Crowe Chizek: Grooming Tomorrow’s Techies

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You may have just completed a four-year IT degree program, but when you take a job as an IT consultant at Crowe Chizek, the learning has just begun.

That’s because the company, which the South Bend Tribune called “a community leader for both in-house employee programs and training,” invests a lot of time and energy in its employees — all 2,500 of them. And it’s quickly expanding its performance services group — otherwise known as the technology group — with plans to significantly grow its employee head count from the current 150 within the next year, said Mark Strawmyer, a technology professional and hiring manager in Crowe’s Indianapolis office.

For this reason, Crowe isn’t afraid to hire graduates fresh out of school, with the intention of grooming them to be tomorrow’s leaders.

“A core component and strategy for us is going out to campuses each year and finding folks that can learn and grow and adapt and be molded into a professional consulting environment that works well for us and for our clients,” Strawmyer said. “One of the areas that’s been the most successful for us has been that campus hiring.”

Strawmyer said Crowe’s approach to hiring is based on the assumption that if a candidate is graduating with a technology-related degree, he or she has the basic tech skills that will be required for the job. Additionally, he said, technical skills develop over time with experience and the rise of new technology. It’s the soft skills that his team is looking for in the interview process.

“Our core focus is on the soft skills side of things: communication — open dialogue, written, oral — teamwork, interfacing with others,” he said.

In fact, the company weighs a candidate’s soft skills equally with, if not more than, his or her education and experience.

“For us, the certifications are more of a plus, and we don’t necessarily require them,” Strawmyer said.

That’s not to say certifications aren’t important. Strawmyer said once an individual is hired on, he or she is required to get certified.

“We are in professional services, so it’s credentializing just to show that, ‘Yeah, we’ve got that base-level certification and that industry recognition.’ It also just helps to ensure that each person is striving toward learning and growing and developing,” he said.

Due to the client-based nature of the company’s business, it depends on an employee’s focus area whether vendor-neutral or vendor-specific certifications are more valuable.

“For example, we’ve got a lot of folks who are PMP [Project Management Professional] certified through the PMI [Project Management Institute], which is more of an industry-specific kind of certification,” he said. “[But] if [we have] a Microsoft-focused client, we’ll go after the Microsoft certifications. If it’s someone in the Java arena, we’ll go after the Java certifications.”

Once Strawmyer and his team have found a candidate they’d like to interview, they’re thorough to say the least. Before bringing a candidate into the office, Crowe will conduct two on-campus interviews that are entirely behavioral-based, meaning there aren’t any technical questions.

“Our core philosophy is you’re coming out of certain programs with certain degrees, so you’ve got an exposure to the kind of types of things that we’re looking for. So our on-campus interview process consists of two 30- or 35-minute interviews [that are] behavioral based, very much example-based,” Strawmyer said. “We’re using that to narrow down those soft skills and the folks with the right kind of orientation or experiences that we’re looking for.”

If candidates pass that test, they are invited into the office for a half-day interview marathon to meet with anywhere from three to five people.

“One or two of those are actual true interviews, and the other two or three are information sessions where [the candidate] can learn more about Crowe and actually [have] the opportunity to ask a lot of questions,” Strawmyer said. “It’s just as much about the candidate getting to know us as us getting to know the candidate. We’ll ask a few technical questions throughout that day but nothing really intensive, really just to get an understanding of knowledge, of background, of experience.”

When candidates are hired, the company instantly snaps into action to specialize, train and develop them. How does the company decide who goes where?

“We focus a lot more on what the individual [is interested] in or what their aptitude [is] or their passion areas,” Strawmyer said. “It certainly always helps [if the individual has industry knowledge]. At the same time, it’s not required by any means. We’ll typically have subject matter experts or folks that are very knowledgeable about the industry who are part of our project that can help provide that learning.

“We’re not expecting anyone — especially coming off the campus level — to either A) walk in the door knowing all about the industry or B) walk in the door knowing all about technology. [That’s] why we’re looking for people with the capability to learn because you ramp up and gain knowledge and experience over time.”

Speaking of learning, Crowe sits down with each new hire and develops an individualized training program.

“We don’t do any sort of boot camp or anything like that. For us, it’s individualized training,” Strawmyer said. “We look at each person coming in; the types of projects they’re going to work on, and develop individualized training programs, whether it’s self-study [or] going to classes.”

In 2006, the National Association of Business Resources named Crowe Chizek as one of Chicago’s “101 Best and Brightest Companies to Work For.”
Once they’ve settled in, Crowe’s IT consultants are given personalized career development plans.

“One of the things we put together is a 30-, 60-, 90-day plan that really just has to do with, what are the concepts, what are the people, what are the projects that we want that person to get exposure to or learn about over the course of the next 30, 60, 90 days?” Strawmyer said. “[It’s] just to make sure we’ve got a good on-boarding process so they’re getting to know the firm — they’re getting to know and meet people, do networking and build relationships, etc.”

Ultimately, employees can work toward remaining on the purely technical side or move more into sales, Strawmyer said.

“We try to [provide] as much self-selection as possible,” he said. “In order for someone to be the most successful over time, it’s best to align them with a direction where they’ve got a passion or an interest. [If] frankly it doesn’t matter [to him or her] and we don’t even know how to decide, we’ll default to our pipeline of work: Where do we have work that’s going to keep that individual busy? The ultimate tie breaker, if you will.”

That career path also is driven by the types of projects the company acquires, he added.

“Most of our early-on learning exposures are geared towards action learning [for] your next project,” he said. “If [the new employee has a] programming background and they’re playing a development role in a project, chances are the early stuff is going to be either shadowing someone, working on part of a project team taking on small tasks or if they’re lacking a few fundamental skills, then we’ll have them use self-study [materials] towards certification. It really depends upon the individual.”

Crowe certainly takes that philosophy to heart.

“We really focus more on finding the right people,” Strawmyer said.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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