by Thomas Wailgum

Training for Entry-Level Staff

Jun 15, 200517 mins
IT Skills

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 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,” “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.

Jacquay believes the breadth of training has given her career an early boost. “If you’re not part of a college hire program [such as Nextel’s], you’re just thrown into a position,” she says. “I don’t feel entry-level,” Jacquay says. “I can’t believe what I’ve learned [since] being here.” The training program has allowed her to link academic learning with real-world application. For example, in college she learned how to write a SQL statement. In the training program, she saw how that skill fits into telecom networks and how calls are made and routed through the different parts of Nextel’s networks.

Jacquay found the assignments incredibly challenging. “There were plenty of days when I wasn’t exactly sure what I was doing or what steps I needed to do to get [the project] accomplished,” she says. Conversations with her mentor and senior Nextel employees aided her learning. “The most important part has been to ask questions,” she says. “In order to learn, you have to be willing to put in the effort, picking people’s brains.”

After the program ends, trainees get permanent positions. Jacquay is now an IT business analyst, working on the revenue-generating side of Nextel’s project management office (PMO). “I’m working on requirements for applications that enable sales forces to get their jobs done,” she says. “In the PMO, you get an overall picture of application software, and you’re not just siloed into one specific aspect.”

Despite the current onus to reduce labor costs, LeFave feels a strong need for more CIOs to rekindle the apprentice and journeyman IT roles that helped him get his career started. “You have to have someone who can share the experiences of success and failure with the next group,” he says. LeFave says the cost to set up and run the training program varies, hovering around $50,000. But he is sold on the greater good. “This is the one program that I’ll never forget provided more of an inspiration and motivation to the organization,” he says. “The motivation and the morale is 10 times more important than the economics.”

O’Reilly Auto parts: Talent Pipeline in a Tight Market

At O’Reilly Auto Parts, Jasinski doesn’t wait for entry-level IT programmers to graduate from college. Over the past 10 years, the vice president of IS at the $1.7 billion auto parts retailer has forged a strong relationship with local colleges in the Springfield, Mo., area. He goes after college juniors and brings them in as paid interns.

There is both the “greater good” aspect to Jasinski’s efforts as well as an effort to secure talent in an area where talent is hard to come by. “The programming resources are fought for by primarily the same companies in the area,” he says. Southwest Missouri State is the largest local university, and that’s where Jasinski gets most of his interns from.

Lots of companies hire interns, but Jasinski’s program is exceptional as an entry-level training ground for what he hopes are his future IT programmers. He offers interns real-world experience and gives them a means to apply what they’re learning in college. “We’re not looking to teach them; colleges do that,” he says. “But we want to retool them with our processes and the programming language we use.” During a 90-day probationary period, mentors school the interns in the IT department’s software and in O’Reilly’s editor and change management processes. “They live, eat and breathe as an O’Reilly programmer,” Jasinski says.

Senior staffers act as mentors to the interns as well as eyes and ears for Jasinski. The interns progress through checkpoints, working at standardized programs and test projects that Jasinski has benchmarked with previous candidates. “We know what they should be capable of doing,” he says. “Can they take and create a program to perform the tasks they were asked to do?”

Informally, much of the benefit for the interns lies in being able to soak up knowledge about O’Reilly’s software, projects and culture, through one-on-one interactive work with senior analysts and other team members and what Jasinski terms “osmosis time.” He says programmers are happy to act as mentors, because the interns can take some of the lower-level work off the programmers’ hands, which allows them to work on higher-return projects.

Interns with the right aptitude and ambition—and who can wear the many hats that his small shop needs—are able to move more quickly through the program. “As interns prove themselves, they are challenged with more difficult projects and roles,” Jasinski says. And when a permanent position becomes available, Jasinski knows whether he has the right person for the job.

Jasinski has had as many as 15 interns at one time and sometimes none; it all depends on the changing business cycles and who’s available. Right now, he has four interns among 52 IT staffers. Not all make it through the program. “For every four into the program, we’ll lose one,” Jasinski says. “But more often, we’re right [about a candidate].” At times, nearly 40 percent of his full-time IT staffers are folks who began as interns.

One challenge of the O’Reilly program is when a two-year intern gets the “bright lights, big city” bug upon graduation. “The risk is training someone and creating a marketable college graduate who takes a job somewhere else,” Jasinski says. During the interview process, he’s forthright in asking potential interns about their post-graduation desires. He looks at where they’re from and where they’re more than likely to go after college. Interestingly, Jasinski says his first entry-level job and subsequent move to another company is precisely the problem that he’s trying to combat with his training plan.

Unlike UTC’s Doucette and Nextel’s LeFave, though, Jasinski does not send any IT work offshore—and has little or no plans to do so. “There’s value in having business knowledge within our four walls,” he says. “And there’s enough going on in technology that there’s still a significant amount of people interested in these positions.”

Although their approaches to the entry level differ, these three CIOs say they’ll continue looking to new employees for the same set of reasons: to infuse their departments with talent, energy and fresh thinking. Their collective hope is that more CIOs will follow suit, for the good of their businesses and for the greater good.

Staff Writer Thomas Wailgum ( wrote about UPS’s succession planning program in the May 1 issue.