At Arbella, new graduates fuel IT culture change success

At Arbella, new graduates fuel IT culture change success

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May 23, 2017

When I joined Arbella, I recognized that the IT organization had a tenured workforce and there wasn’t an entry-level hiring program within IT, so I collaborated with HR and brought someone in to help me change that. There were a number of drivers behind the initiative, but bottom line, we were lacking in innovation. Certainly, we were improving and doing incrementally better in the same areas year over year, but there were opportunities to think differently about how we did things. We needed new ideas – new energy – and that was the big impetus behind our entry-level program.

Fast forward to six years later, what began as an entry-level hiring program led to a number of benefits beyond innovative new ideas. It’s transformed our culture, contributed to our position as a “best place to work” in Boston, and enabled us to control costs while increasing our output. It’s been a wildly successful program for us, and I’ll explain a few reasons why.

Diversity of thinking

Since 2012, we’ve brought in four to six college grad hires annually. This is often their first job, and because they are on-boarded in groups, they form instant bonds with the other new hires, and we’ve found that improves their loyalty and retention.

Four to six doesn’t sound like a large number, but we have 125 people in our IT organization. So that means four percent of our workforce annually is brand new, right out of college talent, bringing an influx of new ideas and energy into the organization. We are currently in the sixth year of this program, and we now have 29 folks that have come in through this channel. That’s more than 20 percent of our IT organization at this point, and it’s had a major impact on our culture.

It’s been amazing to see how this diversity of thinking has impacted both the culture of collaborative learning in IT and the output we are able to achieve.

For one, it’s created diversity of thinking. Everyone knows diversity is important, but there’s often too narrow a definition of what diversity actually looks like. It’s bringing people with different mindsets, experiences, and ways of viewing problems together to find the best solutions. Through our entry-level program, we’re brought in more millennials. Technology has been embedded in their lives, so they are naturally always seeking new ways to use technology to make life better or easier.

Taking it to the next level with mentorship

One of the most rewarding aspects of this program has been our focus on mentorship. When the new hires come in, we pair them each with a more experienced, senior person in the organization. So in a team of two, you’ll have a millennial who is exuberant in bringing new ideas to the table – they don’t see barriers or boundaries to what is possible with technology. You’ll also have someone with five to 28 years of experience in IT. They’ve tried and failed at new ideas in the past; they have scars; they might be cynical; perhaps, all they see are barriers to innovation.

What happens every time? The partners end up meeting in the middle, and both mentor and mentee benefit from the experience. They are capable of coming up with great ideas through the lens of all the lessons learned and knowledge of the past. It’s been amazing to see how this diversity of thinking has impacted both the culture of collaborative learning in IT and the output we are able to achieve.

Financial benefits

Diversity of thinking isn’t the only reason to implement an entry-level hiring program. It’s also contributed to positive brand building for our IT organization, and financial benefits for Arbella.

This program has helped us become known as an employee-first company in Massachusetts. As a result, our current turnover in IT is 7 percent – that’s exceptional for an IT job market in which the Massachusetts technology unemployment rate has been quoted at 1.5 percent.

This program has helped us become known as an employee-first company in Massachusetts. As a result, our current turnover in IT is 7 percent – that’s exceptional for an IT job market in which the Massachusetts technology unemployment rate has been quoted at 1.5 percent. Everybody that wants a job in IT, has a job in this state. So having a positive brand and being known as a great place to work is incredibly valuable.

Certainly, we’re not sacrificing our employees' compensation. But our focus on pairing junior and senior employees enables us to develop skills within IT quickly. So, when someone on a top step of the ladder leaves, and you promote someone below them then the cascading impact is several promotions. This results in a highly motivated, excited, and appreciative workforce because we are promoting from within. And, after two, three, or four promotions, you open up the bottom rung of the ladder to bring in even more fresh perspectives.

I would challenge other companies that think they have a “promotion from within” culture, yet an average salary that is spiraling out of control. I’d wager that it’s probably because they are replacing their turnover externally and paying higher salaries every time. If you are truly developing your employees and treating them well, it will be visible in your expenses. There’s no way to hide it when it’s not working.

Developing a formalized entry-level program has positively impacted our IT organization in more ways than we could have anticipated. If you are in need of fresh perspectives, you may want to consider starting one in your organization.

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Paul’s responsibilities at Arbella span infrastructure, application development and IT core services. Paul previously spent 10+ years at Liberty Mutual where he was the Senior Director of IT. He has particular expertise in the design and delivery of cost-effective, high-performing information technology organizations accountable for providing applications and infrastructure to support business strategies.

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