General Mills: The College-Friendly Company for IT

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With about 28,000 employees worldwide, General Mills (GMI) is perhaps best-known for food and brands such as Pillsbury, Cheerios and Wheaties. But for those in the IT job market, it might be interesting to know GMI actively recruits IT staff on college campuses.

Not only are college campuses favored places to find new employees, those invited to work in IT for GMI — one of the leaders in the $7.7 billion U.S. ready-to-eat cereal industry — can enjoy a continuous learning environment that includes internal and external opportunities such as multiple job-rotation assignments and subsidized certification.

“When we hire new college employees, during their first five years, we rotate them to three different jobs in IS (information systems) to get them experience in different areas of the business and in different technologies,” said Michael Meinz, GMI director of information technology. “Then, as they continue in their work at General Mills, we’ll pay if they want to get a master’s degree in computer science or a master’s in business. If they want to do certifications, we’ll pay for the study materials, and if they pass, we’ll pay for the exam.”

All IT employees at GMI build an individual development plan with their manager. This plan is part blueprint for their career path and part diagram for learning. It outlines which area of technology employees will pursue, via what outlets and what, if any, certifications might result.

The continuous learning programs and job-rotation opportunities are part of the reason GMI’s annual turnover rate is less than 3 percent, Meinz said.

“We’re not just going to train you and not put that to use,” he explained. “It’s with a given idea that you’re going to use that training somehow, and it’s worked out between you and your manager as part of the individual development plan. That includes taking college classes — if you want to get an MBA or a master’s in software engineering, it’s all part of your individual development plan. We think that’s a big contributor to why we have one of the lowest IS costs as a percent of sales in the industry.”

As with many of his colleagues, Meinz started at GMI when he was young. He said the company’s focus on recruiting young employees helps it maintain a diverse workforce.

“If you look at the different areas of the company, whether it’s marketing or engineering, we get a lot of good ideas out of our young employees,” he said. “And as they mature, they’ve got experience within General Mills, within the industry, and they become more valuable to us throughout their careers.”

There are also a lot of job opportunities for experienced IT professionals. GMI’s IT department numbers nearly 600 and features a mélange of different job roles, including software developer, technology architect, database administrator and Web developer.

“We always look for people who have a good balance of technical and soft skills,” Meinz said. “What’s key is that they’re passionate about their work and about what they want to do, that they’ve had some experience working in teams and doing projects. They should be able to communicate effectively.”

Meinz said being able to write is important, as is being able to get up before a group and give a presentation. Being organized and being able to juggle multiple projects at once is also necessary.

Additionally, prospective IT candidates should be able to conduct interviews, which might be necessary when getting to the bottom of a concern from a fellow employee in another part of the business.

IT candidates not recruited from the recent college grad pool generally have to be more technically skilled, as well.

“When we look for people in that area, it’s generally for a specific job that we have an opening for that we couldn’t fill with a college hire,” Meinz said. “We’ll be more specific about the skills there. If we’re looking for Visual Basic .NET experience or SAP BI or SAP ABAP, we bring them in, put them through a testing and interview process with a number of people in the IS department to see if they have the knowledge that they claim, and we see how they answer questions and how they interact with people.”

Once onboard, IT candidates can venture onto one of two career paths: managerial or technical. This type of specification doesn’t happen immediately, however.

“In the beginning, we actually hire most people as programmer/analysts,” Meinz said. “In traditional IS, those are two separate jobs, and the systems analyst would throw things over the wall to the programmer. We combined them, and that’s a big job enrichment for our people to have, so that the programmer, who’s going to do the work, is actually talking to the end-user instead of having a middle person in there. A lot of our employees tell us that they like being able to do that.”

GMI also starts new employees and college graduates as desktop support analysts.

“They maintain the PCs, install software on the PCs and help write macros and do things around the Windows desktop,” he said. “Those are our two entry-level jobs. Once you get to the point where you could become a first-line manager, you can choose to be on the manager career path or the technical path. They pretty much run parallel, with each requiring broader skills and accountability as you progress. Although, on the technical track, you are required to know more in-depth technology across different technologies.”

