“The biggest challenge we all face right now is hiring.”
How do you hire the technical people you need to grow your MSP when there seem to be so few available and competition is so fierce? Hear from MSP Travis Grundke on:
- The must-have skill you need as a business owner to grow your team
- How to quickly weed out poor fit candidates
- Why to be brutally honest in your job description
- The top perk candidates are looking for outside of salary
- How your hiring process needs to change for a post-COVID market
Who’s on this episode
Host: Jennifer Tribe
Guest: Travis Grundke, EVP Operations, Ashton Solutions
Ashton Solutions is a team of consultants who improve business operations through technology. Travis Grundke has been with Ashton Solutions for 20 years and is the EVP of operations, including team development, service delivery, and sales support. Travis serves on the board of directors of The Hiram House and lives in Cleveland, Ohio.
Jennifer: I’m Jennifer Tribe and this is Workflow, the podcast about growing a happier, healthier MSP. More profit, less stress.
Today on the show, we’re talking about how to hire techs and engineers for your MSP in what is an extremely hot job market. I could throw a bunch of stats at you on the kind of staffing shortages the tech industry is facing right now because I don’t think I need to do that because you’re likely dealing with it first-hand.
You might be trying to expand your team and grow your business, maybe hiring your very first tech, maybe it’s your 5th hire. You might be needing to replace engineers that you’ve lost to other companies so there’s a question of re-evaluating what you can offer to stay competitive. But the question always comes down to, how do you find the people you need for your MSP business when there seem to be so few of them around.
My guest today has some fantastic real-world tips to help you answer that question. Travis Grundke is the EVP of Operations at Ashton Solutions, an MSP based in Cleveland, Ohio.
Travis has helped grow Ashton from three people to 23 people in the last 20 years, and he led a recent hiring push that forced him to shift his recruitment strategies for a post-COVID world.
We talk about how hiring is different now than before the pandemic, what candidates are really looking for in this market, how to attract top candidates even if you can’t offer top dollar, and the critical importance of mentoring as part of your hiring strategy.
“We have to kiss a lot of frogs before we get to the right people.”
Travis: The biggest challenge we all face right now is hiring. I could easily fill in another 2 to 3 folks on the team, but we tend to hire slowly and make sure that we’ve got a good core values fit when we hire. That means we have to kiss a lot of frogs before we get to the right people.
If you hop in the Wayback Machine to prior to February, March of 2020, it was actually very, very simple and straightforward. We would post on Indeed.com usually, and we’d put our job listing up there. And one of the things that we do with our job listing, which I think is important to understand, is that we make it sound like it’s the most terrible, horrible, no good job that somebody would want. You’re going to hit the ground running. In the morning you might be handling a couple of end user support requests, and then you might end up getting dispatched out to take care of a cable modem that died at an office. It’s a fast paced kind of environment. That is true of the business.
Jennifer: Travis told me that part of the reason he’s so blunt and honest about what the work entails is because he’s increasingly encountering candidates who have been burned by recruiters misrepresenting jobs.
Travis: One of the questions I always ask, and this is a common, obvious one is why are you looking to make a change? And in several instances, I had candidates tell me that they were looking to make a change because they landed in a position through a placement or recruitment firm. And the job did not turn out like they had been told it would turn out. So in one case, I had a candidate who was placed into this role and told that your job is going to be as a systems administrator for this whole IT infrastructure. And when he got there, they said, oh no, no, you’re helpdesk support. We want you working with the end users. And he said, Well, I was told that I would be doing system administration and managing the infrastructure. And they said, no, no, that’s not what you’re going to be doing.
And another situation. Somebody was brought in and told that they would be working on basically security and compliance type work and ended up doing desktop deployments. Got there and was kind of looking around like, hey, this isn’t what I signed up for. Talked to the IT administrator at the company and the IT admin found out that the recruiter had told the IT admin one thing and had told the candidate something totally different.
Jennifer: So a detailed and honest description of the work to be done in the role you’re looking to hire for is a great way to start off well with candidates. The next step was an automated filtering mechanism.
“I felt like I was a one-man call operation”
Travis: So what we would do is we’d post this job listing and then it would flow back to our resume board, which would kick out an automated response, and then it would send them to a link to an online assessment that we used. And the assessment would just tell us a little bit about how they solve problems and how they think about things. An online tool that we use called Hire Select. It does a great job of helping us weed people out right out of the gate.
One of the reasons why it weeds people out, Jennifer, is not just the scores that we’re looking for, but you’d be amazed at the number of people that apply and then won’t spend the time to take that initial assessment, which is, of course, your initial weed out in any event. But we could automate this whole process and so we’d get a hundred and some resumes that would come in in a week. And of those 100, maybe 10 people would take the assessment. And that meant that I only had to call ten people that we’re interested.
