By Dave Abrams
March 22, 2010
Michael L. Backer has been a human resources professional for over 30 years. For the first 15 years of his career, he held various positions as an HR generalist, supervisor, manager and director for the Navy Resale Systems Office, Thom McAn Shoe Company, Boston Mutual Life Insurance, Data General, Digital Equipment Corporation and Technology Concepts, Inc.
Since 1986 he has been the founder and principal of Salitube, Inc., a human resource consulting firm. His clients include Ventron Chemical, CVD Corp., Sigma Instruments/Pacific Scientific, EMC Corp., 3Com, Data General, Medisense (Abbott Labs), Shipley Chemical (Rhome and Haas), StarGen, i4synergy, Cambridge Health Alliance Dynamics Research and Quantech Services.
A member of the first graduating class of the Executive MBA Program of Suffolk University, Mr. Backer received his undergraduate Business Administration degree with a major in Industrial Relations from the University of Bridgeport.
David Abrams: Can you tell me a little bit about your background, including how you originally got into the staffing field and any other areas that you may have specialized in over the years?
Mike Backer: I actually started recruiting back in 1969, when I graduated college. It got thrust upon me more by happenstance then by design.
David Abrams: So you've been recruiting since the days of Woodstock?
Mike Backer: Literally, yes right during Woodstock.
David Abrams: Over the years, you've recruited in a wide range of areas, correct?
Mike Backer: Exactly. I went from working for a government agency, to a shoe manufacturing and distribution company known as Thom McCann. and then to an insurance company, Back in the late seventies, I got into high-tech, and that was really where all of my IT and heavy volume recruiting took place.
David Abrams: So you've been recruiting in high-tech and IT for 30 years?
Mike Backer: Yes.
David Abrams: It's been focused towards high technology and information technology?
Mike Backer: A little bit of everything. IT has surely been a big piece of it, along with development engineers.
David Abrams: I am interested in your insights into the market for information technology for today. We are going through a recession, which has made it difficult for many people in a wide diversity of careers. How have you found the market for the information technology field over the last year or so?
Mike Backer: Like anything, it's cyclical. At one point, there was extremely high demand for IT people, and then suddenly there was lower demand and a higher talent pool. I think now we are seeing the market balance out. There are certainly some good and capable IT professionals out there, and jobs are becoming more plentiful. A lot of the IT went offshore, but my observation is that some of it is coming back onshore for various and sundry reasons. The bottom-line is that the technology IT people have at their disposal is going to keep them employed and providing new opportunities.
David Abrams: Can you expand a little bit on your observation that jobs that have been outsourced are starting to come back to America?
Mike Backer: From what I observe myself and through talking to other colleagues, the US population wants IT people who they can access easily and understand; people who aren't just working off of scripts and who can better understand what they are talking about from a helpdesk type of a situation. IT is also about keeping networks up and running, and there are so many other different facets of IT as well.
David Abrams: Something you brought up which I feel is very important, is that no matter what sort of technology background people have, communication and interpersonal skills are extremely important in the hiring process.
Mike Backer: Absolutely. The whole process of employment has changed over the years. What a lot of companies are doing now is what's called phone interviews or phone screens, and every company does that a little bit differently depending on their resources. For a company that is looking to fill positions which require good verbal skills, one of the best ways to do that is to start with an information interview and/or a straight phone screen.
An informational interview may just be a non-technical HR person calling an applicant and asking them various questions so they can get a sense of their interpersonal and verbal skills. If the questions are technically-based, the applicant's answers might be evaluated later by a more technical person. I've been involved with situations like this, where I have a list of 20 questions that I'll ask an applicant from a technical standpoint, and based on their responses the hiring manager will be able to tell if the applicant knows what he or she is talking about, or if they are just blowing smoke out their nose.
David Abrams: So in today's market, candidates need to be prepared for that phone interview, and in a phone interview, verbal communication skills are even more important.
