Continuous learning and diverse thinking: Distilling the upsides of an ICT graduate programme

In our latest State of the CIO survey, we asked respondents - 131 most senior heads of ICT in New Zealand and Australia - whether they have a graduate programme specifically for the ICT department.

Less than a fifth (13 per cent) said yes, with just 10 per cent saying they are planning to introduce one this year.

The handful of those who have started such programmes said the top goal of the graduate participants, not surprisingly, is to get professional career development and opportunities, followed by innovative and creative opportunities and skills training.

Perhaps, a bit concerning for the respondents, is that the fourth top reason is to “use the organisation as a stepping stone to a larger corporation.”

Yet CIOs and other ICT executives, who have been involved in graduate programmes, attest to the advantages for organisations that have started these initiatives.

At the same time, they were forthright about the issues they faced in implementing these programmes, ranging from logistics to difficulty in finding the best candidates.

As one CIO pointedly said, “It's a challenge to ensure we have appropriate things for a graduate to do that are within their capability, but also stretch and grow them.”

So we asked ICT leaders who have been involved in graduate ICT programmes to share lessons learned for their peers.

They also share other approaches for similar programmes that aim to build and strengthen the next generation of ICT professionals.

Step into continuous learning mode

John Bell, group CIO at Fletcher Building, introduced a graduate recruitment programme in 2016.

“The initiative is designed to ‘change the mix’, introduce fresh talent in tune with modern technologies and their application in both domestic and working life,” he states.

Bell says Fletcher Building started with eight graduates and now takes in approximately 10 new graduates each year.

For those who are starting a similar programme, Bell shares some key advice.

First, he says, is to start the recruitment process early.

Identify team and manager early as this can impact target learning institutes, especially for a global company, says Bell, who leads a team of 400 (including contractors) supporting 39 companies across 40 countries and over 900 locations.

Understand the competencies required as this impacts target candidates and required qualification, he adds. Make sure the manager is involved in shortlisting the candidates and is prepared for the interview.

Second, is to ensure the managers have the maturity to develop talent within their teams.

Have regular development discussions, he says. This will also highlight if the graduates want to rotate or work in another area. “The graduate settles better if there is depth of experience within the team,” explains Bell.

“Make sure as well the graduate is clear around salary and growth opportunities, should their performance meet the targets that were set.”

He also stresses, “Ensure the graduate ‘owns’ something early as this creates a sense of worth, it’s motivating, it allows the grad to reflect on their success.”

Bell says it is important to establish a support network around the graduate.

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It's a challenge to ensure we have appropriate things for a graduate to do that are within their capability, but also stretch and grow them

He recommends holding regular 1-2-1 meetings, to provide a continuous feedback culture, in contrast to an annual review; assign a buddy to answer their day to day questions; and a mentor from another team or department.

Another effective strategy is to establish a “community of graduates”, whose members can join team building and social events.

He also cites the importance of having a graduate induction or onboarding programme. There should be a published calendar of events, “something to look forward to. ”

According to Bell, these events should include organisation and IT-related events. Have mini-projects within the programme.

“Whatever the time period of the programme, there should be a graduation to reflect back,” he says. “At this point, remove any reference to ‘graduate’ in the job title.”

The thing you underestimate is the time and effort to develop the graduate programme...You need to do the rotation, the rosters, and you have to make sure that you have got a learning and development plan Nisha Clark, Mercury

Plan well, otherwise, don’t do it

Nisha Clark has worked on ICT graduate programmes at Mercury, where she is head of ICT, and before that, at Vodafone.

She discloses that Mercury has a graduate programme for engineering graduates, and this was driven out of their power generation business.

“This is the first time we have done it for ICT and I think it has worked, it has been a good fit for us,” says Clark.

She shares that the business driver behind the creation of an ICT-graduate programme at the electricity generation and electricity retailing company was to go beyond traditional thinking in the ICT space in a legacy environment.

“If you think about where technology wants to be, which is machine learning and AI, you need to figure out a way on how to bring in different ideas, different thinking, and different experiences.”

“When you have got a legacy based workforce, that is what you know about technology. The graduates bring you new ideas and they quite freely tell you if it is not a good idea,” she says, smiling.

This was a similar business driver for the ICT programme at Vodafone.

“The problem we were trying to solve was to bring a new generation of thinking, of new leaders, as they will eventually become the leaders in the organisation,” explains Clark, whose last role at Vodafone was head of application design and delivery.

She says Mercury started with a “very small trial” for the graduate programme.

“The challenge is the company has to get behind it,” she says. “You need to figure out what is right for the company before you get the next batch.”

She shares that Mercury started its first ICT graduate programme in 2017, and recruited participants from three schools: Manukau Institute of Technology, AUT, and University of Auckland.

They held a one-day workshop for the students. The first half of the workshop was spent on problem solving, and the second half was an interview with the students ‘speed dating style’.

“That was good as you got to know the people, where they came from, and what excites them,” says Clark.

From this group Mercury chose three graduates to join the programme.

“At Mercury,” she says, “you will definitely be placed in the organisation. You will come in for two years, and after that, we will keep you in a job.”

