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The master plan

The master plan

The CIO of NASA contractor United Space Alliance shares her strategies for managing a 400-person department and developing a workforce of the future.

Katherine (Kathy) Tamer likes to have a master staffing plan to assist her with hiring decisions. As vice president and CIO of NASA contractor United Space Alliance (USA), Tamer leads a 400-person IT organisation, so it's no wonder she needs a master plan to guide all that staffing. Her master plan identifies all the technical and professional skills her IT organisation collectively needs to carry out its mission, which is to provide IT support for space shuttle operations. In this Q&A, she shares her hiring strategy and process, and she discusses the effort she and her staff put into developing a workforce of the future.

Jane Howze: What do you base your hiring decisions on?

Kathy Tamer: When I am hiring management, I look for people who can enable a team to be successful. Team dynamics are critical. There are some folks whom I could hire who might be able to do a job, but who would be totally out of sync with the dynamics of the team. I have a team today that is managing multiple sites, and they are doing a great job working together. They cover each other's backs, and if they hear something that could impact the others, they make sure they know about it as a team. Hiring is a piece of the team-building puzzle.

I also look for people who think at a level appropriate for the position I'm filling. If I'm hiring a director, I want them to think at the director level. If I'm hiring someone at the senior manager level, I want them to think at that level. Thinking like an employee on the floor and not understanding what the management issues are tells me a candidate is not ready for a management job.

Do you have a hiring strategy?

If you have the luxury of starting from scratch and you have a master plan for your organisation, you'll know what kind of skills you need for the team as a whole even if you don't know what skills each individual on the team has to have. You have to have that [master plan] before you hire anyone. If I don't have the right plan for what I need, it won't matter who I hire because I won't get the right person. You have to have a plan, you have to understand what you need, and then you have to hire the right person.

What's your hiring process?

Basically, I define the requirements for the job and I post the position. Our human resources department has set up management hiring so that anybody applying for a management position must be interviewed and selected by a panel of three people. I typically select for my panel internal customers [for] whom the candidate will provide key services, or who will work in the same location as the candidate. Last year, when one of my direct reports retired and I needed to hire a replacement, I had two of my key customers-the vice president for safety, quality and mission assurance and the deputy program manager for ground operations out of Florida-as members of my three-person hiring team. Sometimes a human resources person sits on the team. I meet with my selection panel, and we discuss interview questions. When we conduct interviews, we have a set number of questions which we rotate through. The interview is followed by a free-form discussion. We typically set aside two hours for the interview and discussion. Then we make our decision. The hiring manager gets a veto vote, but typically the three people on the panel make the selection.

Have you ever had a case where you really liked somebody you interviewed but your team didn't? What was the outcome?

I had a situation where I wanted to hire someone from outside, and my team decided to pick an internal candidate. I had to trust the process and the person who had to make the decision. The internal candidate turned out to be a good hire.

I won't tell my staff explicitly not to hire someone. I'll say, "I think you are going to be challenged in this area," or, "I think you need to be careful about this." In the end, it is their decision, not mine. They are the ones who have to deal with the person hired on a day-to-day basis. They are the ones who are responsible for making work happen, and I trust their judgment. Plus, if you are always making safe decisions you going to miss opportunities.

Do you hire a lot of internal candidates?

We do a lot of internal interviews. I've had a couple of instances where the most qualified person was an internal candidate, but he or she wasn't selected because they assumed we knew their background since we knew them outside the interview. My advice to internal candidates is don't assume anything. When you are asked questions in an interview, answer them as if you were meeting the panel for the first time.

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

The biggest mistake I made was not going with my gut. As a result, I got someone who looked excellent on paper, who had the skills and experience and could do the job but not take it to the next level. The person maintained the status quo. You learn over time that your instincts don't tell you exactly what the right answer is, but they raise a flag that causes you to do further exploration.

How does your team hire for entry-level positions? Do you do any college recruiting?

As a senior member of the management team, I can say that we have taken a lot of time to look at how we develop a workforce of the future. It involves getting kids interested in science and math. There are a number of activities that we are doing, including science fairs, robotic competitions and mentoring students in local elementary and high schools, to really encourage students to think about math, science and engineering careers.

