Go to any IT conference or class and you see the attendees chatting with each other about their organization’s hardware, software, and networks. But you almost never hear them talk about their staff. What is surprising about this is that study after study has shown that, of all of IT’s assets, staff is the most important and the number one factor in determining project success. 

Studies of programmers within the same organization have shown that the most productive programmer is often 10 or more times more productive than the least productive programmer. And, because it is rare for the best in an organization to be paid more than twice the worst, they are a bargain. 

Squandering the honeymoon period
Planning for the perfect

The problem is so simple, yet so real. If you want first-rate systems, then you need first-rate staff. Conversely, if your staff isn’t first rate, your systems won’t be either. 

How do you get productive staff? 

Hiring productive people is the best and cheapest way for IT to gain productive staff. Unfortunately, it is also the area where IT does the worst job. Why? The reason is that the system is geared to hire the average, not the exceptional.

Look at the typical IT hiring practice. In most companies, human resources (HR) have taking over hiring functions. Too often HR’s candidate screening is limited to word matching—lining up the words in IT’s staff request with those on a candidate’s resume. (“Oh, you know C++. Too bad, we are looking for a C programmer.”) Lastly, IT salaries, routinely analyzed, plotted, and graphed by HR, are forcefully structured toward the average in the industry. Average salaries acquire average staff, not exceptional staff. This is a case where average is just another word for mediocre

The only way to gauge a candidate’s skills is for the most talented IT staff to spend time with the candidate discussing his or her knowledge, experience, and that je ne sais quoi that sets apart the talented. 

IT’s problem is mirrored in the project team. Many project managers either have no say or do not challenge who is on their team. However, every project manager should want the best staff on his or her team and should be willing to make sure it happens. A little two-step process will help. 

First, do what IT should have done; interview all prospective team members with a special eye for productivity. Gain from IT management the right to accept or reject prospective team members. This is not always easy, it might not even be possible, but it is worth trying.

Second, volunteer to interview potential new hires. The new hires might not help you on a current project but they could prove invaluable in future efforts. At the very least, the project manager learns before anyone else in IT who to try and staff on future projects and who to avoid.

Training is not foreign to the IT industry, which prides itself on the amount of classroom time provided staff—much of it wasted. For many organizations, training is treated as a staff benefit, not a department asset. Courses are selected based on employee interest rather than IT need. Few IT organizations tie training to an overall staffing plan or master project schedule. 

Given the near-universal finding by researchers that staff is the most important IT asset for project success, one would think that developing hiring skills (interviewing, researching backgrounds, assessing need and fit) and assessing and bolstering the skills of existing employees (understanding both the employees’ and the project’s development needs and how to satisfy them) would be at the top of the list. But it is not.

Rather than that SQL or Python course, project managers should sign up for courses on developing hiring skills and what project managers can do to assess and develop team member skills. 

Experience simply can’t be beat.  It is important to place the most experienced staff on the largest, most critical projects. It is equally important to place inexperienced staff where they can learn while doing little damage. How does IT treat project staffing? Like a vending machine comes to mind. Whoever does project staffing looks to see who is available and then pulls the lever on the first programmer in line, with little concern for staff/project fit.

A project manager often has to take what he or she is given, but there are still opportunities to strengthen experience.  Project managers should ensure that the knowledge of the most experienced is passed on to the new generation. Junior staff should be paired off with an experienced team member/mentor. The experienced team member should know that his or her performance is rated, not just on how well they build the system, but how well they developed their mentee.

Every project manager should recognize that when it comes to staff, hardware, and software, staff is by far the most important IT asset and their biggest avenue for success.

This article is excerpted from Tillmann’s book ‘Project Management Scholia: Recognizing and Avoiding Project Management’s Biggest Mistakes‘ (Stockbridge Press, 2019).