This was different from other graduate programmes wherein participants come in for two years and if successful, would get a role in the company.

According to Clark, the company initially thought of implementing the programme for just a year, but they decided to make it a two-year tenure so that the graduates can work in different areas.

“This is really good for them as they will know what they really like to do,” she says. “Then we worked with them on where they want to be.”

She says late last year, as they came to the end of the two-year tenure, the three graduates were placed in different roles: junior project manager, developer, and squad master.

Clark says the workshop produced some unexpected benefits. One of the graduates shortlisted for the programme was taken in as a junior business analyst.

So in essence, they placed four graduates in the ICT team.

“We would not have seen her if not for that workshop,” states Clark.

She says they also asked the graduates to tell them what worked for them and where they could do better.

The graduates liked that they were also made to work in different areas (‘rotation’).

Clark says Mercury made sure that the graduates would not only get training, but also certifications in the different areas they worked on as testers, business analysts, and agile practitioners.

“We are making sure each rotation has an output,” says Clark. “They are not just there to learn, they got something, a certification."

“The thing you underestimate is the time and effort to develop the graduate programme,” she stresses, on a common challenge faced by organisations.

“You need to do the rotation, the rosters, and you have to make sure that you have got a learning and development plan.”

Her message to organisations contemplating on starting an ICT graduate programme?

“‘Start,’ for one,” she advises. “Do the planning around the value of the graduate programme, but also educate the organisation about why you are doing it.”

“It is really important that everyone understands you have a graduate programme running, and that there are three to four expectations or outcomes that you want from it.

“It is not like ticking the box,” she says.

“And then, pick somebody who you know is a good fit for your organisation and support them. Otherwise, don’t do it because it wastes your time, and your graduate’s time.”

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It is a long-term strategy...and hopefully other organisations can do the same thing Sue McLean, Transpower

The apprentice

Sue McLean, digital technology services manager at Transpower, says the organisation is trialling an apprentice scheme that will enable one young student a chance to work in one of the most in demand areas in ICT - security.

She says Transpower has been involved in programmes such as ‘Shadow Tech’ that aim to increase representation of women and Maori in ICT jobs.

When they did ‘Shadow Tech’, which lets high school female students join an ICT team for a day, McLean says Transpower specified they wanted to sponsor a school that is near the community where their facilities are located.

They are applying this same approach to the apprenticeship.

They are starting with one student, who will come from a community “that has a direct connection with our pylons".

We are tapping into students who may not have the opportunity to go to a university or a polytechnic, she says. “These students need to start working and providing for their whanau straightaway.”

She says Transpower will pay the apprentice above minimum wage so they can immediately start contributing to their family.

“We will have them on a career curriculum that has three or four pathways, including IT operation, security administration, or network administration,” she shares.

“What we will aim for is the SFIA framework , the skills framework for the information age.”

McLean adds, “What we are looking for us a sustainable career path. The kids can come into it and we can give them a kickstart. They stay with us, or they can move to another part of the ICT industry.”

She says this year, they already have permission to contact their first school to start the programme. A customer liaison manager from Transpower has been talking to the iwi in the community.

McLean stresses that Transpower will start with one candidate, “because we need to do a proof of concept”.

She says that the apprentice will have access to an internal learning system from Percipio (formerly Skillsoft) and when required, will get support to complete certification and examinations.

The curriculum will take them from level zero to level one of the SFIA framework, and they can under instructions, do security operations.

“They will attend a short-term task that has a start-and-finish and outcome, so they can see the day in the life of a network administrator or in IT operation at Transpower.”

She also shares that, “We have quite a high touch desktop and user environment as well so they will be expected to have a stint sitting beside a desktop engineer”.

McLean says the apprentice will have a couple of mentors.

According to McLean, Transpower looked at a similar programme of the Tiwai Point Aluminum Shelter. The latter partnered with the local Southern Girls High School and in 10 years, increased the percentage of females in the workforce up to 50 per cent.

She says that the Transpower apprenticeship programme is similar, but different in a way that it focuses on security operations.

She says halfway through the calendar year at Transpower, they will know whether they should start planning for the next intake for the apprenticeship.

“It is a long-term strategy,” she explains. “We want to have a sustainable pipeline, and hopefully other organisations can do the same thing.”

“All we need is two or three organisations to do it, and we will have 20 hot new talent that are curious and willing to learn, and have got those foundation skills.”

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We know we can bring these good calibre people up to speed in our organisationSachin Bhatia, Mitre 10

The IT guided accelerator programme

Sachin Bhatia, IT service manager at Mitre 10, says an IT guided accelerator programme can also help organisations that are recruiting graduates.

He says the four-week programme can be extended to other professionals, as well as those who are reskilling or going back to work following a career sabbatical.

“It can be for anyone who has either experience in ICT through studies or work, but want to know more about other areas and gain real life experience in the ICT space,” he explains.

During the first two weeks, the participants will attend seminars and presentations on the different ICT fields, and during the last two weeks, they can then work on areas that interest them.

“These two weeks of classroom training takes them through the basics of IT support to project management, delivery, devops, scrum...everything,” says Bhatia.

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