Ever feel that hiring a new employee is a gamble? Most business owners do. Ian Davison, CEO of Octocom Systems, seems to like the risk in such wagers. He often hires "wild cards" -- people with absolutely no technical experience -- for key positions at his data-communications company. Two examples: a self-employed white-water-rafting guide became Octocom's information-systems manager; a manufacturing-plant manager became the Chelmsford, Mass., company's research-and-development director.

The key to making such hires work is to look beyond applicants' short-term technical skills. Identify what motivated candidates in their old disciplines and how that orientation might play out in the new position. Here's how three wild cards succeeded at Octocom:

* The ex-rafter. Most MIS managers get their kicks by buying cutting-edge software. The rafter focuses instead on guiding Octocom employees through the often-rocky transition to new software. Says Davison: "He researches each decision more thoroughly than a seasoned pro and doesn't simply buy his favorite products. Because he had owned his own business, he's a sharp negotiator."

* The burned-out administrative assistant. Davison switched the assistant to conference planning, where her scrupulous bookkeeping and scheduling skills were welcomed. Most conference planners have a bias toward spending a lot of money. But the former administrative assistant is used to watching every penny and negotiating strict payment terms.

* The former plant manager. When Davison wanted to bring his R&D staff back to earth, he put someone from manufacturing in charge. A small engineering oversight can turn into an expensive mistake in manufacturing. "We needed to cut down on those," says Davison. "This individual makes sure that manufacturing gets the recognition it deserves."

Not every wild-card hire or transfer has been successful, but Davison believes the strategy has paid off. For one, he saved $20,000 in salary when he transferred the plant manager to the R&D job. Plus, wild cards seem to deliver better performance. -- Teri Lammers