To progress on the technical career path, Meinz said it might not be unusual for an IT staffer to be a VB .NET developer and a SAP ABAP developer or know how to do Oracle database design and administration, as well as UNIX systems administration. GMI encourages people to move around and learn different things rather than just staying in one job.

In addition to the job-rotation opportunities, GMI also provides many outlets IT staffers can use to develop advanced technical and soft skills. The Online Academy, GMI’s online curriculum or Web-based training, is available at employees’ convenience to teach technical and nontechnical skills.

The General Mills Institute, a series of development programs designed to provide all General Mills employees with essential knowledge and skills applicable for all functions in various career stages, hosts classes for different kinds of leadership, depending on whether the employee is a first-line manager or a first-line director.

“They do things for new employees, like have ‘core week,’ where they teach about the history of General Mills and all the different functions of General Mills,” Meinz said. “We have a new-employee orientation in IS, where myself and several other IS directors will talk about IS careers, projects, what our philosophy is, what our strategy is and what different technologies we use. We have a project management class, where we teach how to do our style of project management and what our standards are. We also have regular meetings for interest groups.”

In the interest groups, all the people interested in Oracle might meet once a month to discuss issues in the Oracle database software. People doing VB .NET development might hold a similar meeting to share something they’ve learned, something that’s coming up or a resolution to a problem. For instance, if someone has completed a new system, that person might demonstrate the new system at the meeting.

“We encourage employees to put together what we call reading groups, which may or may not result in some or all of the employees taking the associated certification test — sometimes they just read to learn rather than to pass a test,” Meinz said. “Then, we have the option to periodically go over to the University of Minnesota Management Information Systems Research Center. They put on seminars that we encourage our employees to go to, where they bring in industry people from around the country.

“Then, of course, there are university and college classes and off-site training, where we send somebody away for a database class or a Visual Basic .NET class. Some of it is certification training. Some of it is just a class that is done by the vendor to train you on a particular product.”

Despite the myriad continuous education options GMI offers, a potential IT candidate’s best way to catch the recruiter’s eye is to earn a college degree. Meinz said General Mills looks at that first, unless there’s overwhelming job or industry experience that might be equally impressive. Certifications act as the proverbial icing on the cake.

“We want that college background because you get the theoretical concepts, the basic ‘what’s behind all this?’ With certifications, you get the operational knowledge — how do I actually do something with this particular tool or product that the certification is around?” Meinz said.
“The degree is probably going to be the first thing that we look at, along with the experience, and then certifications are really nice to have on top of that.

“They give you a nice, warm feeling that this person has got some passion because they’ve taken the time to do the certification, and they care about learning. It’s something extra that people put themselves out to do. It’s a real plus when we see someone who’s done that, but if they can’t interact with people, they don’t work well in teams, they can’t write, they can’t be on time, the certification doesn’t help.”

So, if you’re thinking about applying for an IT job at GMI, consider first whether you hold a four-year degree. Next, tally up your experience and relevant soft skills. Finally, consider how to leverage any certifications you hold so they offer something of value to the organization that might sway the powers that be in your favor.

Meinz said it also helps to heed the advice of mentors or others with knowledge that might be useful not only in your job search but in navigating your career.

“I’ve received lots of advice in my career,” he said. “Back in 1973, when I was just two years out of the Navy, one of the IS managers at General Mills, who has long since retired, came to me and said, ‘I’d like you to study and take this certification test.’ I’d never even heard of certification tests then, and there weren’t very many around in 1973. I studied and passed, and I think it gave me confidence and credibility within the organization.

“I was pretty young, and a lot of the people who were working here at that time were a lot older than me. That gave me credibility in their eyes, and the confidence that I got after I passed the examination and realized, ‘Hey, maybe I really do know this stuff,’ carried me through a lot in my years to come.”

- Kellye Whitney, kwhitney@certmag.com

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