People skills keep best in front in tough market

When the IT market is 'flooded with graduates', just how did ex-fireman Aaron Wooley and just-back-from-OE Daniel Haque nail jobs?

When the IT market is "flooded with graduates", just how did ex-fireman Aaron Wooley and just-back-from-OE Daniel Haque nail jobs?

Auckland-based customer management software producer StayinFront puts it down to people skills and plenty of life and work experience. The maker of Visual Elk software is boosting the size of its professional services division by more than half, or a dozen people, to help it cope with new contracts across the Asia-Pacific and in the US.

Wooley left his job in the Fire Service to complete a Bachelor of Computing at Auckland Unitec. He started applying for jobs in June and eventually formed part of an intake of around four at StayinFront in Ponsonby late last month, joining the 60 already there.

The 30-year-old will be a developer at StayinFront and once trained up will be expected to travel overseas, identify customer requirements and develop and implement systems for clients.

"The market is basically flooded with IT graduates. It was quite difficult to find a job," says Wooley. "I applied to 30 recruitment companies and IT companies and was told 'come back with experience'." This was despite working for six months as a student on a project for a website company transferring information from a web server to a helpdesk system using Visual Basic and Microsoft Access.

Wooley thinks that not being straight from school and his personal skills definitely helped and having interests like sport, windsurfing, guitar and learning Spanish.

But you definitely need the work experience, he says. "I was approaching companies for contract work, or I willing to work for free just to get the work experience. Every bit of experience is definitely a positive step. It gives you a nudge over those who don't have it.

"You also need tenacity. Never give up and work your butt off [while job hunting]." He says IT professionals also need to continually improve their personal skills. "You definitely have to have an all-round ability to make it. The days have gone when you could sit behind a screen and not deal with customers."

Fellow recruit Daniel Haque confirms that skills with people counts as much, if not more than, skills with computers. The 23-year-old completed a double degree in arts and science at Auckland University last November, majoring in computer science. After travelling alone around Europe, he started at StayinFront in March. Haque is now working as a consultant for the synchronisation team, responsible for ensuring a US-based implementation project is rolled out successfully.

Haque says he recently did some development work for a company called Professional Services which gave him experience in meeting people. He also gained such skills in other jobs working as a truck driver and telemarketeer.

The 23-year-old advises that those looking for work need to know how to interract with other people. "Technical skills help but from what I see those who can deal with people, put on a professional front, will do well. Those who are [just] better technical programmers may struggle," Haque says.

StayinFront says it has just secured deals to supply sales automation software to two undisclosed multinational pharmaceutical companies in Asia, in addition to large US pharmaceutical companies King Pharmaceuticals and Sepracor, plus Lanier, part of the Ricoh photocopier group. It claims annual growth of 50% and securing deals globally worth $100 million in the past three months.

After taking on eight project managers and developers in the last couple of months to help handle this, professional services manager Fred de Jong, a former soccer player, now needs three or four testers and trainers to support his newcomers.

"They have to be technically good and because they go out to clients, they have to have good people skills. It's the latter that is probably the issue. When you are sending people to Asia they have to have a lot of common sense. The ones we have do. They also need zap and reliability," he says.

A year ago, when the market was more buoyant, de Jong says it was difficult to find such candidates but now there are "reasonable numbers available".

Asia-Pacific managing director Tony Bullen (pictured right) confirms the improving all-round skills of today's IT graduates. StayinFront does not take them from private training providers but mainly the universities and the techs. Previously these would be the AUT and Unitec, but now successful candidates come from Auckland, Wellington, Massey and Waikato.

"They come out with more nous than just technical stuff. They seem to be learning business skills alongside it. The graduates are better at communicating than they used to be. Maybe it is because they are doing more work experience than before. Competition is also making their institutions look at how relevent their programmes are," Bullen says.

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