Well, that worked great up until the pandemic, and now the hiring system has changed entirely. This most recent go round, I spent more time on the phone and actively pursuing candidates outside of the automated systems. It was me working the phones, like I felt like I was a one-man call operation here, reaching out to everybody whose resume looked interesting and whatnot. And I would say that between July and the middle of September, I probably made north of 250 phone calls, 300 phone calls to people. And I would say that of those phone calls and emails, maybe 5% would even bother to respond.
“There’s a disconnect that’s developed in our industry”
Jennifer: Were these people who were actively looking? Where did you find their profiles?
Travis: LinkedIn, Indeed, ZipRecruiter. Any one of those three. Sometimes it was a resume that was sent to us. But more often than not it was me looking through to see that people were open to work or looking to make a change, and me giving them a call to say, Hey, let’s have a conversation. Because really that’s just the entry is, I just want to have a conversation and find out what somebody is doing right now and get an idea of where they’re trying to take their career next. Because most of our staff are long term staff. We have career paths that we’ve built out. So we’re always looking for people that are looking for a runway. They want to grow and they want to build a career.
But one of the things that we definitely saw and it started to slow down in the last six weeks or so, but I’ve definitely seen that a good percentage of the people that I’ve talked to this year are really just looking to ladder up on the salary chain, and sometimes that’s perfectly fine and completely reasonable. Other times it was folks that really didn’t have the experience that would justify the salary they were looking for. And I think that there’s a disconnect that’s developed in our industry between what people think their salary should be versus a reality of what they have in terms of their experience.
I don’t want you to think that I’m pooh poohing that notion. I mean, there are people out there that are probably worth that, but they’ve got to have experience. So one of the ways that we try to get around this from the jump is it’s kind of like in sales. We try to get that out of the way right up front and set the expectations. So in their job listing it says, hey, here’s the salary range when you start with us. If you’re not happy with that, this may not be the place for you.
But more importantly, I think the way that we’ve gotten around this the best is by simply trying to attract people that have a growth mindset, that have an entrepreneurial mindset and who are hungry for growth. When you find folks that have that mentality, it is very easy to bring them in at a reasonable salary and then show them the path that that they can grow on and the pace at which they can grow.
“I really want to understand, how do they think?”
Jennifer: How do you look for that mindset? How do you filter for that?
Travis: You have to ask a lot of questions and the thing that I think a lot of folks in IT forget is that you can teach the technology, you can’t teach the personality. And it’s the hiring for attitude versus aptitude type thing. So when I’m interviewing and I’m talking to people, I look for their their past experiences and I look for things that they have done, initiatives that they’ve taken on their own.
Travis: We try to find folks that have gone out and done some interesting things. And that sometimes is, hey, I was interested in cybersecurity so I took this online course. Or it might be completely unrelated. We have a lot of engineers who love cars. And so some of our best engineers are engineers who’ve told me about how they bought an old car, tore it down, rebuilt it in the garage. Basically what you’re looking for is someone who wants to take something apart, understand the components, and then put it back together.
The technical stuff, listen, I can have a call or I can have a meeting with somebody, Jennifer, and very simply say, tell me what DNS is, how does DNS work? Tell me how email routes from your Gmail account to my Microsoft 365 account. And I can understand if they understand the technical stuff that way. But a lot of that’s book knowledge.
I really want to understand how do they think? How do they interact with other people? Do they have the ability to to think more like an attorney or a doctor? Do they have a consultative mindset? Are they able to have a conversation with a client who tells them, hey, I need three mailboxes for my receptionists. And to then turn that around and say, hey, Jennifer, help me understand why you need those three mailboxes. What are we trying to accomplish here? I’m looking for that kind of thought process with our prospective employees.
Jennifer: Hiring for an entrepreneurial mindset vs specific technical skills, that’s got to mean a longer ramp time for that employee.
Travis: You’re correct, Jennifer, that does tend to make for a longer ramp time. And we have to compensate by developing really good processes and procedures internally. And more importantly, the way that we help these relatively inexperienced new engineers ramp up quickly is by working collaboratively. And I think that’s the key, is that you want to make sure that everyone on the team knows that you’re not a team of one.
It’s a team of 23. And your job as an engineer is to help your colleague figure something out. It requires a lot more time on our part. It requires a lot more dedication on the rest of the engineering team’s part. But I think it builds a stronger team and it helps people grow faster than they otherwise would. But you are correct. It does take longer than if you just hired somebody who is fully baked and fully trained.
“You have a duty of care to that person to mentor and train”
Jennifer: How does this work for a smaller MSP who doesn’t have a team of 23 they can use to buddy and mentor new staff. I mean, you were there when Ashton was much smaller. How did it work then?
Travis: It is hard when you are a smaller MSP. When you’re a two, three, four man or woman operation, it is a much more difficult thing to do for sure. And that’s why in those smaller organizations, I’m going to say something that you’re probably not going to like, and I know that the listeners are probably not going to like. If you are a two, three, four person operation and you are trying to grow the business and you are the business principal in the company, you have to make your peace with whatever God you may or may not believe in that it’s going to require an absolutely immense amount of time and energy on your part to train people up.
