Hiring strategies for small businesses

Should an SMB employ a system administrator or an IT manager? Is hiring on a contract basis a better long term strategy?
Written by Kumar Bhaya, Contributor
There will come a time when a small business finds that it needs an IT expert to help plan and support the firm's technology systems. Do you hire a permanent or contract staff? What qualifications and qualities should this person possess?

Most start-ups or small businesses begin with basic e-mail and word processing applications. As the company grows and hires more staff and buys more computers, information will need to be shared and that may often be done by passing a floppy around.

However, this is neither the best nor the most convenient way to do it, and as time progresses and the company continues to expand, more demands will be put on IT. For example, the company may purchase an accounting package to help track the invoices and billings, and it will also need computers with Internet access. Often the business owner may get a friend, who knows about computers, to help connect the systems into a network.

If a virus hits and the computers get infected, productivity that day grinds to a halt. When that happens, the SMB owner may not have the time or expertise to fix it. Now's the time to hire a system administrator.

An SMB may also have different computers running different software. And if a virus hits and the computers get infected, productivity that day grinds to a halt. When that happens, the SMB owner may not have the time or expertise to fix it. So now's the time to hire a system administrator.

The system administrator needs to have a basic understanding of networking, PC setup and installation, as well as antivirus software. As the company expands they will need to be able to set up servers and manage group Internet access. They will also need to help the other employees with computer problems and provide user support for desktop and other applications. Perhaps they will also need to do some programming in order to develop application enhancements such as macros for Excel and Access database, and create basic Web pages for a simple Web site.

The company will also need to make sure that they always have access to a system administrator. If the company plans to expand, then management can hire a permanent administrator who can grow with the company. By sending them on training programs they will learn how to manage a growing and more complex IT infrastructure. If the company does not foresee any major changes to the business operations and structure, then it may be difficult to keep a permanent administrator interested. In this case, it may be wiser to hire an administrator on a contract basis to give the firm more flexibility to hire according to the business needs.

Time to hire an IT manager
A system administrator can help keep all the computers and network running, but there will come a time in a company's growth when the business owners realizes that IT can be used to drive further improvements in the firm's operations. The business head will therefore need the help of an IT expert or IT manager to help define the technology strategy. The IT manager will have a lot more experience than a system administrator, and he or she will be able to see how technology can streamline processes and keep costs low.

Further down the road, the firm may have different applications for each business activity. For example, accounting systems, sales order managements, inventory control and payroll systems. This may be a good time to consider integrating existing desktop and other applications, and upgrading to an IT environment that will be more effective for users to share information. Applications can also be linked to a mail server to improve communications and information exchange.

But to do this, there will be new manpower requirements. Here are a couple of options. The firm can either hire someone who has experience in managing a mid-size ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) system, or hire an IT manager from a company in the same field. The IT manager will be expected to run the daily operations smoothly and plan for the expansion of the IT infrastructure. This person will be expected to have knowledge of networking and security issues, such as firewalls to protect data, and experience in linking separate offices together, be they in the same building or in a different geography.

The firm may also need to develop its own applications for specific requirements. The IT manager will be expected to lead a team of software programmers after gathering user requirements, understanding the nature of business and enhancements required for the existing applications. The manager will provide the programmers with all the information such as the screen design details, workflow and project deadlines, and test the new application from time to time by working closely with the CEO and the other division managers. This IT manager need not be an expert in programming languages but he or she should have a good understanding of programming and be able to hire and lead the team.

The business head needs to share the vision of the company with the IT manager and provide skills upgrading training according to the requirements of the business. The IT manager should also focus on the appropriate technologies that are needed for the future requirements of the company.

An SMB's IT infrastructure is typically not extensively planned out at the beginning. But as the company grows, it will likely become more dependant on the IT systems and that is when the firm will need to hire a system administrator to keep the systems running. There will also come a time when the firm finds that processes can be made a lot more efficient with integrated IT solutions and hiring an IT Manager will be a pivotal point in the expansion of the company.

Kumar Bhaya is a senior consulting manager at Kelly IT Resources which provides technology recruiting services including executive search, executive contracting and outsourcing, as well as permanent and contract IT staffing.

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