Training for Entry-Level Staff

Dick LeFave and John Doucette see value where few CIOs are even bothering to look these days: entry-level IT staff. Nextel’s LeFave and United Technologies Corp.’s Doucette have recently instituted IT entry-level recruiting and training programs at their companies.

To figure out why they do, go back and take a look at their first IT jobs. Both received formal and informal mentoring and training during their formative years. LeFave got his start at Boeing, learning the craft from well-trained engineers willing to share their knowledge. "Boeing provided a mentoring process and many opportunities to learn from engineers with 30 years of experience," LeFave says. "That’s where you really learned."

Doucette’s early IT experiences in General Electric’s information management program "gave me a great technical foundation to build from," he recalls. He explored the various departments of one of GE’s business units during an intensive two-year IT training program.

So it’s not surprising to hear the two sermonize about the philosophical and societal importance of giving the next generation of IT newbies a helping hand. United Technologies Corp. (UTC) immerses new IT staffers in a whopping 27 months of work in UTC’s seven operating units. Nextel offers six weeks of IT and business schooling and mentoring within its departments.

These kinds of training programs are increasingly rare in this age of outsourcing and cost control, in which many CIOs see no future in developing the next generation of IT leaders. According to our "State of the CIO" research, CIOs rate staff development dead last in terms of effectiveness and, consequently, in how often they offer entry-level training programs.

Yet three CIOs in three very different industries—LeFave, Doucette and Steve Jasinski of O’Reilly Auto Parts, a midmarket automobile parts distributor and retailer—see value in IT entry-level recruiting and training. These CIOs are fully aware that the benefits will not show up immediately on the bottom line. But they say that the money spent on these programs will help develop new staffers faster and give them a deeper business skill set, as well as elicit company loyalty.

Before we bestow a corporate humanitarian award to these CIOs for their service to recent college grads, however, it should be noted that LeFave and Doucette are among the many CIOs who outsource a ton of IT entry-level jobs. "I’m not trying to portray myself as Mother Teresa," says LeFave, who has billion-dollar outsourcing deals for billing, customer care, data center and help desk operations, but "we do have a degree of social responsibility in all this."

Doucette outsources billions of dollars worth of infrastructure support and application development for UTC’s operating companies. (To read about his hard-won lessons on outsourcing, see "Inside Outsourcing in India" at www.cio.com/061505.) But he emphasizes that there are critical functions—such as business analysis, architecture, key programmers and project management—that he’ll always keep in-house. And that’s precisely where he schools his young apprentices. "We provide them with as much exposure to business processes, systems and leadership as they can handle," Doucette says. "And with the program, we guarantee our success."

United Technologies: Business Acceleration for Fast-Trackers

United Technologies’ three-year-old program, called the IT Leadership Program (ITLP), is all about how new IT employees can adapt to and succeed in the varying business cultures of UTC’s seven operating companies: Carrier, Hamilton Sundstrand, Otis, Pratt & Whitney, Sikorsky, UTC Fire & Security and UTC Power, which together recorded $37 billion of revenue in 2004. ITLP associates work in three units for successive nine-month stints. They are challenged in skill sets such as system architecture, contract management, project management, business analysis and leadership. "We’re trying to give them five years’ experience in 27 months," Doucette says. "All assignments are stretch assignments where they can accomplish something."

Doucette modeled ITLP after a training program in the corporate finance group. His first class of six associates, each of whom applied for the program and went through multiple rounds of interviews, is scheduled to graduate in September. "You start off a little green," says Rahul Krishnan, a member of the first class. "But going through the program has been a growing experience, because every rotation is different." An action committee, led by Manager of IT Leadership Development Evelyn Bunnell, determines each rotation, basing it on the associate’s interests and skills as well as the IT needs of the business units. The sponsoring business units fund each associate’s nine-month stay.

During his first rotation at Pratt & Whitney, Krishnan focused on execution, working on projects that were near completion or ones that had been done before. On his second rotation at Carrier, he was given a tougher assignment—a new project without much to go by. "You’re starting with a blank sheet of paper," Krishnan says of his project. In the third rotation, at Sikorsky, he is now focused more on the intricacies and complexities of project management. "It’s challenging because of the fact that everything I’m doing is new," he says.

During the first rotation, Krishnan worked on a team that had been successful in the past and that had a good system in place for imp-lementing IT projects. "Things moved very smoothly," he says. On the second rotation, Krishnan was faced with members of a Carrier business group "who weren’t necessarily too keen on working with IT on a project that hadn’t been done before," he says. "It was not the same IT infrastructure as Pratt & Whitney, and [the project] took longer to get off the ground."

That’s exactly the kind of challenge that Doucette and Bunnell were hoping the associates would face. "It shows them what a good leader is," Bunnell says. "Can you get things done without getting people up in arms? Can you adapt to the new environment and engage that new skill set?"