You simply cannot expect to throw somebody in and do the job. You can’t expect that your expectations are up here and you bring somebody and say, go do this migration or go install these PCs. Without the structure, without the parameters and without the mentoring, you’re going to be perpetually frustrated and your business will flounder. If you are not interested in spending the time to mentor and build people up then you should make your peace with being a smaller 1 to 2 person operation. And don’t go any bigger because you’re going to frustrate yourself. You’re going to frustrate your clients and you’re going to frustrate your employees.
Business leaders or someone who starts a business and you bring somebody on as an employee who is relatively green, you have a duty of care to that person to mentor and train them. You as the business owner, have a responsibility to those around you to help make them better because it will make you better. You really should be willing to give back. And if you’re not, then you’re doing yourself and others a disservice.
And I say this not to be judgmental. I see this in that it’s almost the concept of know thyself. Know who you are at heart. If you are a really good engineer and you’re running your own MSP, then recognize your strengths and your weaknesses. Your strength is you’re a really good engineer. Your weakness might be you’re not as really good at mentoring or you’re not interested in mentoring.
So build out a team to complement those things that you’re good at and you’re not so good at. And if you’re not good at mentoring, then you need to take a hard look in the mirror and realize then maybe you have to hire somebody who’s fully trained. It’s going to cost you a lot more money, but maybe that’s what you need to hire at that point in your career.
“People want some flexibility in their life”
Jennifer: Let’s go back to the question of salary, the package and perks you need to offer to stay competitive. What else do you find candidates are looking for now?
Travis: The number one ask outside of money purely, the number one ask that I get is opportunity. And I would say that in 75% of the conversations I have, someone says to me, I’m really just looking for an opportunity. I feel like I’m pigeonholed in my current position. I’m not given the opportunity to do these new things. I want to grow. They say these things in the interview, and my job is to find out how much they really want to grow because growth does not occur without a little bit of pain and effort.
If you want to grow in your career, you have to put yourself in somewhat uncomfortable situations in order to learn how to deal with those things and improve. So when people say to me they want opportunity and they want growth, part of my job is to find out, okay, well, what do you want to do in order to achieve that goal?
Now I will tell you that in a lot of the conversations I have, especially with folks who are more established in their career and have years of experience behind them, it really it does boil down to the money. A lot of folks in general are looking for a hybrid work environment. So do you have some work from home opportunities. You know, people want some flexibility in their life.
So if you work for me, Jennifer, and your dog is sick and you need to take your dog to the vet, I don’t think that you should have to take a day’s worth of PTO to go do that. If you’re going to go to the vet for a couple hours, just go. Do what you got to do. You’re an adult. You’re a professional. Just make sure that your work gets done. But go ahead. Take care of it. I think that kind of flexibility is what most people overall are looking for next to the salary. So I think if you had to rank, it would be salary and then flexibility of the work environment. And then after that is the table stakes, which is retirement, health care and that kind of stuff.
The truth is, is that there is no one way to go about the hiring process and recruiting and building a team. I had a conversation with a smaller MSP out in San Francisco a few weeks ago. Ran into him on Reddit and he had posted questions about growing his business. And so I hit him up and I DM’d him and say, If you ever want to chat, I’m more than happy to share my experiences going from a 2 to 3 person operation to 23 people 20 years later and what that journey’s like, because it ain’t easy, it’s a lot of two steps forward, one step back kind of thing.
His biggest problem in San Francisco is he cannot find people in the city because so many people have left San Francisco proper. And so he’s turned to hiring engineers all over the place. He’s got engineers in Toronto, actually. He’s got engineers here in the Midwest. And I think being open to that kind of flexibility is one way to expand your pool.
We’re in Cleveland, Ohio, is our headquarters. Most of our staff work out of the office here. They like coming into the office. We have a flexible work schedule. People can work from home when they want to. But most of the engineers, especially the newbies like being here because it creates a better learning environment. But we’ve got engineers that are in Columbus, in Maine, and in New Hampshire. And it’s worked out great for us. And it’s given us a lot of flexibility in things that we otherwise wouldn’t have had, especially in terms of hiring.
So I think that if folks are looking to expand their pool of candidates, be open to looking outside of your normal range and give people the opportunity to help your business by not necessarily being right there. It works out pretty well.
Jennifer: That was Travis Grundke, EVP Operations for Ashton Solutions.
What did you think of today’s episode? Leave a comment below, let us know with a review for Workflow on Apple Podcasts, or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you do leave a review, take a screenshot of it, email it to me and I’ll send you your choice of a free Workflow or Syncro t-shirt.
And don’t forget to tell your friends about us. Until next time, this is Jennifer Tribe. Thanks for listening.
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