Mike Backer: Absolutely. It's part of the screening process. The upside of a down economy from an employer's point of view is that there is more talent to choose from, as opposed to other times when employers would be thrilled if I find one really good candidate to fit their needs. In the market like the one we see today, most of my clients are not going to be satisfied with even three or four good candidates. They want to see more before they'll make a decision, because they can afford that luxury now. They couldn't in the heyday of the mid-nineties.
David Abrams: When evaluating resumes and looking at two candidates with similar backgrounds in terms of work history, how important does their academic background become?
Mike Backer: Sometimes it depends on the specific client or company. Some companies are very concerned with pedigree, and some are not. There is no absolute rule as to what is and what is not acceptable. From a recruiter's point of view, I certainly want to respect the wishes of my clients, so if they ask specifically for XYZ schools, I would try to make sure that the candidates come from the XYZ schools. I have not seen much of that over the years that I've been recruiting, although I know colleagues who have. It's mostly about what the applicants have learned, what they have accomplished, and what they know.
David Abrams: Do any of your clients require or have a strong preference for a specific type of undergraduate degree or particular kind of certification?
Mike Backer: Yes, depending on the position. When I was looking for software engineers, it was very important that people had credentials from computer science backgrounds.
Different schools call them different degrees, but basically this is known as a BS in computer science or computer engineering. These may focus more on the software piece of the business or offer enough of a curriculum in software so they could actually become software developers.
David Abrams: Are specific degrees available in information technology?
Mike Backer: Yes, a lot of schools offer programs in IT. Bentley is one that comes to mind with an outstanding program for information management.
Some schools will call it information systems, different schools just refer to their degrees differently. Sometimes it's just a matter of drilling down and finding out what's in the curriculum.
David Abrams: Are those offered only at the bachelor's level?
Mike Backer: There is everything from certificate programs right up through PhD levels.
David Abrams: When people have hit the ceiling in their career, so to speak, do you feel like it possible for them to get to the next level via further education? Maybe through another certification or an MBA, for example?
Mike Backer: Sure. From personal observation and experience, a person who has no management background is going to have an easier time transitioning from an individual contributor to a management position within the company that they are already in. But again, every company's management style is going to be a little bit different, and its requirements are going to be different.
It is generally easier, however, for somebody to make the transition with people who already know them. Whether there is a degree required or not depends on the individual company. Some companies are very adamant that people without a degree have no chance of getting into management, regardless of the courses they have taken. It's not just a function of taking courses; there are many companies whose absolute minimum requirement to get into the management structure is to have a degree.
David Abrams: Have you seen people getting to the point in this economy where they are considering moving from one field to another? Do you see people outside the field of information technology attempt to move into this field successfully through a career change?
Mike Backer: I find that it's much more difficult to make career changes in an economy like this than it is in a robust economy. Unfortunately, I can look back into the eighties and nineties when hi-tech was booming, and there were many, many, many people who were able to make career changes into this field relatively easily, myself included. I was in HR, but because I had both a bachelor's and a master's in business, some people felt that I had the basic ability to make a transition into a marketing world.
David Abrams: So actually in your own case, your educational background helped you make a career transition?
Mike Backer: It was the education, but more importantly it was decision makers vouching for me and believing I could do the job because I was a successful HR professional. They knew I had the skill sets, and that I knew the business and its players, and they felt like they could teach me the other stuff necessary to become a successful marketer. I had to make sacrifices in terms of pay grade, because I would have been more successful as an HR person in that sense. Measurements are clearly going to be different for marketing people than they are for people in HR.
David Abrams: This sounds like an interesting model for people who are considering some sort of mid-career change to be aware of. They need to make sure that they have good references and good relationships with the people they have been working for. They also want to have a strong educational background and career success so that they can potentially carry that with them into a new future and a new career.
Mike Backer: I think it's critical for any person. From my own observations and experiences, it's easier to make transitions with people in environments that you are involved in and comfortable with.
David Abrams: We discussed positions which are harder to outsource, those which require strong interpersonal and communication skills. Do you feel that positions like this will remain in demand going forward?
