For the smaller company, the IT department is typically less of a department and more like a one-man band. Also typical is a business owner flying blind when making that critical IT hire without the help of a Chief Information Officer (CIO) or director of technology.

Ten years ago, it was easier for a small or mid-size business to stumble along with a low level “jack of all trades” type responsible for everything from maintaining the network, installing software updates, to perhaps even updating the company website.

The landscape has changed dramatically, however, in recent years. Organizations are using a wider array of core technologies each requiring more specialization to maintain and integrate with the business. Along with the increase in sophistication, there’s been a dramatic increase in dependency on those technologies, as well.

“Technology has become mission critical" for small and mid-size businesses, says David Robertson, president of Covenant Technology, an IT consulting group based in Houston, Texas.  “It used to be if the server was down or email access was down, you just worked around it. Now when technology is down, your entire business is down.”

Outsource versus hire

So the first big question: outsource or make a hire? If the jack-of-all-trades solution is such a bad idea and the business can’t afford to hire a team of IT professionals, it may seem like a no-brainer to outsource. Outsourcing definitely has its advantages -- the biggest one being you get that diversity of accomplished skill sets needed nowadays. “Most smaller companies don’t need one person to put in an eight-hour day. They need eight people to put in one hour a day,” points out Robertson.

And yet the advantages that come with a full-time IT person -- having someone in-house at all times and exclusively engaged with the company -- can still be the optimum solution if business owners take the necessary steps in finding that right fit.

Step one: create a job description

“Most managers don’t know what they want,” says Christa Baker, a northeast-based recruiting manager for Manpower, the Milwaukee-based recruitment and training firm. Baker, who specializes in IT placements, typically asks her clients four key questions to drill down to their precise staffing needs:

  • How will an IT person help your business? The answer may be "increase sales" or "minimize security risks." “The rookie mistake most business owners make is to manage their tech support by technology criteria, rather than by business criteria,” agrees Robertson.
  • What technologies are involved? If you’re not tech savvy, educate yourself enough to identify your core technologies. Baker encourages bosses to even pick up the phone and call the makers of those technologies. Is your business dependent on a rack of Dell servers? Call Dell and ask them what kind of professional you should hire to maintain them for you.
  • What’s your IT strategy? Which IT projects are temporary, which are ongoing? What areas of IT do you expect to increase or decrease over time? What is your commitment to exploring new technologies and updating the old?
  • Describe the perfect person. From there, employers learn what kind of person will likely be the right fit for their organization. The answer may be "someone with strong project management skills" or "an IT person with a background in health care, too."

Step two: find the ideal candidate

The kind of IT professional that works well for a smaller organization is different than the kind that works for a Fortune 500 company. “Make sure he or she is accomplished in your core technologies, has some skills in your more ancillary IT needs," Baker says. "You also want to make sure this is someone who enjoys staying current, following the latest technologies, is forward-thinking, and will always be looking for new ways to impact the business.”

Step three: be the ideal employer

The job market is increasingly turning into a candidate’s market once again for the IT professional. Finding the right person is only half the battle. Small and mid-size businesses owners need to make their companies attractive to not only get that ideal candidate to sign on, but to stay on as well.  

The keys to retention, says Baker, include some of the obvious steps -- treat them well and understand what’s important to them. But also understand that IT people always want to learn more. "They like to stay current," she says. "Find compromises to help them keep up.”

Step four: hedge your bets

The danger of a one-man band is what happens when he or she disbands from the company. Employers have to safeguard their business from the inevitable parting of the ways. Best advice: stay involved. Cross train other employees to perform pieces of that IT person’s job when possible and when the time comes negotiate a transition out of the company that allows for a complete knowledge transfer.