Krishnan felt pretty low when his Carrier rotation ended because he thought he hadn’t measured up to the challenges. But when he debriefed with his Carrier manager and Bunnell after the rotation, they asked him to consider how far he had come in nine months. He realized that the going had sometimes been tough and frustrating, but the lessons were there. In addition to a lot of how-tos of project management, Krishnan says he learned much about people management—the importance of first impressions, humility and a professional manner. "If I learn at this kind of rate, what could I learn in nine more months?" he says. "I had to experience that [challenge] firsthand."

Rashaun Ashley, a member of the 2005 ITLP class, found the stretch assignments both challenging and bracing. "They let you stand on your own and see what you can do in a stressful initiative," he says. But a big dose of humility comes with the independence. "You also have to learn when a situation is out of control and find someone who can help you fix it and put it back in perspective," he says.

Entry-level employees marked as high potential can experience resentment from low-level IT staffers who are not in the program. Ashley says that during his last assignment, he heard other employees saying, "Here, Mr. ITLP, you can take care of it." (UTC has hired two entry-level employees per year, on average, who are not part of the ITLP program.) Though not an intended part of the process, how the candidates deal with assimilation into business groups is a valuable part of the maturation process, Bunnell says. "What we’re trying to do is take an entry-level person and make him into a position much higher," she says. "So we need to be sensitive to those employees [not in the program] who are wondering, Why can’t this be happening to me?"

On the flip side, Bunnell says she has had to make sure ITLP associates aren’t displaying any entitlement. In a recent case, one ITLP member dropped Doucette’s name during a sticky situation with a high-level employee. Bunnell used the incident as an occasion to talk with all the trainees about the need to exercise politics in the workplace. "We have to prepare them to be humble," she says.

For their part, ITLPers cite visibility with executives as one of the prime benefits of the program. "When they’re talking about their vision, you get a sense of the strategy and how you’re going to deal with the business," says Krishnan. "You lose that at the microscopic level." Because of the attention that management gives to his rotations, Ashley says, "I’m not here without a goal, without a scope."

Looking back on the first class, Doucette acknowledges that the goals of the program were aggressive. "We wanted to push them but also give them enough support," he says. The support comes in many forms. The business sponsor keeps an eye on the associate and gives him a performance appraisal at the end of the rotation, with input from the ITLP action committee; the associate also receives a recommendation for his next rotation. "The associates are very interested in feedback," Bunnell says. "At the end of nine months, everyone’s anxious to get into another position that they want." All of the ITLPers also meet monthly to talk about issues aside from their current job, and they each have various mentors from the action committee if they prefer more private discussions.

After associates finish a rotation, they have to give a presentation to UTC’s CIO Council (made up of the operating companies’ CIOs) about their experiences. "It’s amazing to watch how much these kids grow," Doucette says. If the ITLP graduates eventually use what they’ve learned to leave IT and move into other departments in the company—such as sales, marketing or finance—so much the better for UTC. "Everyone doesn’t have to be a CIO," Doucette says.

In the end, the ITLP program ends up being like a blend of The Real World, Survivor and The Apprentice. "When we started out, we were six people alone on an island, because everybody hadn’t heard about [the program]," Krishnan says of the group. "And sometimes, it was a little uncomfortable."

Now, says a proud Doucette, "Everyone’s battling to get [ITLP associates] into their business. They’ve brought a whole new life to the organization."

Nextel: A Morale Boost from the Talent Bench

A couple of years ago, Nextel’s LeFave looked into the future of his IT department, and he didn’t like what he saw. "What became very apparent is that there were no means by which we were going to develop a bench strength for the future," he recalls. So in summer 2004, he brought in 17 entry-level staffers to kick off a new training program at the $11 billion company. The new hires were unformed computer science majors who could fit in right away at the scrappy company. "We’re pushing [employees] pretty hard, and we wanted young people," LeFave says. "The training program would give them a foundation and expose them to the various pieces of the business."

He also hoped the plan would infuse some excitement and raise the morale among his staff of 1,000, which had seen their number shrink significantly after long-term outsourcing deals were inked between 2000 and 2002. (For profiles of the people involved, see "Life After Outsourcing," www.cio.com/061505.) "With outsourcing, there’s a degree of uncertainty among the rest of the staff," LeFave says. When he announced the training program to the rest of the staff, "the morale felt good because we were looking toward the future."

The six-week training program consists of an orientation in two parts: practical IT operations and the actual functioning of the business. To start, newbies take a course on IT fundamentals. "Some of it could be redundant for some of them, but it levels the playing field," LeFave says. There are frequent meetings with instructors, program directors and mentors. The participants also attend presentations given by vice presidents from every Nextel department and have lunches and dinners with the VPs, CEO, CFO and head of engineering.

"You learn about Nextel on the whole but about the telecom industry as well," says Kim Jacquay, a member of the first class. "You also see what Nextel is planning and how we could impact that." Pairing the trainees with mentors wasn’t a problem according to LeFave. "We had people lined up to do that," he says. Mentors received HR training so that they could work one-on-one with the trainees.

On the operations side, the participants try out departments that they’re interested in. Some work in application maintenance and support, some in the infrastructure group, others on Sarbanes-Oxley requirements. "We try to give them a real cross section of experience," LeFave says.

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