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Running a 'blue collar' IT department

Running a 'blue collar' IT department

US Airways CIO Joe Beery wants versatile employees who aren't afraid to roll up their sleeves and who aren't fazed by the airline industry's demands.

Joe Beery has big plans for 2008, having spent the past 25 months integrating US Airways and America West Airlines as the combined company's senior vice president and CIO. (The two carriers announced merger plans in 2005.) With the integration in his rearview mirror, Beery is now ready to implement new systems, modernize old systems and work on customer service initiatives. "It's a very exciting year for us," he says. "We're growing. Our IT group has more than doubled in size, and we still have a major push to do a lot of hiring right now."

Specifically, he plans to hire approximately 150 people this year. So it's a good thing he knows exactly what he wants in an IT professional, whether a help desk employee or a managing director. The self-proclaimed "blue collar CIO" seeks candidates who aren't afraid to get their hands dirty, are versatile and capable of learning new skills, and aren't fazed by a dynamic, high-profile industry.

"The airline industry is always in the media," he says. "If our computers are not working, then nothing works. You can't launch airplanes, take reservations or service customers. Combine that with an industry where you're fighting every day with competitors, the weather, etc., and it's a tough business to work in."

In this Q&A, Beery explains how partnering with local staffing firms helped him get through the merger and how he picks candidates who can take the heat of a jet engine. He discusses the importance of developing professional relationships with the college graduates he hires to encourage their loyalty. And he shares his biggest hiring mistake: Letting a staffing challenge override his gut in a hiring decision.

When you're integrating two companies, do you hire during that time, or do you wait to do your hiring until everything is done?

Let me give you a little background. US Airways, in the 1997-1998 time frame, outsourced 100 percent of its IT group to Sabre and ultimately those employees were merged into EDS. [Editor's note: EDS has provided IT services to Sabre since 2001.] When we embarked on the merger, all of the IT personnel on the US Airways side were EDS employees. America West, by contrast, had a very small contract with EDS. Most of its IT resources were in-house. When we put the two IT organizations together, I really only had the America West team because all of the other personnel were EDS employees. Our strategy moving forward was to insource a lot of the systems and people who supported the old US Airways system. Also, in many cases, we grew the America West systems, which is interesting because typically in a merger, you would inherit the big airline's systems, not the little airline's. The logic behind that decision was that the America West systems were lightweight systems. We owned a lot of the intellectual property for those systems, and we managed them very economically. After the two IT groups and systems were combined, we saved about $100 million. The combined IT organization runs about $100 million cheaper than the two organizations did on their own.

In the process of merging the two IT departments and their systems, I embarked on a high-volume, aggressive hiring plan. Because I was bringing so much work in-house, I had to find and hire a lot of people at every level of the IT organization very quickly. We went from a little over 110 professionals on the America West side to well over 350 today. Going forward in 2008, I still have approximately 150 people to hire. We have to move the systems forward to be competitive with the other airlines.

What types of positions are you currently looking to fill?

We're hiring across the whole range of skill sets in IT. We're hiring programmers, business analysts and database administrators up to directors, managing directors and a vice president. All of my leadership positions, except for this one particular vice president and one of our directors in Philadelphia, have been filled.

When do you get involved in interviewing candidates?

I get involved in all of the interviews for the leadership team. That could extend from the manager level all the way up to somebody who sits on my staff. Prior to the merger, if we had a very important technical lead position, I would be involved in that as well, but now, due to the size of the company, I can no longer interview for all of the technical lead positions.

What is the interview process like for somebody at the vice president level?

We don't have a lot of VP jobs, so the vice president position I'm currently hiring for is unique. For that job, I put the candidates through a lot of interviews. They interview with the president, chief executive officer, three to five of my peers as well as the director that they will be reporting to and their peers. When we bring somebody in at the manager level, they also interview with a good number of people. But since we hire a lot of managers after they've worked with us on a contract basis through a staffing firm, we've already had three or four months to get to know them.

Do you use testing or external assessments at the vice president level?

Not at the leadership level, but we do at the programmer level. We test people for specific technical skills, not personality testing.

Do you interview for positions outside of the IT group, and do other functional executives interview candidates you're considering for your department?

Yes. I'm on the interview cycle for some of my peers. If there is someone who is hiring for a position that will interact with my group, I'll be part of that process. Similarly, when I hire a senior person who's going to support a business group, I include that business group in my hiring process.

What do you look for in a candidate?

The most important component of our hiring is cultural fit. The issue you're most concerned about is whether the candidate can get along with the rest of the team. I'm a firm believer that if you find somebody who fits well with how you do business, with your culture or operating philosophy, they can do anything. It's like recruiting an athlete. A good, strong athlete can play any position. You hire a good athlete and you can teach them anything they need to know.

