Important Note: Job descriptions should be reviewed by your school’s HR Department and/or legal counsel.
I may be in a minority of managers who actually likes to write job descriptions.
Some people think that job descriptions are obsolete. Such critics point out that job descriptions:
- take valuable manager time to create,
- are often unread by the people they apply to, and
- rapidly fall of-ouf-date.
But the problem is not with job descriptions per se, but with the process used to create them. While it is important what the job description says, more important is what the job description does. And what a job description should do is force you to think about your IT department’s structure, the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and abilities needed to make it function, delegation of duties, cross-training, and the flexibility to change and evolve with new technologies and institutional needs.
The Job Analysis
In a previous series of posts (see The Goldilocks Number) I wrote about the variables that are entailed in determining the appropriate number of staff for an IT department. For the sake of this post, we’ll assume that those decisions have been vetted and you ready to move to hiring.
Before writing the job description it is helpful to conduct a job analysis. In the case of a replacement hire, you may already have much of the information you need, in your head if not written down. Even so, a savvy manager will take a close look at what their department requires and if it still makes sense to do it the same way. For example, If you have a Senior System Administrator leaving, perhaps some of her or his responsibilities could be given to a more junior member of the team who has earned the right to more challenging work. If the position is incremental, it is it likely that the duties of the new hire have been spread among one or more other staff who will be asked to give them up and provide guidance to the new gal or guy on the block.
The job analysis should try to answer questions such as these :
- What physical and mental activities does the worker undertake?
- For example, physical tasks such as the ability to lift and install a 40 lb. UPS into a rack, walk a laptop cart from one building to the next, perform basic keyboarding and mousing functions, identify colors, speak clearly on the telephone, or climb a ladder, and mental tasks such as the ability to think clearly under stressful conditions, in confined spaces, create a logic flow chart, or prioritize tasks with little supervision.
- What qualifications are needed to perform the job?
- You are in an academic institution and academic credentials carry credibility. It will be a hard sell to hire someone into a technical position who does not have at least a Bachelor’s degree, so think twice about pushing hard for someone lacking such credentials.
- Technical degrees are no guarantee of competence, so you may want to hedge your bets and not specify particular majors and minors, but rather knowledge of particular technologies.
- What are the working conditions?
- Physical spaces such as offices, classrooms, server rooms and network closets. Noisy children. Possibly in front of or in proximity to large audiences.
- What machinery or equipment is used in the job?
- Computers, servers, switches, but also copiers, printers, projectors, handheld devices, TVs, and practically anything with an on/off switch and a silicon chip.
- What are the work duties, tasks, and responsibilities that need to be accomplished?
- Think about what a typical day and week might be like, as well as periodic duties that happen less frequently, such as building new disk images, checking in new inventory, and start of school workshops.
- What are the most important outcomes or contributions needed from the position?
- Measures of success. How do you apply standards of performance to the duties, tasks, and responsibilities listed above?
- What is the level of compensation associated with positions like this in other companies and schools?
- It is sometimes hard to get this data. Public schools usually have published salary schedules. In Independent Schools, the Head of School and Business Officer have access to private NAIS salary data.
Do not complete the job analysis in a vacuum. Talk with others in your department especially, if practicable, the a person who leaving the position. Talk with colleagues in other schools. And most of all, talk with your HR department so their is clarity about what you are looking for and that your job description meets its standards.
A Job Description Template
The elements in the job description outlined below are ones that I learned years ago as a manger at MECC, and they continue to be commonly found in many other organizations. Your school may have additional elements.
(1) Job Title. Titles can be a touchy subject for some people. Employees are often overly fixated on them, particularly in larger organizations where where titles can designate expertise, seniority, and reporting relationships.
In academia, titles have largely been slow to change and are seldom “cutesy.” Among college faculty, titles normally follow a predictable hierarchy: assistant, associate, and full professor. A similar system may hold in staff positions, such as assistant, associate, and senior systems administrator.
