Attitude and Aptitude

By Tom Burzinski

I went to work for the technology services firm, Electronic Data Systems (EDS), in 1980 for three reasons: 1) they offered to pay me about twice what I was making as a computer programmer for the State of Wisconsin, 2) they promised that I would have an opportunity to work on leading edge IT projects around the world, and 3) they would enroll me in their management training program.

While the pay was good and the projects interesting, as anyone who worked for EDS then will tell you, you really earned your salary. Mind-breaking systems problems, death march-like project schedules, autocratic bosses, and a corporate culture that demanded a level of loyalty and commitment that some have described as paramilitary, routinely tested my resolve and determination.

As for the travel, well, the allure of that wore off pretty quickly once I realized that an 8-hour fog delay at the Paris airport was much the same as a similar delay at Mitchell Field in Milwaukee.

One thing that did live up to expectations, however, was EDS’ management training program. In the era before companies slashed training budgets and pushed the responsibility and cost for career development down to the individual employee, EDS’ management training was something extraordinary.

For several years, EDS trained us manager wannabees in everything we needed to know to be successful technology business people – at least as envisioned by EDS and its founder H. Ross Perot.

The training and experience I received in employee development, team building, budgeting, managing client relationships, and sales and marketing changed me from a head-down COBOL programmer into a businessperson with the skills and confidence to lead multi-million dollar IT projects to successful conclusion. Thanks, Ross!

One part of EDS’ training curriculum in particular has stuck with me throughout my business career – what to look for when hiring an employee. Perot has said that what allowed him to take a $2,000 investment and turn it into a company worth several billions of dollars isn’t that he was the smartest guy in the world but rather that knew how to hire bright and energetic people committed to success regardless of their skills and education.

I often heard this hiring philosophy encapsulated in the simple phase – “It is as important to hire attitude as it is aptitude.”

Over the years, I’ve tried hard to follow this rule whenever I’ve had a hiring decision to make. I firmly believe (as did EDS) that you must look beyond the skills and experience of a person and see the attitude and personality he or she will bring to your company.

Personally, I would rather hire a smart, dedicated, and creative person, even without the exact skills I’m looking for, than someone who possesses the precise business or technical aptitude I need but who I suspect might not have a positive attitude, might be reluctant to give 100 percent when needed, or who can’t work well with others.

I’ve learned (a few times the hard way) that the most important pieces of information to consider in making a successful hiring decision go beyond simply matching an applicant’s skills with a job’s requirements. Unfortunately, there seems to be number of Wisconsin companies that do not follow this simple rule.

In the last few years, more and more human resource (HR) departments in the state are using online applicant systems as a way of screening (and eliminating) prospective IT job seekers. It is concerning that so many HR departments have reduced the complexity and nuances of the hiring process to a series of checkboxes, pull down menus, and less that 100 character descriptions. Basically, just the facts!

By using an on-line applicant systems (many of which seem intentionally designed to frustrate a potential job seeker), a company’s HR department, or often a vendor hired to perform this function, can review hundreds or even thousands of resumes electronically without any human interaction whatsoever between company and job seeker.

Although these systems will often find the exact match of job requirements and applicant skills, I know that many times companies are missing some quality hires. As companies seek to rationalize the hiring process down to a computer algorithm, they risk missing the subjective and hard to quantify traits an applicant might bring to the job – traits that would turn an ideal candidate into a successful and long-term hire.

Attitudes and personality cannot be captured with the click of a mouse. A perceptive and trained HR professional, in partnership with an experienced hiring manager, can tell an awful lot about a person by reviewing a resume and then talking to the candidate on the phone for a few minutes.

Many companies now relegate this sophisticated work to a vendor or very junior HR staff member who does little more than match requirements to skills off a checklist. Either the person has the skills we want or they do not is the rule these days. How many great candidates do you suppose never get beyond the online job applicant system or the junior HR clerk?

A good friend of mine was recently let go after eleven years as a senior systems engineer with a large Northeast Wisconsin company due to a downturn in the company’s business. Jean (not her real name) has worked successfully in IT for over 20 years.

She is exceptionally skilled in business analysis, software design and construction, and system testing. She is an expert in legacy systems development – a skill still in demand at many large Wisconsin companies. She is friendly, easy to work with, great in a crisis, and her clients respect her. She never gives less than her best in everything she does around the workplace. Oh yeah, she also makes great chocolate and oatmeal cookies!

For the last couple of months, Jean has spent hours filling out online job application screens for various Northeast Wisconsin employers – all of whom refuse to accept mailed resumes or even take her phone calls.

Although she is extremely qualified for all of the positions to which she has applied, Jean’s real value to a company is her attitude, maturity, and professionalism. Things that any company should value in an employee.

But how can an employer truly assess Jean’s worth as a potential employee when the firm’s HR applicant process won’t look past the limited objective data she is able to key into a few web pages?

With many critical IT positions going unfilled across the state, it would seem to make more sense to take a closer look at people like Jean and try to hire the attitude as well as the aptitude.