Because the airline business is so dynamic, at any given point in time I may have to ask somebody to focus on something other than what I originally hired that person to do. There have been multiple times in my career here that I've had to sit down with an individual and say, "I love what you're doing and you're doing a great job, but I need you to do something very different for us." And they do it and they're successful at it. That's the characteristic that I look for the most. Versatility is important--somebody who can do multiple things.

How would you describe your IT organization's culture?

Every time somebody asks me that question, I say "We're blue collar." I consider myself a blue collar chief information officer. We have a culture where anyone at any level of the organization is able, ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to take care of customers and move airplanes. I've been known during major system upgrades to be in the data center helping people pull cable or whatever, and that's one of the attributes I look for in candidates. I believe that is characteristic of airlines in general. It's a "roll up your sleeves and get it done" environment.

Can someone move from a company with a very distinct operating philosophy to a company with a very different operating philosophy?

I think you can. I think a lot of people leave good jobs because they don't get along with the operating philosophy and they want a change. For example, if you work for a large company with a tremendous amount of bureaucracy required to approve or manage projects, you may want to go to a smaller, more entrepreneurial company if you get tired of dealing with your existing bureaucracy, even if you helped put that bureaucracy in place.

Can you take someone who likes a Fortune 10 culture, where everything is done for them, and put them in a roll-up-your-sleeves environment?

If somebody likes that type of culture and that's what they've grown up with, that's hard to change. They have to want to change and do something different [for such a move to be successful]. But I actually think it's harder the other way around--when you bring in somebody who's used to small, entrepreneurial companies and tell them they have to follow tighter processes. Some people don't want to be bound by bureaucracy. I've found that to be a hard mindset to change. I have a really hard time with PhDs adjusting to the business conditions that exist in the airline industry. Maybe it's because of the amount of academics that they've gone through: They struggle with not enough bureaucracy or the loosely defined positions and responsibilities that exist in this business.

How did you learn how to hire? Did you receive training?

Much of the basis for my interviewing techniques and how my staff and I bring in and retain people comes from my days at Motorola. Motorola spent a lot of time educating people on behavioral interviewing and how to hire good people.

What is the biggest hiring mistake you've made, and what did you learn from it?

On one occasion during the US Air-America West merger, I was interviewing someone and my gut instinct told me that this person was more concerned about their title than the actual job. The candidate asked a lot of questions about what the title of the position was, where it fit in the organization chart, the difference between director and managing director, and the scope of the budget responsibilities, which raised a red flag in my mind. Intuitively, I knew that this person would be more of a director type who would tell people what to do but who might not get engaged enough in a given problem. Sure enough, I was in a tight crunch as a result of the merger and brought this individual on board. Soon after he was hired, I saw a lot of, "That's not my job. I'll call somebody else and follow up on that" attitude. Ultimately, I had to sever the relationship with him because his mentality didn't work well with our culture.

You'll find that you make hiring decisions like that to get you through a crunch, but you pay a price for them: You have to do it all over again at a later date. One thing we learned through this merger that's really helped us is to establish a couple of very strong relationships with local staffing firms. They help us with recruiting because we have a high volume. We typically bring someone in as a contractor with a specific term. During that time, the individual can get up to speed on the job, culture and general flow of business. It gives us the opportunity to get to know them as well. If things work out, we'll hire them. That's worked out really well for us, and we've actually started recruiting people into the management ranks that way as well.

What do you look for in a résumé?

A lot of IT people, myself included, need professional help when it comes to writing. When I get a résumé, I consider anything more than two pages too long. I look for a summary of experience from the major corporations [the individual has worked for]. I look for keywords that indicate how well a person is going to fit in my organization, that they're willing to get in the trenches and "dig the ditch" with everybody else. I look for somebody to explain to me relatively quickly what kind of person he or she is and be honest about it. If someone wants to be a strategic thinker and wants to be involved in product development with a leading-edge IT company, they need to express that on their résumé and in the interview so we don't waste each other's time. If you are operationally oriented, flexible, have multiple skill sets and are capable of learning, you're singing right to my soft spot.

So you like to see a summary at the beginning with adjectives that reflect a flexible, roll-up-your-sleeves manager rather than budget and staff numbers that you can't necessarily put in context?

Definitely. Also, certifications do not make sense to my staff, so although they are good to have, list them at the end of the résumé, rather than the beginning.

What advice would you give to someone who's coming in to interview with you?

One of the most important things is for the person to understand this business after talking to me. If someone has already collected data and has some knowledge of what it's like to be in the airline industry, that makes the interview go much faster and more smoothly and tells me that the person has done their homework. Also, it's always a positive when somebody has done some research on the IT group itself.

What are your pet peeves?

One of my pet peeves is when the person I'm interviewing asks me what it's like to work in the airline industry. That's actually not a bad question, but it would be better phrased as, "I understand the airline industry is hard for these reasons; tell me how you managed through those things." It's much better when a candidate does some homework so I don't have to spend the entire interview teaching them about airplanes.

Do you have any funny interview stories?