IT departments in business, companies that relish creativity, out-of-the-box thinking and the nerd culture, may include titles such as “IT Overlord,” “Network Ninja,” “Help Desk Diva,” or “Technology Kahuna.” The question you need to ask yourself is if such titles fit within your department and school culture, and if such titles will help or hinder staff who leave the school.
Organizations can also opt to have two titles for a position, one that is uses within HR and another used informally within the school and as part of IT signature files in email and business cards. I used to tell my staff that they could call themselves anything that was non-offensive and was not my title. For more information, see “What’s in a Job Title, from Inc. Magazine.)
(2) Revision Date. Enter the date that you are writing or re-writing the job description. It’s up to you if you wish to enter revision numbers, file locations, and so in this area. Some organizations stipulate that revision dates, revision numbers, and file locations be specified in document footers. In any event, enter data here that will help you remember when the job description was created and revised.
reporting relationships; who they report to and who reports to them
first year or probationary period stipulations
Exempt or non-exempt
(3) Department Name. Probably a no-brainer, unless this is a dual-appointment, in which case there may be even two job descriptions. There may also be “dotted line” relationships, in which there’s a close working relationship with someone other than your formal supervisor. For example, a school’s web master may formally report to an IT manager, but have a close working relationship with the school’s Director of Communications.
(4) Reports to (Title) and (6) Reports to (Name). Enter the name and title of the person to whom this position is reporting. My own personal experience is that reporting to more than one person is often more trouble than it is worth unless there’s a very high level of trust and communication among all of the participants.
(5) Exempt/Non-Exempt. Your HR department will make this determination based on applicable Federal Labor Standards Act (FLSA) regulations. The FLSA has specific regulations concerning technical employees that apply. See their 2006 opinion and fact sheet. While it may be tempting for schools to try to fit their help desk personnel into the exempt category, you do so at your own risk. As they say in their fact sheet: Job titles do not determine exempt status. In order for this exemption to apply, an employee’s specific job duties and compensation must meet all the requirements of the Department’s regulations.
(7) Job Summary. This area consists of several sentences that describe the general duties of the position. The language should be simple enough for a lay person to understand, and acronyms should be spelled out. The summary should talk about the why of the position and its place within the organization. Here’s an example of such text from a position I once held:
The Director of Technology is responsible for setting and implementing the overall strategy and operations for the school’s technology curriculum and its computer and telecommunications systems. The Director is also responsible for all administrative and interpersonal aspects of management for the Technology Department including budgeting, staff development, and employee performance.
Resist the temptation to get too specific here. You can drill down in the next section.
(8) Essential Job Duties and Responsibilities. Once again, the language should be simple enough for a lay person to understand, and acronyms explained. This section is characterized by action verbs (see suggestions from Ethan Willing’s list and Post-Doc) followed by nouns and sometime one or more criteria. For example, a system administrator’s job description might include:
Maintain servers to achieve an “uptime” standard of 99+%
This section should not be a list of all of the duties required to fulfill a given goal. It is enough to state up-time of 99+% and leave the specifics of how that is achieved and measured for other documents, such as employee goals or department procedure manuals.
The verbs you use are important as they designate a level of authority and independence of action that can distinguish between entry-level and senior level positions. Take for example the tasks associated with server log files.
- Entry-level: Verify that logs are being generated for all assigned servers
- Mid-level: Analyze server log files to identify possible performance problems
- Senior-level: Direct improvements to server performance based on log files and other data
You may wish to include information about important interactions between the person in this position and others in the department or organization. If the employee is part of a permanent, cross-functional team you can spell it out here. If the employee has one of the aforementioned “dotted line” relationships with another manager, describe it here and use a verb to convey who makes the calls. Perform is much different in tone and intent than negotiate.
IT staff in schools are subject to changes in job routing due to the seasonality of schools. Different work occurs when school is not in session, be it for a few days here and there or extended vacation periods. For example, many schools build new master disk images once a year during the summer. If your IT staff is on a 12 month contract, be sure to factor that into your thinking and writing when completing the job description.
Finally, in this section be sure to include the wiggle-room afforded by other duties as assigned to provide needed flexibility for unanticipated needs.
