MWH Global Looks for Complete Package of Skills
BackBy Lindsay Edmonds Wickman — August 2008There’s a vast time difference between Denver and Christchurch, New Zealand. If you have IT service centers in both locations, how important is it that you hire professionals who are versed in global etiquette?
At MWH Global Inc., an environmental engineering firm that operates in more than 20 countries and can trace its roots back more than 100 years, CIO Micki Nelson doesn’t just look for technical skills when she’s hiring. She looks at the whole individual and whether he or she can function in a global environment.
“IT is different now than it was 20 years ago when you locked them in a back room and pushed food under the door,” Nelson joked.
“It’s more than just technical skills. They’ve got to have such a broad range of softer skills: communication, customer interface, teamwork and collaboration [capabilities]. IT has permeated every aspect of our lives, so you have to have good, quality people supporting [it].”
MWH’s IT department is composed of 160 full-time professionals, and there are three primary service centers in Denver, Christchurch and Warrington, England. A fourth soon will be added in Pune, India. Because the team uses a “follow the sun” support model, it is inevitable that IT employees will traverse the distance virtually and communicate with counterparts in other centers.
According to the department’s 2007 social network analysis, 88 percent of MWH’s iNET team talked to a team member in another region every week, and 39 percent did so six or more times each week.
“We have a small percentage of people who never talk to someone in another region,” Nelson said. “It’s usually because they are in a region-specific role, and those roles are becoming fewer and fewer every year. [In a] global environment, where project teams span across oceans, teamwork and collaboration are important, and our IT team [has] to be willing to reach out and engage others.”
Because IT at MWH is about more than just technical skills, certifications can help get a candidate in the door, but that’s about all, Nelson said. They don’t impact the hiring decision.
“Certifications [are] attention-getters on a resume,” she said. “If we’re looking for a network engineer and they have all the right certifications, it’s certainly going to get them in the door. But we always make our decision on our technical and soft-skills interviews, regardless of certifications. [They] were far more important 10 years ago than they are to me now, and unfortunately, I’ve seen people who have great certifications and can’t work their way out of a paper sack.”
She added: “I tend to lean toward a college degree, even though it’s not necessarily required for the entry-level IT roles. College forces people to experience areas that they might not experience if they did a pure technical certification or a two-year technical course.”
To determine if a potential hire has the pluck to make it in the global organization, MWH uses a three-pronged interview process. First a candidate has a verbal technical interview, in which two or three employees with senior technical skills ask questions. The candidates’ answers are recorded and reviewed by the technical team.
“They need to have experience with the technologies that we utilize, and we want people who have good, solid skills,” Nelson said. “If they don’t pass the technical interview, they don’t move on to the rest of the interviews. But that’s probably one of the easier things. People either know the stuff or they don’t.”
After passing the technical section, applicants will move on to the soft-skills interview, where they are probed about their collaboration, communication and virtual working skills.
“We use situational interviewing, where we’ll say: ‘You are in this situation; this is what’s happened. What would you do first? How would you respond? How would you handle it?’” Nelson said. “We check the culture fit with our own organization.”
Because MWH is not an IT company, soft skills are especially important, as IT employees need to be able to communicate in non-techie language with customers, who are engineers and scientists. In an effort to improve this dynamic, the department is working to develop employees’ communication skills with customers.
“When we’re trying to meet some sort of a need, whether it’s an internal customer [need] or a client need, if you can’t communicate, if you can’t put yourself in their shoes, if you can’t respond and modify your own behavior based on your customer, you are not going to be very successful,” Nelson said. “We exist to make our engineers’ lives better.”
When a candidate passes the soft-skills interview, he or she moves on to an interview with the potential manager. This last layer in the hiring process ensures the candidate is the best fit for the organization.
MWH’s IT department encompasses a wide range of job roles from help-desk support and field operations to project management and engagement managers.
“We’re a fairly mature IT model,” Nelson said. “We have a strong and well-defined project management office, so we hire technical project managers. We [also] have a group of engagement managers or business analysts who work as the interface point between our customers and IT, so we can make sure that customers’ needs are being translated and met appropriately.”
Because of the array of IT roles at MWH, the organization embraces both young and seasoned talent.
“When we look at our mid- to senior-level technical people, we want folks who have some battle scars,” Nelson said. “But if [we’re] looking at our field ops or our help desk, fresh out of college is fine.”
The turnover rate in the IT department is about 8-10 percent each year, and Nelson likes it that way, as it means she can bring in new talent with burgeoning fresh ideas.
The IT department has found that the most difficult jobs to recruit for are senior-level positions, especially if they can’t be filled in-house first. Based on where the department recruits, the United Kingdom is the most challenging, followed by the United States. However, in the South Asia Pacific area, it’s still fairly easy to find qualified candidates.
“There’s more of a demand out there, and it’s making it more difficult to find good people,” Nelson said. “We’re not an IT company; we’re an engineering company with a nice IT department.”
Once an individual makes it through the rigorous interview process and is hired on, there is no traditional growth path, Nelson said. Employees are encouraged to seek their own development, and the company embraces this philosophy by listing available roles within the organization and the skill sets needed to be successful in those roles.
“We have a lot of movement through the organization,” Nelson said. “We like to bring people into either our field-ops team or our help desk in a more generic role and then allow them to develop their skills in whatever direction they want and move to the higher ranks of the organization.”
“Everybody brings something unique to the table,” she said. “In the world that we live in now, this global environment, if you don’t have the whole package, you’re not going to be successful. You have to be able to communicate, you have to reach out, you have to be appreciative of the diversity that other regions provide and you have to enjoy that virtual environment. Technical skills are only one piece of it.”
– Lindsay Edmonds Wickman, email@example.com