Show Me the Skills: Collabera Values Demonstration of Knowledge

Four-dollar gas, rising food prices and high-profile layoffs: It’s hard to avoid the effects of a sinking economy. But despite recession woes, IT professionals are in luck. The outlook for IT hiring is very positive. In fact, according to Computerworld’s first-half “2008 Vital Signs” survey, nearly 40 percent of IT managers said they expect to increase headcount this year, up from 33 percent in 2007.

As a result, getting a degree in IT is looking more and more attractive to college students every day. Meanwhile, there are arguably more certification tests available now than ever before. With such a boom in IT education, many companies must turn to other mechanisms to differentiate between potential hires.

Collabera is no exception. The $325 million global company provides services mostly to the top 2,000 companies in the areas of application development and management, independent testing, outsourced product development, enterprise software solutions, business intelligence and data warehousing. Collabera operates 22 offices and six distribution centers across the U.S., Europe, India and China.

To satisfy its business needs, Collabera seeks candidates who demonstrate both technical expertise and management capabilities, and hires mostly mid-tier individuals who have between five and eight years of experience — although recent college graduates and senior professionals together account for about half of new hires.

The company therefore distinguishes its more than 4,000 employees not by their academic background but by their experience — both technical and nontechnical.

“Education has become table stakes in the new economy,” said Kevin Elder, vice president and global head of communications and media at Collabera. “You really can’t pass go and collect $200 until you’ve got that baseline education; it’s entirely too competitive of a marketplace. What separates folks is what they’ve done with it.”

That’s not to say Collabera doesn’t value formal education; it’s just that it represents a foundation for growth rather than an end goal.

“Education is important in that it establishes that someone had the ability to start something and finish something,” Elder said. “And the assumption is that when [the person] is done with that education, they have a body of knowledge. [But] the conversation moves very, very rapidly into how they’ve applied that knowledge and [in] what specific circumstances have they been able to take what they’ve learned and apply it in a business context — and then ultimately what the value and the result of that was.”

Likewise, certifications at Collabera substantiate a professional’s knowledge but don’t constitute a make-or-break qualification since the company doesn’t generate any revenue from software licenses. Vendor-specific certifications, however, can play an important role when it comes to products for which the company offers support services.

“For example, we do a lot of work around SAP, so it’s important for us that those staff members that are dedicated to our SAP practice are certified and heavily trained in that particular area,” Elder explained. “Another example would be Business Objects, which is a business intelligence software solution. And a lot of work that we do leverages HP’s Mercury platform [now Business Technology Optimization Software]. We’ll ensure in those specific product areas that our professionals are certified and trained on the latest versions of the software and also on specific functions supporting that environment.”

Ultimately, however, what the technician has done with the certification is valued at a higher premium, since the experience gained in putting the education into practice can add the most value to the organization.

“Our interest immediately moves to, ‘So what have you done with that? How have you used it? What is the benefit of that certification process that you went through to me as an employer?’” Elder said.

Collabera also can leverage these lessons learned in a way that significantly benefits the company and its clients.

“There are lots and lots of different ways in which .Net is used and lots of different types of applications with different scale and complexity,” Elder explained. “So we try to dig deep into that mid-tier person [to learn] how they’ve used technology and what creative ways they’ve seen technologies used in the market that could potentially add value for our clients.”

A degree also signals to employers that the person in question has experience thinking critically on his or her feet. This pertains particularly to college recruits, who typically have little experience to fall back on.

For this reason, when Collabera interviews job candidates, the company works to “evaluate what it is that they actually learned in getting that degree,” Elder said.

One of the ways the company does this is through the “situational interview,” Elder said.

Once a potential hire has passed Collabera’s rigorous technical screening process — which typically consists of online testing, coupled with an interview with a senior member of the technical staff — the candidate is presented with a real-world problem that the company is dealing with. He or she must think through the issue on the spot and offer a solution.

“It’s a way for us to be able to judge how somebody thinks, how they go about solving problems and how they arrive at solutions, and how they defend why they think that is — all things considered — the best way to go,” he said.

The situational interview also presents an opportunity for the potential hire to demonstrate soft skills.

“What we really view as the secret sauce within our organization is our ability to marry the technical capabilities and technical skills with the soft skills,” Elder said. “For us, it’s a real differentiator. [The] ability to see around the corner and help solve problems, that’s a core part of our business.”

Another core element is Collabera’s dedication to integrity, which is one of the company’s stated business values. For this reason, a number of the new-hire interview questions are intended to gauge a person’s ethical compass, Elder said.

“That determines whether or not they’re a fit long-term within our organization,” he said.

If the candidate is indeed deemed to be a long-term fit, the real adventure begins. Each new hire sits down with Collabera staff and charts out a career path based on personal preferences.

“We look at that career ambition over a five- to eight-year horizon [and] map out for each of those individuals how you get from A to Z,” Elder said.

For example, if a new hire with software development experience says he wants to be an enterprise architect, “We will chart out a path that allows him to be involved 80 percent of the time [in] enhancing his software development skills. And 20 percent [of the time], we’re going to start moving him into more strategic-level discussions around architecture,” Elder said.

It’s also possible for an IT pro at Collabera to move into program management or business analysis, Elder said. The company will plot out the employee’s best course of action and offer related opportunities.

Of course, new hires aren’t locked into their career choices and their profiles can — and likely will — change over time. But each year, based on the career paths delineated, the company sets aside a certain number of training dollars. Some of the training is corporate-mandated, some self-directed, but all is valuable.

“It involves not just technical certifications, but also some softer elements, as well,” he said.

That’s because Collabera recognizes the inherent value in investing long-term in its employees. After all, that investment, combined with the company’s unique approach of leveraging its employees’ real-world experiences and building a culture of “shared commitments” with clients, has a distinct positive impact. Not only does it help employees feel valued and create opportunities for growth and advancement, but it ultimately improves the quality of service to clients, helping the company toward its vision of building clients for life.

– Agatha Gilmore, agilmore@certmag.com

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