With a deadline looming and an IT department floundering, a midsize telco provided its programmers with on-the-job mentoring
In June of 2002, Duane Breeden looked out from a window at a landscape of rolling green hills and realized that he could soon face a storm inside his IT department. Breeden, vice president of IT at Ntelos, a regional wireless and local phone service provider in Virginia and West Virginia, needed to replace the phone carrier's legacy systems with Web-based interfaces in time to meet a November 2003 Federal Communications Commission deadline for wireless number portability. The Web interfaces would enable the company to more easily switch customers' phone numbers, but his staff of legacy developers wasn't equipped to do the upgrade. A failure to meet the November deadline could put the company out of business.
Breeden had three choices: He could outsource the project, hire consultants to do the work onsite or train his staff to do the work themselves. Breeden had seen his share of cocky consultants parachute in to do a project, and then leave without training staff developers. He was wary of outsourcing because he had just spent two years building up his staff, and he didn't want to discourage them - or worse, lose them. So he chose to train them.
With a deadline looming and resources tight, Breeden chose an unorthodox approach. He hired a select group of consultants not only to train his staff, but also to mentor them and to ensure they completed the project on time. The bet paid off, both for Ntelos and its IT staff. Breeden met his deadline, and today, most of his software developers are proficient in software languages that run on the .Net platform. The developers - some of whom are over 40 and thought they might never learn new, more marketable skills - say they are more optimistic about their futures, and more motivated. Breeden says he will use this training method again in the future.
The dilemma that Breeden faced in 2002 is one that still plagues IT departments of all shapes and sizes: how to upgrade the skills of your staff while moving abruptly from legacy to newer technologies. And providing time out for training is particularly challenging for midsize companies such as Ntelos (which had $US262.7 million in revenue in 2002) that are coping with tight budgets and staffs stretched to their limits. Ntelos's experience illustrates how a mid-size IT department, or any company that wants to train a few people at a time, can benefit from a mentoring program that is focused on getting legacy system programmers to learn by doing.
As Breeden can attest, it is cheaper to have your own programmers do the work rather than bring in a crew of consultants. Morale also gets a boost. At Ntelos, there has been no turnover among the mentored employees after a year, and productivity has increased. Phil Murphy, an analyst at Forrester Research who started his own career as a programmer and has also worked as a consultant, says the method works especially well for programmers and developers, who require a more gradual ramping up of skills than, for example, network engineers, who can more easily acquire discrete skills in a class. Diane Morello, a Gartner research vice president who specializes in workforce strategies, says that consulting companies are often under pressure to finish a project and the trend toward mentoring is moving slowly.
"If a company wants to have mentoring when they hire a consultant, they need to be explicit that they want their staff to have practical training," Morello says.
A Legacy of Outdated Skills
Troubles with IT consultants at Ntelos stretch back for years. When Breeden arrived in February of 1999, there were as many consultants onsite as employees at the 105-year-old telecom company. At the time, the company had 22 IT staffers and roughly 30 consultants rushing to convert its core billing system for Y2K compliance. The IT staff was not skilled enough to handle the work, so the consultants took up the slack. The arrangement left an atmosphere of animosity. "Staff would get upset because the contractors were getting the new, neat stuff, and they were getting old and more cumbersome work to do," Breeden says.
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