A great Ops team is only as good as its weakest member.

Top skills for IT Ops

So what do we look for when we hire these linchpins? Really it boils down to five key steps:

1. Seek candidates with intellectual curiosity

The world of IT Ops is changing at lightspeed. New technologies and ways of operating application infrastructure are at a breakneck pace of change. You may get away with hiring static talent for a while, but only the best and brightest will learn what it takes to keep the team a relevant and productive force when your business doubles, triples, or hockey sticks.

Tip: When you interview Ops engineers, don't just ask them about what they know and the work they've done. Ask them to demonstrate how they've taken initiative to go learn something distinctly new in the last year. Have they studied and tested Docker? Did they learn a new scripting language in their own time? Only hire those with a proven record of initiative about learning.

2.Watch for signs of empathy

The best Ops engineers understand their impact on the function and value of the product they deploy to customers. They understand the consequences of operational degradation (or downtime) on customer experience and business.

Spend time talking to candidates about operational problems they've experienced in the past—because they all have—and ascertain their awareness and empathy to the customer impact of application performance.

3. Find people who enjoy building things

I recently listed to a great talk by Marten Mickos, former CEO of MySQL and current head of HP Cloud (formerly Eucalyptus Systems), in which he talked about how to instill a culture of innovation in a tech company. Marten insists that the future of technology will be driven by architects, not engineers.

I agree completely. If you're an Ops engineer, you should learn how to script and code, so that as technology advances, you can push yourself to keep up. Make sure your Ops team shares this mindset.

4. Hire for skills, not pedigrees

Ask candidates to show you what they've built and what they know how to do. Asking "What do you know?" is far more important than "Where did you learn?"

5. Look for shared values

The Reagan-era adage "trust, but verify" is one of the key themes within our IT Ops team, and it goes not just for the infrastructure but for screening candidates, too. New employees must fit this culture to operate effectively.

Make sure that new employees completely understand the principles that guide your operational philosophy. They must prove their willingness to work and thrive in it, as this ensures a greater likelihood that your IT Ops team is a well-oiled machine.

How to hire great IT staff

We used these five steps to go from being a tiny startup to a company with over 100 employees. Here's how you can follow our path to success.

Your first 20 hires are the toughest because they need to be great, and you must sell them on the vision to get truly high-performing people on board. We did a good job in this bootstrapping phase, and almost all of the first 20 employees made it to when we grew to 50. After raising VC money in 2012—when we had 20 employees—we established the basis for the employee recruiting and evaluation process that we still use today.

Once you have the nucleus of a team, the next hurdle is growth and keeping consistent composition of the team members. Developing talent to meet the demands of growth requires constant attention and action.

The team of 10 people that got you to a real taste of revenue likely consists of the core that will get you to 20 people. At that point, you begin to scale in some functional areas of the business. Because you hire more role players from then on, some of those 20 quickly can be surpassed in responsibility and performance by new hires as you grow to 50. The same happens from 50 to 100.

I mention in each of our annual company kickoffs that the pace of sustained growth we're experiencing means employees need to always professionally develop, to push their boundaries, and to not be afraid to take risks to maintain their level of impact in the business. To support this notion, we provide personal/professional development funds so employees can invest in their own growth.

Almost every single case of attrition we've had were people who weren't up to the task or had hit their ceiling of contribution. Early recognition that an employee isn't going to meet the needs of the growing business will help you identify future gaps in personnel capacity.

With this knowledge you can act proactively to develop people so they can meet the demands of the business. Those who don't advance are transitioned to a new role or out of the business. By regularly assessing team performance (we actually do an employee rating at least once per quarter) you'll be ahead of the game.

Grow your business, advance your career

While there's no foolproof formula for success, hiring a great IT Ops staff is absolutely necessary for any SaaS business. Following the process I outlined here will give you the best shot at meeting that goal. And if you're an IT professional, making sure you live up to these five qualities is a great way to advance your career.

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