Symetra Financial: An Interview Is Worth a Thousand Diplomas

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A diploma no longer is the ticket to a job. It’s the person behind the degree that matters.

A recent Wall Street Journal article pointed out that degrees — and more specifically the subject matter areas in which they are earned — are losing relevance in the workplace, as religion majors become stock traders and geology majors become IT professionals.

At Symetra Financial , a provider of retirement plans, employee benefits, life insurance and annuities, there’s no hard-and-fast rule about degrees. Some employees have more traditional IT degrees while others have sociology degrees, and still others have no degrees.

“I certainly don’t downplay a college degree,” said Craig Edmonds, IT manager at Symetra. “I have a Bachelor of Science, and it’s pretty important to me and creates a lot of esteem. Is it applicable to the job I’m doing today? Was it something that was applicable to me getting hired? The answer to both is ‘no.’

“The thing about a degree, whether it’s a bachelor’s degree, a master’s or a Ph.D., [is] it tells me nothing about how that person’s going to collaborate and work with [others]. The most important thing that it tells me, and this is very important, is somebody started something [and] exhibited dedication to finishing [it].”

Edmonds feels the same about certifications: It doesn’t matter whether they are vendor-neutral or vendor-specific, although Symetra is more focused on the Microsoft skill set.

“With some of the certifications that Microsoft has, the MCSD [Microsoft Certified Solution Developer] or MCAD [Microsoft Certified Application Developer] or any of those, what it tell[s] me is that [an individual has] been tested on a particular knowledge,” Edmonds said. “Then it’s my job to see if they’re going to fit into this team.”

That’s where interviewing comes into play. Candidates are asked questions such as, “How do you like to be rewarded?”, “Describe the kind of person you wouldn’t want to work for” and “How do you get past conflict?”

In Edmonds’ opinion, a degree tells him none of this.

“You want the people who are willing to learn [and] improve. They have a desire, a craving for knowledge,” Edmonds said. “The ability to work with others is extremely important because there are very few assignments where you’re on your own.

“Back in the day, when I started as a developer, you had your own little office and they pushed the requirements under [the door], and when it was done you pushed the code out. You didn’t really talk. [But in] this collaborative environment, it’s just mandatory to achieve things quickly.”

Because of the state of the market, Symetra’s 200-person IT department, which includes architects, database administrators, application developers, business analysts, quality assurance analysts and project managers, has seen very little turnover. But whenever there is an opening, the department makes a request to the designated human resources recruiter.

The recruiter posts the job, screens submitted resumes and presents a subset of the applicants to the hiring manager for review. Once a candidate is highlighted, he or she goes through two or three interviews so the company can get a better idea of the person’s technical skills, soft skills and related experience and determine whether he or she fits with the team.

“Soft skills are important because you’re putting [these] people in front of customers, meaning the end users of the application,” Edmonds said. “They have to be able to communicate in both a written and verbal environment effectively. [For example], one of the most important soft skills for business analysts is to listen [and] translate the nontechnical business needs into a more technical language.”

Edmonds said his team members need to be jacks of all trades when it comes to technology, and that includes understanding the stored procedures for SQL, the .NET environment, connections to the mainframe and the desktop.

Because Symetra recently parted from its parent company, the company has hired more seasoned talent rather than going for freshly minted graduates.

“Symetra is a new company with a long history,” Edmonds said. “It was part of another company [before] it was spun off four years ago. We had to have people that could step in [and] do the job so we could build our sales and get a foundation out in the marketplace in an attempt to keep from going under.”

But now that Symetra has established itself, Edmonds hopes to tap into younger talent in the coming years.

“The advantage there is that you now have a person who has the basic skill set, the basic knowledge, and you can mold them into an application developer or a business analyst that meets the needs of your company,” he said. “You don’t have old habits to break; you don’t have new habits to make.”

Even with the state of the market, Symetra hasn’t had any problems filling open positions, Edmonds said. But that’s mostly due to geography, as the organization resides near Seattle — a very high-tech locale.

“We have Amazon, Google, Yahoo, Microsoft and a number of other online companies,” he said. “It’s very competitive. We’ve had to pay a premium for [our employees].”

After an employee is hired on at Symetra, there’s a lot of training, but not all of it is IT-intensive, as it includes some business and soft skills elements.

“The development staff is encouraged to at least go and take a couple of classes so they have some business acumen around what the goals of the business are and how insurance works,” Edmonds said. “It’s pretty important that they understand that, too.”

In fact, understanding the business side is essential to getting a job at Symetra. Edmonds won’t even consider a candidate who has no previous experience in the insurance realm, only because there are plenty of candidates in the area who bring this expertise to the table.

“What I discount right away is somebody who has shown that they’re technically capable but [has] no experience in the insurance industry,” he said. “There are enough people with Farmers, State Farm [and] Safeco — all of them located here in Seattle with big development staffs — available to us.”

Even when Symetra takes on recent graduates, there’s an expectation that they learn about the business side.

“It’s different if you’re taking them right out of school,” Edmonds said. “That’s where we’ll have them take classes that’ll give them some idea — at least from a terminology standpoint — what a term product looks like, what it does for a customer, and what an income annuity is, [and] how does that work? It’s real cursory.”

He also encourages his IT employees to learn from their business counterparts, thereby reinforcing the relationship between IT and the business.

“The business people love to say, ‘OK, here’s how it works’ and show their knowledge to the IT staff,” Edmonds said. “A lot of times, I actually encourage [the IT staff] to go in presenting a perception that they don’t know anything about what the business is doing with this, so that it builds the esteem of the business people [and] it develops the relationship. It becomes a close tie because the business person almost operates like a mentor to the IT staff. Plus, then [the IT staff has] an understanding of where that customer’s coming from and where they want to go.”

While there’s no traditional career path at Symetra, IT employees can be promoted within their specialties. For example, an entry-level developer can ascend to one of the four levels of developers.

“The things that determine being promoted to the next level include strengthening of leadership skills [and] broadening of knowledge across the business so they’re valuable between the various business silos,” Edmonds explained.

Once employees reach the highest job level, IT specialist, they can move across the IT department because they have a solid understanding of the business and the applications that support those business units.

“A lot of times you’ll see developers who have [good] communication skills move into architecture roles, the business analyst role [or] into management,” Edmonds said. “I’ve seen business analysts move into quality assurance [or] into management. And then I’ve seen a more complete circle where management staff wants to get out of the administrative red tape and move back into a business analyst role later on in their career. Typically, they don’t move back into a development role because the technology advances so fast [and] getting caught up usually doesn’t happen late in the career.”

At the end of the day, Symetra is looking for an IT professional who likes to work with others, is motivated to learn, is not afraid of change and is adventurous.

“A lot of the situations that you have to solve, [you] just have to dive in and try new things [and] think outside the box,” Edmonds said.

– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman,

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