“Hire the Person, Teach the Skills”: A Conversation With Smoothstack

Smoothstack, a mission-driven IT career accelerator based in Virginia and Maryland, is dedicated to helping diverse candidates kick start their career in technology — particularly active service members and veterans transitioning to post-military opportunities. Through selective hiring, immersive training, and mentorship, Smoothstack enables high-caliber talent to accelerate their careers and reach their full potential. 

Smoothstack leader Martha Laughman offers insights into the value of nurturing “explosive potential” and preparing people with the technical and collaborative skills they need to excel in the rapidly evolving tech world. Keep reading to learn about the most in-demand skills and trends in tech today — as well as tips for breaking into the industry.

Closing critical representation gaps

Smoothstack is challenging biases that have long existed in tech, particularly with female talent, by intentionally marketing great opportunities to an increasingly diverse pool of candidates. 

“We’re building leaders of tomorrow by developing top-tier talent from diverse backgrounds,” said Martha. “We recently hired and trained 25 women veterans who are now being placed on cybersecurity projects with Fortune 500 partners.” 

Their motto? Hire the person, then focus on developing project-specific skills. “We hire top-caliber talent that is not quite developed, but certainly has a high aptitude and drive to succeed. Then, we teach them the skills they need to thrive, depending on the project we’re hiring for,” Martha explained. 

Emphasizing aptitude and attitude 

While technical skills have always been essential in tech-focused industries, Smoothstack is focused on developing well-rounded professionals who can pivot quickly. 

“Whatever product is relevant today won’t be tomorrow,” said Martha. “Soft skills, like strong presentation, logic and reasoning, and communication, will always be important — especially as people continue to adapt to new technologies.”

At Smoothstack, qualifications and accolades are important, but so are aptitude and attitude. “If you have polished professional and soft skills, then you’re going to do well,” emphasized Martha. “You will be given opportunities, and you can pick up new tools as you go.” 

Prioritizing people-first collaboration

From Smoothstack’s perspective, there is currently a disconnect between tech leaders and “first responders,” or those responsible for responding to cyber attacks and breaches.

“When something goes wrong with technology, leaders often hire a subject matter expert who pushes for a new tool or process to avoid future problems. Teams are then expected to work more efficiently, without proper training or collaboration,” Martha said. 

In other words, in-place personnel aren’t sufficiently trained or prepared when new tech processes come in, and as a result, there’s a lag time to get them up to speed. Then, goals are not met as efficiently as they could be. 

“If a team doesn’t have the skills to work together as humans first, they aren’t going to adjust well to a new piece of technology,” said Martha. “Technology can’t fix human problems — it can only contribute to the solution.” This conversation is increasingly relevant to the tech community, not to mention Smoothstack’s general approach to hiring.

Championing soft skills

For aspiring IT professionals, success comes with hard work, certifications, practical project experience, and a strong set of soft skills. “Certifications still matter in the industry,” said Martha. “Bolster your resume and make sure you have the minimum requirements — but remember there is merit outside of certifications. Soft skills matter.” 

In the same breath, building relationships is an important way to break into the industry. “We don’t talk about it enough in tech, but networking is essential,” emphasized Martha. “Not passive networking, but instead joining professional associations, attending meetings, volunteering, and building relationships in the community. Be active and contribute — that’s how you create opportunities for yourself.”

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