Sprint Nextel: Calling All Certified Techies

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If you use the telephone (and who doesn’t?), you’ve undoubtedly heard of Sprint and Nextel. In 2005, the two phone giants merged and have since dominated a significant share of the local and wireless phone market.

A national company with a wide range of wireless and wirelike communications services and products, Sprint Nextel is very much focused on mobility not only for its consumers but also for business and government users, said Chief Information Officer Dick LeFave.

“We’re widely recognized for developing, engineering and deploying pretty innovative technologies, including the two robust wireless networks,” LeFave said. “We had more than 51 million customers at the end of 2006. We lead in activities such as mobile data services and instant national and international walkie-talkie capabilities, and we’ve got a Tier 1-level-recognized Internet backbone.”

With about 60,000 employees, a staff of about 8,000 full-time, contract and outsourced IT professionals and responsibility for all the information technology delivery within the business, Sprint Nextel provides many opportunities for IT professionals. Job roles range from analysts, programmers, architects, project managers and account managers to engineers and system administrators. But if you want a job at Sprint Nextel, you have to be smart, and you have to be able to execute.

“We’re very much focused on smart folks, and we’re looking for the balance: folks that are smart and have demonstrated their ability to deliver in different environments,” LeFave said. “We focus also on their ability to fit in. We push the envelope pretty hard on time to market. So, in a time-to-market environment, we work very hard and require a lot of collaborative teamwork. We’re not looking necessarily for the solo 1.000-hitter.

“There’s an important part of our business that requires certain technical skills, but it’s very much a collaborative environment. We’re looking for people that are going to be able to work the long hours and work together as a team.”

Soft skills and project management skills are equally important. In fact, Sprint Nextel University develops programs to build those skill sets internally, using input from other departments such as finance.

Learning collaborations of this kind ensure business-case analyses of company investments are available to help technical staff understand the IT function is a business within a business. They also remind IT staffers that having business acumen, including an understanding of budgets, is critically important.

“We have a lot of analysts and project managers who have a balance between technical and business,” LeFave said. “We have a reasonable number of folks with MBAs and who have technical-based degrees. There are a lot of opportunities to move within the company, whether it be within IT, engineering, finance or sales. Those major functional areas offer opportunities to balance people out, and I think Sprint has done a good job of moving people through a variety of career opportunities to give them that degree of balance.”

Once Sprint Nextel IT staff members have completed the orientation process, they quickly are brought into a team environment to build rapport and effectiveness. The company heavily invests in specific vendor technology training such as Oracle, IBM and Sun, so there is no technology in use that doesn’t have competent technical staff support.

With that in mind, Sprint Nextel subsidizes technical learning and encourages IT staff, especially more senior staffers, to take advantage of external executive development opportunities, using tuition-assistance programs.

“We invoke the idea that individuals are probably the most effective people to design and execute their careers,” LeFave explained. “We offer people different opportunities, and they pursue those. The focus is to have the strength of the technical team so that we can manage our technologies. This is not a model that supports outsourcing the involvement of the technology — we need to be able to pick our solutions, know our solutions and understand them. That doesn’t mean that we don’t use a variety of channels like outsourcing to execute that and use them as opportunities for the expansion of large projects, but at the end of the day, we want to have our people driving the boat. You can’t have them drive the boat if they’re not trained.”

When evaluating potential IT staff, LeFave said Sprint Nextel continues to strive for balance — education is not more important than relevant job skills. He said if the company looks for a specific skill set, a candidate definitely should have the educational component, but it’s also important to have experience.

“If we’re looking for a DBA in Oracle, we would expect that DBA to be familiar with Oracle and not only understand the technology and the coding but also have experience in the implementation and maintenance of that,” LeFave said. “In entry-level positions, we rely more on potential and look at education as a mechanism to predict the success of individuals within the company and how they would fit, but we can bring people along. Training is an important part of that.”

Sprint Nextel also evaluates how well an individual’s personality will fit into the organization’s culture. “Is this a good place for them? Is this pace that we operate on the kind of pace they’re interested in?” LeFave said. “We try to do a very thorough job of giving folks an opportunity through the interview process to understand Sprint and understand where we, as a function within Sprint, have set our direction.”

Vendor-specific certifications play a huge role in the selection of IT staff. Sprint Nextel looks for individuals who are not just proficient but skilled in certain technologies.

“We will provide training, and we will allow people to pursue certifications because, quite honestly, we see that as an opportunity for people to demonstrate their motivation and desire to pursue a career,” LeFave said. “When you look at the variety of ways people’s careers evolve, nobody stays with one company — though there are exceptions — for their whole career. If that is the case, IT is a career path rather than a one-stop shop. You constantly have to grow. You constantly have to be looking at education as a means to advance yourself. Frankly, it adds more fun to the work.”

LeFave said if people enjoy their job and are hungry for learning, that can play a role in their performance and on-the-job effectiveness.

“We never stop learning here,” he said. “In this company, from Gary Forsee (chairman and CEO) down to the folks that are just entering the business, if you give up the hunger for the learning part, you lose that ability to motivate others.

“We define ourselves in terms of these technologies. We define our major standards around IBM, Sun, Microsoft, Oracle, HP. They have a role to play within the infrastructure of our business, and we want to move and support that technology as aggressively as we can. The extent that folks have those certifications is very important — it’s a big plus.”

If employees have technical skill needs, Sprint Nextel will push them to gain a particular certification so they can be more effective, LeFave said.

“There’s a combination of outlook and introspection to make sure that we have the right team training,” he explained. “Believe me, there’s never reluctance on the part of the teams here to want to grow — there is an internal hunger for more training and more certification. When we’re bringing in a new technology, people seem to be knocking on the door to say, ‘How do I get that certification?’ or ‘What do I need to do?’”

Although applicable certifications might tip the scales, it isn’t a deal breaker if potential IT candidates don’t have phone or industry experience. But for certain areas of Sprint Nextel business, it can be important.


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