Mike Backer: I think they probably will be. I think what's happening is that people are understanding that it's important to have somebody either onsite or nearby who can solve problems, and sometimes it's a matter of just getting in there physically and solving it. The Internet has provided us with the ability to solve many problems remotely, but there is still a lot that has to be done onsite.
David Abrams: Any particular areas come to mind right within information technology where there is currently great demand?
Mike Backer: Certainly network engineering, where people are needed to keep networks up and running, and the interfacing of all the different technologies is more and more critical. With open architecture, there are so many different things that can be done. It's somewhat of a proprietary operating system, where people are needed to keep different equipment up and running and talk to the different aspects, different printers, different servers, and the different software that is being developed. People are less dependent on one vendor, so keeping all the different vendors compatible with one another is very important for a company onsite.
David Abrams: I would imagine those network engineers become a high priority in terms of organization staffing.
Mike Backer: Yes, that's my guess. Smaller companies that are more locally-driven may not need them as much as a multinational company.
Security issues, however, are big time issues for every company, it doesn't matter how big or small it is.
David Abrams: I imagine that network security is going to be a career that continues to receive demand in the future, as the security of our computers and of our networks gets more and more critical. Unless it's secured, all of our personal information could be violated.
Mike Backer: Yes, absolutely. I have a friend who has two teenage daughters whose personal home computer basically shutdown. She took it to an IT person, and they found out she had well over 5,000 viruses on her system, which effectively shut it down. The IT person told her that he has seen worse.
David Abrams: Are there any mistakes that you see people generically make in their careers which others should look to avoid in their own lives?
Mike Backer: I think it's human nature to get into a comfort zone, so if somebody is really strong in a specific language or technology, they get complacent. Then what unfortunately happens is that technology changes as companies come and go. Companies get bought, and what was once yesterday's leading technology suddenly is not today. The one thing I find is that people get into a comfort zone and don't stay current with what is happening in terms of newer technologies. It's easy for people who are making a good living and who have a good job to do this, because people get happy with what they are doing. If nothing else, people should stay current and move into other knowledgebase or technologies and gain as much experience and exposure to it as possible.
David Abrams: If someone is working for a company that doesn't happen to be working with the newest technology, how should they deal with that?
Mike Backer: Online programs may be one way of getting knowledge of the new technology, along with taking night classes. Some of the bigger companies that I've worked for over the years are very willing to either provide people time off to pursue further education, or they sometimes offer to pay for that education.
Companies today, however, are less able to do this because of a lack of finances, so people need to keep themselves accountable for their own growth and development. They can't rely on the companies to underwrite it as much as they used to be able to.
There was a time when I was doing a lot of college recruiting for companies, and the half-life of the knowledge that an electrical engineer gained was like two years. Whatever they learned in their freshmen and sophomore years, was outdated information by the time they graduated.
In the technologically advanced world that we are living in today, especially for those in a technologically-oriented profession, people have got to stay current, and they can't rely on their companies to do that for them anymore.
David Abrams: Do you have any advice for IT professionals changing jobs regarding how to partner with a recruiter?
Mike Backer: I am a firm believer in relationships. I would always recommend that any person looking to change jobs develop a relationship with a recruiter with whom they feel comfortable and who is looking out for their best interests. They shouldn't just be trying to find them a job, but recruiters should be trying to find then an opportunity that's going to allow them to grow and help the company they are going to be working for. I see too many people hook up with recruiters and realize it was a bad fit six months later.
As I mentioned earlier, the dictum of employment is getting the right person for the right job at the right time with the right credentials. There needs to be a balance of all of those factors for the right match for the job, rather than just taking a job for the sake of a ten or fifteen percent salary increase, only to find out that it was absolutely a mismatch six months later.
People also need to find that their recruiter has knowledge of companies, so they need to ask the right questions to recruiters. Sometimes people have to walk away from a job providing a ten or fifteen percent salary increase. It may provide benefits in the short-term, but they may be in turn sacrificing in the long term by taking the wrong job.