(9) Educational and Experience Requirements / (10) Education Part 9 is designed to help to set the expectations for what you expect this person to already have as part of their past that gives you confidence that they can do the job you are asking of them in the present and provide them with a platform to build upon for the future. Remember, as minimum qualifications these criteria can help you quickly sort through stacks of resumes and applications.
The first of the qualifications described in this section is education, including technical certifications.
Working in an educational environment, it’s hard to see how a professional IT department could hire anyone (other than an intern) who does not possess at least a Bachelor’s degree. This requirement will eliminate some candidates who may be self-taught technical wizards. And people in technology love to talk about college drop-outs who have had huge success in business. But such people are rate exceptions, and you are not looking to build a company but to staff an IT department. Every other professional position in a school requires a college degree, and you risk denigrating your profession if you do not.
The field in which the degree was granted is less important. Many outstanding school IT professionals do not have technical degrees, but came from the classroom into technology. But that was probably ten to twenty years ago. So the way around a hard and fast rule is to required something like “Bachelor’s degree required. Degree in technology-related field preferred, or equivalent on-the-job experience.”
Certifications are another matter to consider. All of the major equipment and software manufacturers, Cisco, Apple, Microsoft, VM Ware, and so on have certification programs which grant credentials indicating that someone has followed a particular curriculum of study and successfully passed examinations. Such credentials used to demand a premium over other candidates, but with the job market as it is now, and the number of certified people out there, my hunch is that this is less the case.
Schools must also ask themselves about their current computing environment and where it may be in five years. As more services move to the cloud, the need for on-site expertise may become more crucial for networking than for server administration. Even so, some schools are moving to managed, plug and play networks. In theory, this means that as long as your Internet connection is maintained, almost all other services could be cloud based and outsourced, leaving more resources for technology integration or other uses.
(11) Skills and Knowledge. Part 10 identifies the academic and training requirements while Part 11 identifies what the job actually calls for. While you can call for specific skills such as “advanced Excel skills” or “administer Cisco Call Manager” I recommend avoiding brand-specific skills, which can be quickly learned on the job, and instead write “advanced spreadsheet skills” or “administration of Voice Over IP telephone systems.”
(12) Physical Requirements. I don’t think enough managers think about this aspect of the job description. There are aspects of working in an IT department that can be physically demanding, such as lifting heavy equipment, crawling under tables and desks, working in hot server rooms, using precision tools and tiny parts, and so on. Some of these activities are not easy to accommodate in the workplace. Ask yourself if there are certain handicapping conditions, such as blindness, deafness, lack of mobility, limited physical strength or dexterity, that would render it impractical for someone to perform the job. The language in this area could protect you from charges of workplace discrimination under the American Disabilities Act. Your HR department can help assure that any requirements in this area are bona fide occupational qualifications (BFOQ), ”a quality or an attribute that employers are allowed to consider when making decisions on the hiring and retention of employees—qualities that when considered in other contexts would constitute discrimination and thus in violation of civil rights employment law.”
(13) Business Equipment, Systems and/or Tools Required. By this point in the job description this information may seem redundant or self-evident, but it pays to be explicit. In an IT department, people will be working with computers, servers, printers, copiers, and other electronic equipment. Repair technicians will need to use a variety of hand tools and use repair manuals and online resources.
Job Description Maintenance
A study published in the European Journal of Social Sciences of 126 companies found that the majority feel that job descriptions have a positive role to play but too often fall out-of-date and need a regular schedule of updating to remain relevant and helpful to the company. My own personal sense from the listservs I follow indicates that school IT managers are regularly polling one another for suggestions on job descriptions, suggesting that there use remains widespread in schools and that a repository of job descriptions would be of value to this community. Readers are encouraged to add comments to this blog if they know of or would like to start such a repository.
At a minimum, job descriptions should be reviewed annually as part of the employee review process, a process that will be the subject of future posts.
Others in the IT Management series:
Space: The First Frontier
Using Technology to Manage Hiring
Where to Post Jobs
What to Say in Job Postings
Screening Resumes and Letters of Application
Phone Screening Applicants