Kabul, 2016. I’d been here before: a cold cup of Nescafe and stack of overly formatted CVs on the table next to me, an over-worked HR officer slow-blinking at me from across the room in subtle panic. Of the 35 CVs in the stack, culled from hundreds submitted online, only two had any mention of ICT experience—the rest were full of network engineering degrees, Oracle and Microsoft certifications, and years and years of experience managing IT networks and project systems. If I had been looking to hire IT staff, I would have been spoiled for options—but I wasn’t. I was trying to hire an ICT officer, and it was almost impossible. Just as it had been in Cambodia, Jordan, and Senegal. Why, oh, why was hiring ICT staff so hard, and what could we do about it?


What’s the Difference Between IT and ICT Anyway?

One of the main reasons for such staffing despair is that the difference between IT and ICT generally is both misunderstood and underestimated. Using definitions painted with the broadest brush possible, IT can be considered the “hard side” of technology—hardware, code, systems administration, server maintenance, and generally thankless but crucial work that allows us all to use project IT assets like computers, web, and server. ICT is generally the “soft side” of technology—designing and managing digital strategies, content and processes, integrating software and technology tools into project programming, working alongside software firms and project staff to customize tools to meet project needs. While one may think that being good at one of these naturally flows over to the other, they’re actually quite unique skill sets with significant differences between them. Much like being a good cook doesn’t necessarily make one a good host, being great at IT often does not translate to the ICT realm, and vice versa.

Seek and Ye Shall Find: The Right Job Description for the Right Hire

Two key challenges in hiring for ICT in emerging markets are that a) the term, and related skill set, is still quite nascent, and b) strong tertiary education in computer science means there’s a huge amount of qualified IT professionals. We found that a strong job description, including significant detail around desired experience and keywords and examples that ICT professionals would recognize such as Open Data Kit, Mobile VAS, and shortcode, got us better results in terms of initial applicants (though we still had to wade through a deep pool of CVs to find them). By placing the keywords early on in the job description, we were able to signal to the right candidates to highlight such experience in their CV. Additionally, and this is perhaps the most important learning, changing the position name from ICT Specialist/Officer to Digital Platform Specialist/Officer or anything without the “I(C)T” in it cut the number of “hard” IT applicants in half, and opened up the pool to candidates with more digital marketing experience (something which aligned much more with what we were looking for).

Questions on Questions on Questions

We were finally able to narrow down our applicant list to two extremely strong candidates after digging deep into their experience during the interview process. Because there is somewhat of a mental block around ICT in the markets we work in, you have to work extra hard to surface experience candidates might have in it. We did this through scenario questioning, wherein I would describe a typical ICT scenario such as needing to get regulatory approval for a shortcode, and then ask the interviewee how they would solve the problem. Despite having zero mention of any such work on their CVs, both short-listed candidates had done extensive shortcode work in the past and were able to talk me through various approaches with great fluency. For those that hadn’t done such work, it was obvious right at the beginning of their answer that they weren’t the right fit for the role. By doing a few such scenarios, we were able to test candidates knowledge of typical ICT terms, skills, and experience without going through their CV job-by-job. Often, we set the CV aside entirely during the interview.

Lessons Learned: Words Matter

While hiring for ICT staff is still a challenge, we’ve worked hard on the ICT Team at DAI to collate lessons learned across countries and projects and come up with guidelines and templates for projects to use in their hiring process. While these resources are still works in progress, as the market is changing rapidly as more digital jobs come online in emerging markets, these guidelines and sample job descriptions have allowed projects to hire more efficiently for ICT positions, and ensured that projects with robust ICT components have the right people to manage them successfully.