BNSF Railway Co.: IT and Business Collaboration
The savvy IT job prospector knows to look in unusual places for job opportunities. Unusual places — and unusual industries — might offer the same career options as more traditional, better-known outlets, yet competition frequently is less stiff. Consider, for example, the freight industry. Freight transportation provider BNSF Railway Co. (BNSF) has more than 40,000 employees and an IT staff of 1,200. The company’s network of 32,000 miles of track in the western United States and Canada might just lead to where you want to go on the employment road.
BNSF’s IT department has a varied array of job roles, including architects, application developers, business developers and project managers.
“Most of our infrastructure was outsourced to IBM Global Services in 2002, and most of the support staff moved over and are now IBM employees, but we held a few systems engineers back. We have 100 domestic contractors, and we employ about 250 offshore contractors,” said Jeffrey McIntyre, BNSF assistant vice president of technology services. “We’re also training a group of people to become business process analysts. We have some folks focused on vendor management, primarily managing our sourcing partners like IBM, and we have a person who works as kind of a relationship manager between us and the three offshore companies that we work with. We have trainers, database administrators. I have a group of financial analyst-type people, documentation people that do technical writing, and we’re looking at identifying some new roles in the department.”
McIntyre said as BNSF has become more of a multisourced environment, the company’s IT staff has become less a group of doers and more a group of doers’ managers. In order to build the skills IT personnel require, BNSF has developed in-house training and development offerings such as its skills management program, which includes a focus on both soft and project management skills.
“We put together the program a couple of years ago, and we put a team of people together who identified every role in the department, the types of skills that are required, as well as the level of those. Then we went through and had our folks do a self-assessment of what skills they had and what level, and we used those as a basis to put together development plans for our staff,” McIntyre said. “We’re very big on leadership skills here at BNSF. In fact, we have a corporate curriculum that, I believe, is required through our leadership university for all leadership positions. I can go online and see what courses I’m expected to take and in what time frame. Above and beyond that, we’re currently working on putting together a class on coaching and influencing for technology people. Earlier this year, we finished working with an outside company on a vendor management course for our people, since they’re all dealing with either offshore people or IBM Global Services. We also are doing business process management classes for some of our application developers.”
The impetus for the skills management program was partly the company’s leadership model, partly its tenet to make staff development a priority and partly to create a clear line of sight to the full range of career opportunities BNSF has to offer.
“IT people are kind of black and white,” McIntyre said. “They want to know, ‘If I want to be promoted, what kinds of skills am I required to have?’ Or, ‘If I want to move to another position, what’s expected of me? What skills and what level of those skills?’ We thought this was a good way to go about that, and it also gave us a handle on gaps that we may have had in the department in terms of skill levels. It gives us a good view of the consummate skills in the department. If we’re trying to do projects that require certain kinds of skills, we know immediately who had those skills and what level. It’s been a good thing for the people, as well as a good thing for the management team.”
BNSF employs many training delivery methods to provide its IT staff with training on the job, as well as off-site.
“At eye level, with soft skills and technical skills, there are various types of learning experiences — not all of them classroom. We have a pretty extensive CBT (computer-based training) library. We do extensive outside training. We have a balanced scorecard that we use to measure a number of critical metrics here in the department. We keep an eye on how much training our people are getting. We like to target at least two weeks of technical training per person each year. We also do job shadowing. We have some critical people that are going to be retiring toward the later part of this year, and we’re paring their heir apparent up with them three months prior. They will work side by side, kind of OJT (on-the-job training).”
In addition to more traditional, technical learning opportunities, BNSF places a strong emphasis on business acumen. With that in mind, the company has begun its first forays into financial training for IT staff. Business skills, McIntyre said, add a lot of credibility when IT staff members work across departmental lines. Further, nontechnical skills enable IT pros to enhance their career-growth options within the organization.
“We have a large number of people who join the company in the IT organization and at some point move from IT into some line of business role, be it in finance, marketing or transportation,” McIntyre said. “They’ve got some technical skills, they work with the businesspeople and just through interfacing with the business, they gather a pretty deep understanding of how the business functions. We recently filled one of our vacant director positions with a woman who’s been a director in marketing for 15 years. No technical background at all but a mile deep in terms of understanding the business. She’s going to be in the application development area, and she has three teams that support the marketing department. She has a great perspective on what the business requirements are.”
BNSF also considers certification when recruiting new IT personnel. The company subsidizes Project Management Institute (PMI) certification and training for project management, and IBM’s DB2 certification.
“Our business intelligence area uses Teradata, and they have a certification program. We subsidize that, as well,” McIntyre said. “There are some emerging standards around certification of architects that we’re looking at, but if it’s appropriate, we’ll send people to training, and we do subsidize it.”
McIntyre said when evaluating potential IT staff, neither education, experience or certifications are a surefire hiring magnet. Instead, BNSF evaluates each candidate according to the organization’s needs and where the candidate is in the career spectrum.
“When we’re recruiting college grads, we generally look for education,” McIntyre said. “Internships are interesting, but we generally hire people based on education and interpersonal skills, assuming that we’re going to have to provide them with whatever technical training is required to get them up to speed. If we’re hiring off the street, experience is what we’re looking for. There are a few niche roles in the department where certification certainly could be a determining factor, if you had two candidates with similar experience and education, one with certification and one without. We may lean toward the one with certification, but that’s just one data point in the whole hiring process.”
Also, if you don’t have railroad industry experience, don’t worry.
“It would be nice to have,” McIntyre said, “but the base of employees in the IT world with railroad experience is not very large. Although we do have a number of people in the department who have been with one of the other Class 1 railroads in North America, we don’t go looking for that.”
McIntyre said some of the best career advice he ever received came at a cros