The U.S. Postal Service: Skills and Certifications
The IT department of the U.S. Postal Service employs a little more than 1,300 people. That’s not terribly big in comparison to the total number of Postal Service workers (700,000!), but the impact these busy souls have on the organization and the country is huge. Consider that the U.S. Postal Service runs the third largest infrastructure in the world, and probably the largest intranet as well. Now consider that in this $69 billion operation, IT must do every job role imaginable, from operations to business portfolios, developing and maintaining applications, and running two large data centers with literally thousands of servers and hundreds of thousands of workstations. Oh, and while all that work goes on, everyone must do their part to help maintain the company’s reputation as one of the most trusted organizations in the United States. No pressure! Think you’ve got what it takes to work in IT at the Postal Service? We’ll see.
“We want people that can get results and make things happen,” said James L. Golden, CISSP, manager for IT governance, U.S. Postal Service. Golden said achievements are extremely important when he considers a potential candidate. “Then integrity, technical skills, which basically depend on what job they’re in, and business acumen. We find it very important that people understand the business and are able to relate to the business. We want self-starters. They have to be able to work as a team. They must be customer-focused and cost-conscious.”
Soft skills are equally relevant. In fact, Golden said they may actually be the key to the organization’s success. Without project management skills and the ability to effectively communicate or manage relationships with co-workers and customers, technical ability, business acumen and achievement don’t cut it. “Most of our achievements are through large programs or projects that we run here,” Golden said. “Then we implement them and run them throughout the organization. To do that effectively, you have to be able to work with people and communicate with them very well, and if you can’t build, plan and manage a project to its completion, you will not be successful in this organization.”
The Postal Service recruits for employees who fit specific requirements. Based on the role or job available, selections for full-time or contractual staff are carefully screened to ensure a great fit. For existing staff, the Postal Service keeps a close eye on industry technology trends, so it can provide the training necessary to accomplish the job ahead of time or just in time.
“We encourage self-development as a whole and we do sponsor it as a company,” Golden said. “I won’t say that we fund everything that everyone wishes to take, but if it’s business-related and the funds are available, we absolutely do support our employees in getting the training they need. That’s critical and very important to us. We not only look at the technology skills, we look at people who can be managers and lead this company. We also encourage them to get more formal training, such as finishing their college degree if they haven’t, or management development training as well.”
On-the-job training covers various aspects. For instance, U.S. Postal Service technicians contract out and run one of the more complicated telecommunications areas in the country. They manage these systems using a combination of program management, contractual and technical skills. Technicians also handle applications development. “We probably do 50 percent or more of our own development, then we contract some of it out, but we’re doing less and less of that contracting, so we have to make sure our employees have the necessary programming skills, systems analytical skills and business skills to determine how to come up with the proper business solutions,” Golden said. “Some of that is done through vendor training, but in many instances, it’s how you relate and do that within the Postal Service.”
For those who want to know how high they can climb and what the steps are like up the Postal Service career ladder, there are prescribed paths based on the role you play in the company’s infrastructure, telecommunications or applications areas. There are specific job skills and specifications from the entry level through the higher technical level and further up through the managerial ranks. “To go to the next level, there are two things you need to do. One, you have to prove that you’ve worked at the entry level effectively, and you have to gain the skills to go to the next level,” Golden said. “Going to the next level generally means you have more expertise until you get to the higher levels where you become more management-focused. You have to have more expertise in the subject matter that you’re managing, be it applications development, telecommunications or computer operations. Then you also must compete within the organization. While we generally have fewer jobs as you go up, our employees are encouraged to get the necessary skills and compete against one another in applying for those jobs. And we select only the best-qualified.”
Some organizations rank education and background lower than experience when looking for qualified IT professionals, but at the Postal Service one does not outweigh the other. “The education, and here I’m speaking for Jim Golden, proves that you can achieve something in a certain discipline and go through the rigor in achieving that degree or that professional education,” Golden said. “For example, someone who’s willing to go through the four years that it takes to get a bachelor’s degree has proved a couple of things. One, they can pick a course and complete it. They can complete it fairly well, and you can look at what grades they make. And they also are driven by a career field, know what they want to accomplish in that career field and can accomplish it. In the certification arena, at least in most of the certifications, it’s a little different in that it’s not quite as broad.”
Golden’s specialty is in the security certifications area. “They generally require that you not only have expertise and proven experience, but also that you complete and pass some kind of standard exam,” he said. “That way, if you look at the playing field, you know the people who have a certain level of knowledge are proven at that one point in time to be able to achieve that certification. After you get most certifications, there is a requirement that you continue that education and document that you have kept this knowledge up to date, not necessarily through testing, but by showing that you’ve taken continuing education.”
What certifications a candidate holds definitely plays a role when the Postal Service attempts to match the right person with the right job. Golden said that when he developed the company’s information security program, and when he brought in contractors and staff, he looked to see if he could differentiate between people who said they knew what they were doing and those who actually did. “I looked at the CISSP, the GIAC or a number of certifications to say at least these people have gone through some rigorous testing to prove that they do understand at that one point in time. I also found something very interesting. The fact that someone is certified means they have the expertise and knowledge in the area. It does not necessarily mean that they can achieve a program, project or the objectives that you have. They may be lacking the management or the general skills and be more of an expert in the specific security area. It depends on what job or what role you want them in. In some cases, you may want someone who has a wealth of knowledge and experience to be an adviser. In other cases, you want someone who can achieve. If you can get both in the same person, you’re a winner. In some cases you may have to say, ‘I’m going to use this one for this role and use someone else fo