I was interviewing somebody for a managing director position in our corporate systems group. She didn't have any airline experience, but she had some other related experience. We flew her in and had six interviews set up for her. It wasn't a rigorous schedule. She was on the West Coast and didn't have to get up early in the morning. The interview with me in the morning went well. She had two more interviews in the morning, then somebody took her to lunch, then she had two interviews in the afternoon. It was not that late in the afternoon when we finished up, and I was doing a debriefing with her in my office, which I'll never forget: She leaned back in her chair and said, "Man, this has been a really long day. This is hard work, and I think I need a nap. I hope I can sleep on my way home." I thought to myself, "I think you're going to have lots of time to nap. As a matter of fact, you can start right now." I was hoping that within a couple of minutes she would chuckle and say that she was kidding, but she was very serious. That was one of those situations when I realized she didn't understand what we did for a living.

What should candidates wear to interviews?

We're business casual here. For the most part, you should know going into an interview whether you should wear a tie or jacket and tie. It's not required for me. If someone were to come in business casual, it wouldn't make a difference to me because I feel as long as they're well dressed and put forth the effort, that's fine. A candidate should obviously present himself in the best light that he can and come well prepared. One question that I would tell people to ask themselves is, "What would you want to see if you were interviewing someone?" Nine times out of ten, what they would expect would be what I'd expect.

Do you receive "cold call" résumés via email or mail, or do people try to get to you through your assistant? Does that ever work?

I do get résumés and I forward them to our recruiting group, which keeps a record of who sends résumés. I did have a résumé come to me out of the blue from somebody here in Phoenix. I read the résumé and was impressed enough to actually bring the person in, so sending a résumé to me cold does work occasionally. I don't get too many people who cold call or who try to get to me through my assistant. The best way to get to me is through a referral. I've received letters from recruiters on behalf of their candidates that say, "I'm not looking for job. I'm looking to network with people like you in your area." I answered a couple of those letters and then realized that this was a recruiter's creative way of trying to get a job interview for one of his candidates. That normally doesn't work for me.

When you hire someone at the director level, do you require unanimity from your staff or will you ever override them if you feel really strongly? How do you make that decision?

Hiring is never going to be a democracy. However, I don't remember a time when we've hired somebody that the staff wasn't close to a 100 percent vote on. Sometimes it isn't as easy as someone saying that they like one person over another. I don't think it's ever come down to that. Everybody is different. No two people have the exact same experience. You compare strengths and weaknesses and ultimately make a decision that hopefully everybody understands. One of the things that I look for from my staff is a discussion on candidates. We can disagree, but when we walk out of the room, I want everybody to support the final decision.

Is there a particular hire who stands out, one who had a particularly positive impact on you or your career?

I've hired some really good people who are on my staff today, and they've had a lot of positive impact on the company. I had a lot of experience recruiting college graduates when I was at Motorola. Every one of us at the senior level had established long-term relationships with specific universities, and I have a lot of employees that I recruited straight out of college in the mid-'90s that still work for me today. Those have been some of the most productive relationships in my career. I've had several of them who worked at Motorola join me at US Airways. Some have left US Airways and come back. Those relationships that you establish early on can be lifetime professional relationships. When you meet someone, help them through the early days of their career and continue to provide them challenging opportunities, those relationships are the most productive. They may leave you today, but as long as you continue to grow, they'll come back. I've seen several people here today that are people I recruited when I was a young manager at Motorola.

Looking back on your 25 years of experience hiring people, do you think hiring is instinctive or is it a combination of instinct and training?

It gets blurry because after a while your training becomes your instinct. You do it enough and you recognize you've integrated that behavioral training into the way you think. It's sometimes hard to separate. If I broke it down, I'd probably say it's 50/50, but it doesn't feel like that. After you do this long enough, it becomes second nature. I look more for the fit--the good athlete model. Those kind of things come from both knowing how to interview someone from a behavioral perspective and an instinct.

What three interview questions do you always ask, and why?

1. Why are you here and why do you want to work here? This is one of my favorites because what I look for is not so much how they answer the question, but did they think about it and rehearse it before the interview? I watch how they react. If that question catches them off guard, I have to wonder why would they have come this far if they didn't expect that question.

2. What do you know about the industry? People who have done their research and go into the interview process with their eyes wide open will have answers to this question. When they've done that, I know that they know what they're getting into. This business is not for everyone.

3. What questions do you have for me? If someone doesn't have any questions for me, that's a negative. If they open up their binder and have a list of questions, they're obviously prepared--that is, unless their only question is, How much does the job pay?

As chief information officer of an airline, how often do you fly on business?

That's a great question. Interestingly, I actually flew more when I was with Motorola because every month I had to fly to Austin for a week and Phoenix for a week. Because of where my operation is, I don't fly more than once a month. It's actually a lot more than it used to be because we now have operations in Pittsburgh, Philadelphia, Charlotte and other places. I'm on our product and I work with our product a lot.

Jane Howze is managing director and founder of The Alexander Group, an executive search firm based in Houston, Texas.

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