A-Teams of IT: How to Build a Crack Strike Force

IT A-Team Personnel No. 3: Über Hacker

If life were the movies, your special ops team would feature two standard players: an attractive, misunderstood psychopath who loves to blow things up, and a squirrely hacker who can penetrate NSA-level network security using nothing but a random password generator and a toothpick.

Sadly for your IT A-Team, the explosive babe is strictly optional, but a security expert is a must. The difference? Instead of trying to break into networks, your über hacker is there to keep the bad guys out.

"For everything you're dealing with today, information security becomes key," says Tata's Ali. "For large programs, especially those involving Web 2.0, it helps to have an ethical hacker as part of your team--someone who's working from the inside and incented to find the holes in your information privacy and security."

Here, temperament and ethics are every bit as important as skill. Even if they don't sport rippling biceps or gold chains, über hackers can be aggressively macho about their tech skills--and equally quick to get their buttons pushed, says Mark Kadrich, author of Endpoint Security. We pity the fool who crosses them.

"It's not a good idea to piss off someone who can have you declared dead on every computer system on the planet," says Kadrich. "You're looking for people with the ability to break into systems and do things to people but who choose to use their powers for justice."

They also need to understand physical security as much as network security, a factor many organizations overlook. If attackers can physically touch a system, they can almost always extract data from it, Kadrich says.

The problem? The obsessive-compulsive geeks who make the best security wonks often have difficulty working closely with other bipeds, says Kadrich. And many of them are a little too good at their jobs, adds Scott Archibald, a managing director for Bender Consulting.

"A lot of guys who know security really well can make something so secure nobody else can use it," he says. "You need somebody who knows where to draw the line."

IT A-Team Personnel No. 4: Infrastructure Sherpa

Somebody's got to do the dirty work--keep the lights on, the data center humming, and end-users happy (or as close to that state as you can reasonably expect). That job falls to the infrastructure sherpas on your team. Though they'll never be huge stars, they will have occasional heroic moments.

The exact kind of infrastructure infantrymen will vary depending on your environment, but if you must pick a generic skill set, networking expertise is a good bet, says Bender's Archibald.

"If the environment isn't highly specialized, I'd look for someone who understands the networking/telecom side and the server infrastructure," he says. "Data centers have a lot of servers, and someone who understands the server infrastructure and hardware usually also understands the client connectivity issues that can come up. What you really want is someone who knows when to dig in and learn more and when to call other people on their BS."

Even then, every infrastructure grunt these days needs to be a little bit of everything: virtualization virtuoso, cloud connoisseur, mobility maven. The ability to wear multiple geek hats is essential, says Bob Cuneo, CIO of IT recruiters Eliassen Group.

"Within each technical discipline individuals must be multifaceted and dexterous in their ability to handle a wide range of assignments," says Cuneo. "For example, a network engineer must be able to handle architecture, as well as configure and manage switches, routers, firewalls, load balancers, WAN accelerators, spam, Web filter, proxy appliances, and other similar devices."

They also need to be experts at change management, says Joe Tait, director of IT at NMS Labs, a clinical toxicology lab, and a chapter board member of The Society for Information Management.

"The most important part of infrastructure revolves around change management," says Tait. "At NMS we mostly try to follow the core parts of ITIL. Someone once said 85 percent of the problems you encounter in technology result from someone making a change to something. You want someone who does things in a structured way, pays attention, and keeps careful logs."

IT A-Team Personnel No. 5: Coding Genius

Development demigods who can write a Perl script or hack JavaScript in their sleep are essential to any IT special-ops team--bonus points if they can do it upside down while dangling from a helicopter.

Here the challenge is to find someone who mixes the requisite coding chops with a measure of humility, says Minco's Adriana Zona.

"You want the genius guys who aren't arrogant," she says. "They want to impress you, so they do in an hour what would take standard developers a week. But the most important thing is they don't challenge you. You don't even have to explain what you want or provide a document. They just complete the job."

Though extremely rare, the humble coding genius can be found via word of mouth, says Zona. She also weeds out the arrogant ones by asking prospective employees to rate their skills on a scale from 1 to 10.

"A good developer will never say 10," she says. "Technology changes so rapidly no one can possibly know everything. But the arrogant ones will. And a nonhumble developer will destroy your department."

If your strategy is to buy what you need rather than build it, you gotta have someone on the software side who knows what solutions are available and how they fit into the larger business needs, says Archibald.

"My bias is toward someone who understands basic database and software principles, can evaluate software, and works well with vendors," he says. "They need to be able to apply that software to a business problem and tie it back into the company's strategic architecture."

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