There is only one decision in your office that is comparable in importance to selecting your lead processor, and that is the process of selecting the individual you trust with your Information Technology (IT) needs in your operation. This decision has a direct effect on your efficiency, security, and your comfort level that your system will be there when you need it.
Level of Support
This decision will vary greatly on whether you need a full-time person or team, or whether you need the services of an IT professional on an occasional basis. If you are operating a large, multi-location branch organization, and have an ongoing requirement to support several hundred individuals, then this article is probably not for you. Suffice it to say that you will need some very sophisticated talent and systems with various levels of backup. In that case, we would be talking about a small team, with specialized individuals handling different areas of enterprise support. Yet, the actual requirements would be very similar to what you would need in a smaller enterprise.
Small- to Medium-Size Office
The only mortgage professional who does not need the assistance of an IT professional is someone who is technical in their own right. In fact, for years I have advised many small mortgage offices to select someone in their midst to train themselves on the basics of their network and basic Loan Origination Software (LOS). These form the basic elements of any successful mortgage enterprise, and someone in the office should be the key person to help others with issues that relate to technical issues on a day-to-day basis.
The basic decision that must be made up-front is whether to contract occasional IT support services, or to hire a dedicated IT person to support the office. For many offices, the cutoff point for this decision is frequently when the office has approximately 30 fulltime employees and loan officers. While I have seen larger offices utilize part-time contract personnel for their needs, this seems to be a logical point at which to consider having a full time person on staff.
Hiring a Contractor
Since many of my clients are in smaller offices, most of my experience has been with dealing with contract personnel. I am happy to say that the vast majority of them have proven to be competent and capable. When you hire a contractor, remember that you are not in a position to demand instant response when you have problems, and you will need to agree on a reasonable turn around time on problem situations that may arise.
Deciding on an hourly rate is one of the more problematical questions that may arise. I have come over time to believe that it is simply impractical to expect a client to pay the same hourly rate for basic helpdesk assistance versus setting up and optimizing a firewall/VPN appliance. In the former case, the client should be paying a lower hourly rate. In any event, the rates will be heavily dependent on local market conditions. One suggestion is to seek input from an IT association for your marketplace or talk to your peers.
Another decision is whether you need to contract on a fixed minimum amount per month, or strictly on a per hour basis. I would suggest a minimal monthly amount for very small offices that may not see an IT person otherwise. This way, the system can be checked to make sure that key systems, including anti-virus and backup, are functioning correctly. Larger offices may be doing enough work that this fixed monthly contract may not make sense. For the most part, I am against fixed fee quotes if they are based on anything other than time spent based on the hourly rate, because the only fair way to compensate an IT person is to compensate them fairly for their time.
Selecting an IT Professional
Whether or not you are hiring an IT professional on a contract or employee basis, the same key set of questions and considerations will apply. For example:
Certifications and Credentials—For a time back in the late 90’s, Microsoft and Cisco certifications were key elements in establishing credibility and expertise in the IT world. Unfortunately, a glut of “paper certifications” greatly reduced the credibility of these individuals. Many of them were well schooled in the certification exams and lacking in practical experience, to the extent that today I would be very reluctant to place more than passing interest in the individual industry certifications that an individual might possess. After all, would you expect a customer to hire you as an originator because you had a recognized industry credential as an originator, or because you had a great reputation for being capable and honest? It is no different with IT personnel.
Overall IT Experience—For the most part, good IT people are self-trained, and many of them are non-degreed, or possess degrees with irrelevant specialties such as foreign languages and fine arts. Experience is clearly the most important part of the skill set of an IT person. Unlike many jobs, additional time spent with the job, particularly with regards to current technologies and products, is the best determinant of skill level attached to an individual. IT personnel are simply not in a position to “settle in” to a job and float along, because new technologies and operating system changes are always occurring. An IT person simply has to remain current to be of value to the customer.
Mortgage Industry Experience—IT people are no different from anyone else in that they develop an affinity for a particular industry or peer group. Therefore, I would always want to hire an IT person who specialized in working with mortgage companies. They will understand the mindset of the broker and the unique requirements (demands) that may be made by a loan officer or processor.
Experience with LOS—Since the LOS is clearly the dominant technology hub in any mortgage company, expertise with that product is very essential if that person is to help you. While it may not be too difficult to get help with well known systems such as Point, Genesis, and Encompass, lesser known systems will certainly require some specific knowledge that is not generally available. Always hire someone who has experience with the LOS that you are using.
Overall Attitude and Mindset—This is probably the single most important attribute in making your decision. I am fond of telling the story to my associates of how I made the switch from being a “normal” broker in the mid 90’s to a full-time computer geek, primarily because of my own frustration with the IT people that I attempted to hire to assist me. I found some of them less than communicative and responsible (somewhat like I found some originators) and lacking in the desire to communicate to me clearly what was going on with my system. I simply found it easier to learn it myself and to have my independence.
You must insist that the person you hire have the people skills to handle the individuals and demands that occur when dealing with mortgage professionals. This includes taking the time to show you how to do some tasks yourself, and not requiring the IT person for every single task that may arise in your office. Education is definitely part of the job of an IT professional.
Honesty and Integrity—IT people are no different than mortgage people. You will find mortgage professionals who are not happy unless they make “two on the front and four on the back,” and this mindset also exists in the IT world. You will need to talk with other mortgage professionals and ask their opinions before making this decision, and you will have to try a person out before making a long-term decision. But be aware—the really good ones are actually quite affordable, approachable, and therefore very busy. That is the kind of IT person that you want to try and find.
By Stephen Breden