The Hiring Manager Interviews: Harvard Business School's CIO

The Hiring Manager Interviews: Harvard Business School's CIO

If you're interested in learning how a hiring process can create a stronger IT department, and if you need effective techniques for assessing a candidate's cultural fit, you must read this interview with Harvard Business School CIO Stephen Laster

When Stephen Laster is looking to hire someone into his IT department at the Harvard Business School (HBS), a candidate's technical skill is the last requirement on the CIO's mind. Foremost is whether a candidate will create another strong link in his 100-plus person team. Building a cohesive IT staff is paramount for Laster, who has served as Harvard Business School's CIO since October 2006. His IT department is responsible for developing and supporting an IT infrastructure used by 1,900 MBA and doctoral students, 1,300 faculty and staff and more than 9000 participants in HBS's executive education program. To meet the needs of these demanding stakeholders, everyone in the IT department has to get along with one another. They also need to cultivate strong relationships with the end users, especially the ones on campus.

Stephen Laster's hiring process may seem onerous to some, but it helps him get exactly the right people and it helps build trust and respect between him and his IT department

But finding friendly IT professionals who are also intellectually curious, good problem-solvers and who can wear different hats isn't easy, especially in the Boston area, where there's so much competition for talent. To that end, Laster puts a tremendous amount of effort into determining whether a candidate is right for his organization. His hiring process is lengthy. He spends time with candidates outside of his office. He involves many stakeholders in his hiring process. And IT staffers play active roles in job interviews with candidates. They also have a strong say in whom Laster hires. His process, which he further describes in this Q&A, may seem onerous to some, but it helps him get exactly the right people and it helps build trust and respect between him and his IT department.

All of Laster's techniques and hard work on the hiring front pay off. Today, he oversees a staff that he truly appreciates. Of his IT department, he says, "I would just like to clone them all forever. They are truly nice, smart, skilled, adaptable folks."

Amanda Brady: What are your IT staffing needs and challenges?

Stephen Laster: We have a large catalogue of Java-based applications running the school in a highly customized fashion. This lets us meet the unique needs of the business school. The challenge is that we have to commit to having a very sophisticated development staff to keep pace with all of those custom-made applications. We need very adaptable, engaged engineers who can work both as applications developers as well as system integrators and system extenders. We are a midsize shop and people have to wear many hats, so being adaptable is key.

The same holds true in our support organization, which is fairly large. We're about 35 or so folks in support, and we pride ourselves on really giving a high level of support. As IT is everywhere on campus, one could easily outstrip one's support capability if you don't get creative in terms of how you deliver support.

Boston is a really competitive market. I think we offer a competitive compensation package, and one advantage we have is that we are never going to go out of business. We also have the advantage that we are doing a lot of creative work with new technology. We've been fortunate that we have been able to fill our open positions, but in some cases it takes three, four or five months to find the right candidate.

What criteria do you use to hire IT staff?

The first thing is, are you nice? The reason that's important is because there are very smart people who are not pleasant to work with. We don't have room for those people on our team. We want MVP's, not all-stars. We want people who can bring the team together.

The second criteria is, are you smart? Do you have a thirst for learning? Do you have an ability to learn? Are you adaptable? Are you willing to go out of your comfort zone and embrace something new?

Finally, Are you skilled for the job you are interviewing for? The reason that's last is because if you are smart, have a thirst for learning and you're adaptable, but you don't have all the skills I'm looking for, I still might hire you because you'll pick them up quickly.

What does a candidate need to do to impress you?

Doing background research is a really good idea. I was interviewing someone at HBS about a year ago, and it was evident that the person had done a lot of research on the school and a lot of research on IT at the school. They were interviewing to work directly for me, so they had done a lot of research on me, as well. What did that show?

  1. That the candidate really cared about the job.
  2. That he was inquisitive.
  3. That he realized it was important to understand HBS so that he could maximize the interview time for himself and for me.
  4. That he had really good questions.

He asked, What was the strategy? What was I looking for in the role? How would I measure success? Those kinds of things. I was pleasantly surprised — almost blown away. I thought, "Here's someone who really gets it. How do I clone him?"

Next: Laster explains how he determines cultural fit.

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