We partner with an organisation called GenesysWorks, a non-profit in Houston that works with high school students from economically disadvantaged environments. GenesysWorks' goal is to give those students skills so that when they get out of high school they'll be beyond working at McDonald's and can start a career. We have been working with the GenesysWorks program for about five years. Their students do a number of different activities including installing new machines and moving equipment. We have had 29 GenesysWorks students over the last five years. Of the 29, 28 have gone to college. These are kids who never would have gone to college, who are the first in their family to attend. They don't even realize that college is within reach. I spend a lot time doing networking and supporting these kids. There are a number of companies in Houston that are supporting this program.

Also, a couple of years ago we totally renovated our co-op program. We bring co-ops in every semester. When they graduate we bring them on board. I usually average about five to nine co-ops a semester. About halfway through their term here and at the end of their term, I have them brief me and my management team on who they are, what they do, what they do for fun, what their career goals are and what they are doing in their co-op shop. At the end of the term, they come back and they brief us on what they accomplished, what they learned, what we can do differently and where they are going next. Once they graduate, we hopefully hire them and start to grow them through the normal employee development path. We are trying to build the information technology organisation from the bottom up and ultimately grow our new employees. This approach is producing good results. We have a really good percentage of hiring the co-ops, and frankly it is tough to go out and find folks because technology changes so fast. This way you grow them from within and augment them with consultants.

What should candidates wear to an interview?

Going to an interview, you need to be clean and presentable. A long time ago someone showed up and I really wished he had taken a shower and cleaned his boots when he was out in the field. If you don't know what to wear, dress professionally. Our environment is on the low end of business casual. Many of the executives with whom I work on a daily basis wear Dockers and a golf shirt.

Do you have any pet peeves during an interview?

Not being on time and not being clean.

What's the strangest interview you've ever done?

I once had one guy come in for an interview who had obviously read the requirements for the job and was qualified on paper. He made it through the selection criteria, so we had to interview him. Every time we asked him a question, he had 40 pieces of paper in front of him and he would shuffle through the papers as if he had all the answers on these pages, then he would talk to us about the answer. This went on for the whole interview. We were in total amazement. He came in with all the latest buzzwords and had obviously read Jack Welch and Jim Collins's Good to Great. Instead of working what he had read into his management philosophy, he read it to us. We kept wondering why this person applied for the job in the first place.

Who was the first person you ever hired?

I made my first hire when I was working for Rockwell Space Operations in 1990. I was 38 years old. I had some hiring training, but not much. I was a brand-new manager, and we were starting a new contract, and I desperately needed to hire an analyst. I had some generic ideas about what I needed-someone who could think and help me-but I didn't know exactly what I was looking for. A friend knew someone who needed a job, had a master's degree in engineering technology and was a good person. I used her résumé to construct a job description. The human resources organisation helped me conduct a search, and I ended up hiring the woman whose résumé I used in the first place.

Have you ever hired somebody based on a letter or résumé they sent directly to you?

No. I have a file folder of résumés, but nine times out of 10 the people that you looked at six months are no longer available. When I am hiring people for my team, it rarely works out that the timing of when I receive a résumé matches the time the position is open.

What advice can you offer candidates about their résumés?

A résumé should be no more than two pages. The real challenge is making it industry independent or job independent. Sometimes I read résumés with lots of acronyms and I don't what they [mean], or the candidate writes in a language that is very specific to a particular job or company. In either case, the résumé doesn't give me a good feel for how the person's experience applies to my position. A résumé needs to transcend the company that a candidate is working for. It is one thing to tell me what you did, and it is another thing for your résumé to catch my eye because of what you are capable of doing. I want to see a résumé that makes me say, "I bet that person is ready to go to the next level."

If somebody doesn't get a position and they write you a thank-you note, do you ever decide to keep their résumé in the event something in the future comes up?

Writing thank-you notes is a great idea. I usually have made my decision by the time I get the thank-you note, but it is a nice practice. I will remember that person because of the thank-you note.

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

I ask why the candidate wants the job up-front. That typically sets the stage for a whole bunch of additional questions and for a really good interview. A candidate's answer to that question is the elevator speech. They ought to know why they applied for the job. A bad or good answer can kind of set the tone for the whole interview, but a bad answer does not make the interview irrecoverable.

The second question I ask is, What do you bring to the table that makes you think you are the best qualified person for the job?

The third question is, Where do you want your career to go?

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

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