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08:28 AM
David O'Boyle, IJC Partners
David O'Boyle, IJC Partners

The White Whale: Finding Tech Ops Support Engineers

It is almost impossible to find a highly qualified technology operations support engineer. If you are lucky, the ideal candidate will actually find you.

It's the white whale of the recruiting world. We've all reported sightings. We've all spoken to the managers that want them. We all have the specs. The bones of old resumes, along with evolution itself, suggest they're out there.

David O'Boyle, IJC Partners
David O'Boyle, IJC Partners

I speak of the technical operations support engineer.

Rather than ask what they do, the better question to ask is what they don't do. Stuck between help desk and system admins, they carry the burden of responsibility that falls just beyond the scope of either position. On the help desk side this means coming to the rescue of a defeated desktop user. On the admin side, it means being the agent operating under the overseer. You do the dirty work. You get into the guts of the system when Houston says there's a problem.

Oftentimes such a task involves writing ad hoc scripts on clunky code. BASH can't handle it. Efforts with VB are equally futile. Enter Perl and Python: the spinal cords of the support world.

Proficiency in either Perl and Python (or both) creates the Maginot Line between help desk and technical operations. The second you write a script in either language, everything changes. Responsibility, demand, you name it. Even your salary, which you can expect to increase tens of thousands of dollars, will never be the same.

What Career Path?
That's all well and good on paper, but here's the problem. Perl and Python are gateway languages. They foster yearnings to enter the software engineering field. Before you know it, Joshua Bloch is in their hands and Scott Meyers is sitting close by on the shelf. Your beloved technical operations engineer who cleans up all that crappy code has started to dream about C++ or java. By that point you've lost them.

Then there is the category of people that will do it, but don't want to do it. These include software engineers that haven't been able to get an engineering job. The problem with this is twofold. Employers do not want to hire someone for a job when they know the job isn't what the candidate wants to do. The other issue is that most of the people who qualify as wanting to be a technical operations support engineer are foreign nationals who require sponsorship. In a world where H1B visas are hard to come by, technical operations support engineers aren't getting them.

The H1Bs go to the Phds and people doing sexier work. Let's be realistic here, the second you eliminate talented foreigners from a talent pool in the tech space, you're kinking a good, perhaps primary, source of candidate flow.

Crystal Clear Communication
The other problem with foreigners in the IT space is that perhaps more than any other position, it is a job heavily gauged on communication. You are always working phones, and explaining technical things to people who don't understand what the heck you're talking about.

Crystal clear English is required. If you don't have it, you are likely out. Today's IT jobs aren't ones where a programmer can sit in the corner and code with your head down. Today's coders don't sit around with headphones on, only to pop up when they have designed the next killer algorithms. There's a business element, a personality element, which cannot go unidentified when a recruiter is doing the vetting process.

In addition to the need for hard skills (coding acumen) and soft skills (communication abilities), trading firms, hedge funds, and brokerage houses are hardly 9-5 operations nowadays. Most of the larger firms trade around the globe, which means you need to be open to working the graveyard shift. Unfortunately, someone who is super-qualified who is doing something by day, isn't likely going move to a firm to become a graveyard-shift zombie.

Education Required
It gets better. Financial companies have high academic standards. True, not everyone needs a phd, but you best believe almost everyone needs a bachelor's degree. IT has and continues to be one of the few refuges for the technical school certificate holders and the associate's degree holders, but that's fading fast. But for the most part, new entrants into the IT field are held to relatively high academic credentials. In the unlikely chance that you come across a job posting that doesn't require a four-year degree, employers want what is called "equivalent experience," as if there is some human resources balance beam that every resume goes on. What this means is they will not take a chance on a candidate until someone else has already taken a chance on the person and given them work experience.

Now the best for last. The few candidates that are actually fully qualified are getting paid a ton of money at their current position. Technical operations support engineers have a value like Derek Jeter. They cannot be gauged by numbers or stats, their value and worth can only be understood by seeing them go about their business every day and finding a way to make things run smoothly. Some would say these are intangibles. You get promoted internally based on intangibles; you get discretionary bonuses and base salary bumps based on intangibles…but you don't get hired at other companies based on intangibles.

So what happens is a stalemate. The good candidates are purposely priced out of the market by their current employers to force them to stay. Moreover, potential employers are reluctant to pay anywhere close to the type of salary they're already making because, on paper, they may not be qualified.

What's the solution to this caveat? It's not easy. There may not even by one. But here are a few suggestions:

On-The-Job Learning
Companies have to have the patience to allow someone to learn on the job. Consider hiring applicants right out of school. Younger workers are generally more open to the irksome responsibilities (overnight shifts, long hours) these jobs require. Their college experience has, most likely, made them night owls by nature.

But rather than just hiring a few recent grads and then forgetting about them, provide a career path out that lets them see a progression towards something they actually want to do.

Ultimately companies are going to have to realize that you can't be as picky with technical operations personnel as you are with portfolio managers or traders. Most candidates are better than leaving a spot vacant for months. Even the least qualified candidate can rival a currently overworked and overstressed technical operations support person. Unfortunately the hiring trends from most financial firms point towards the status quo.

Recruiters and HR professionals, until that changes, be forever on the lookout from the crow's nest of your inbox for one of the rare resumes previously described. Because until something changes, you don't hunt the white whale. It finds you.

About The Author:
David O'Boyle, Senior Research Analyst, at IJC Partners, LLC
David graduated Phi Beta Kappa from University of Maryland, College Park, where he obtained degrees in English and World History. Both disciplines aid him on a daily basis. The former helps in strategic resume writing assistance; the latter helps to communicate on a personal level with the ever growing population of Wall Street foreign nationals. Though he finds the quantitative space most appealing, his research focuses are broadly defined. They range from desktop support technicians to analysts and investment bankers. Everyone has a soft spot. His is for junior Ph.D's looking to transfer into the finance industry.

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