A Technical & Professional Development Mecca
For many IT professionals in the job market, whether they are actively looking for work or passively scouting around for new or better opportunities, IBM represents a kind of Holy Grail. It’s a place where techies have access to countless resources and are not only encouraged to develop innovative products and ideas but also provided with the supporting infrastructure to enable discovery.
With more than 330,000 employees in 175 countries, IBM is a global powerhouse with an IT staff of about 200,000 technical specialists in hardware, software, services and research. Organized into three major groups, it includes about 12,000 IT architects in different roles; IT specialists who have expertise in a particular product or service such as middleware, security or in a particular industry; and client IT architects. These IBM employees directly serve clients in a variety of industries.
While proven technical expertise is a key requirement for all potential new hires, IBM places equal value on soft skills such as the ability to collaborate, embrace change and adjust to a rapidly changing world. Also important are the ability to enable innovation and a demonstrated respect for the diversity inherent to IBM’s multinational culture.
Those looking to join the organization also need to model IBM’s three core values: dedication to every client’s success, innovation that matters for the company and for the world, and trust and personal responsibility in all relationships.
“We care about whether people embrace those values, and we also have some foundational competencies that come before the technical capabilities. We are looking for people who have mastered, at certain levels, foundational competencies around teamwork, collaboration, client focus and communication,” said Ted Hoff, vice president of learning and chief learning officer.
“We want people to be passionate about what IBM does around embracing change, around the core ethics of the company. This is a highly ethical company, and we want people to have not only that as a value but also the competencies to ensure that they understand how to operate in a global environment against high global standards.”
IBM employees fill about 450 job roles, which have been grouped to form career paths. Personalized development opportunities to build foundational competencies or specific technical skills flow from these established job roles for current and future positions.
“Everyone at IBM plays at least one role, perhaps two,” Hoff explained. “For example, I play a role at IBM called ‘learning leader.’ I also play a role called ‘manager,’ both at an executive level. For every role at IBM, we define the foundational capabilities people need to have. If they are working with a particular client or industry, we also ensure that they have the specialized expertise they need to serve a client in that industry.”
According to Hoff, to succeed at IBM, an IT architect will need to collaborate; be an effective team player; take leadership; know how to act with high, global, ethical standards; and have a passion for the business. Technical expertise is an addition to these foundational professional competencies and capabilities.
“If they want to become managers or executives, there’s a next order of leadership competencies. On top of that, we also provide an explanation of the technical capabilities they need to have. If their focus is being an IT architect installing networks in banks — a very complex endeavor — they also will be given a list of the specific knowledge that they need around banking processes and the nature of banking systems. That’s one of the core things that IBM does for a key set of our clients. It’s all one picture that combines soft and technical skills,” Hoff explained.
The competencies and capabilities required for current and potential job roles have been carefully broken down for easy employee consumption.
Hoff said that, when hiring and/or promoting technical people at IBM, the company quickly is reaching a point where there is a fairly even balance between technical capabilities and the underlying personal and professional capabilities people need to succeed. This is partly due to the nature of work at IBM, which demands a global team effort.
“We’re all working with people in other countries by phone and through various kinds of technology,” Hoff said. “Our staff members have to be able to work with people from all kinds of diverse backgrounds, technical capabilities and perspectives. They have to take initiative, be able to drive with energy around ambiguous situations. It’s essential that they also have passion in order to succeed in this company — they have to value what we do as IT professionals.”
IBM employees are privy to a variety of learning and development programs via an initiative called Blue Opportunities, which refers to the company’s logo color and nickname, “Big Blue.” These include face-to-face learning, practically limitless e-learning, mentorships, job projects and on-the-job training. IBM uses special applications that allow employees to receive personalized guidance on the learning steps they can or are required to take to fulfill their job roles.
All these development opportunities are tagged to different skills that managers routinely review in a formal employee assessment process that includes self-assessment.
IBM also subsidizes external learning and certification opportunities, spending more than $30 million a year on its Academic Learning Assistance Program (ALAP).
“If an IBMer wants to pursue a particular course in a particular academic institution, he or she needs to gain approval from the manager, and the manager can fund it under certain guidelines that my organization sets,” Hoff said. “The principal guideline is attending a certified institution to avoid anything being done with lower standards or inappropriate use of company money. It has to be an accredited institution, and the manager has to agree that the course develops an area that will allow the employee to deliver higher value to our clients and to the company.”
Certifications play a critical role not only in potential new-hire evaluation but also in the overall IBM work scheme. They were established to achieve three goals: To provide IBM clients with top-quality solutions, products and services developed, marketed and delivered by IBM professionals; to maximize client confidence in the consistent quality of IBM professionals, and to provide a worldwide standard of excellence and success.
To ensure this standard is met, recertification is required every three years. Hoff said IBM supports formal certification processes for its IT architects, and IT specialists in particular, because of the mission-critical nature of their work.
“If you’re an IT architect in China installing a network for a bank, or you’re putting applications and databases in for an insurance company or working with a client on an automotive supply chain, it’s essential to the client that everything work,” Hoff said. “Certification is based on proving your ability. Part of it is capturing knowledge and the fact that you have acquired that knowledge — taken courses, passed certification tests. But the most important element of the certification is that you have demonstrated the ability to get the job done in the eyes of your manager, your peers and, in some cases, your client.”
According to Hoff, although the majority of certifications pursued are IBM-specific, the organization does connect its certification processes with outside entities when it makes sense to cement or create specific competencies.
“Project managers in the technical group have the highest use of an external certification process, because there are, in fact, external project management certification