Developing Talent Amid Rapid Change

Cisco’s certification program aims to bridge the worldwide technology skills gap.

By Jeanne Beliveau-Dunn Jan 1, 2013
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0113cover.gifEmployers worldwide face unprecedented skills gaps when it comes to filling technology jobs. Job growth for network administrators, network support specialists and computer network architects alone is projected to grow by more than 20 percent by 2018, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. It’s easy to see how networking demands will continue to grow with the adoption of Internet-based technologies. In fact, analysts anticipate that the number of connected devices will explode from 23 billion today to 50 billion in 2020, which would translate to an average of seven devices per person worldwide.

In the face of such rapid change, more HR professionals should consider emulating the global model we have developed to fill our internal employment pipeline with skilled people.

Development of our education and training business unit parallels growth of Cisco Systems Inc.: Founded in 1984, Cisco entered the Fortune 500 in 1997, the same year the company launched the Cisco Networking Academy to teach high school and college students the technical skills that employees need to work in our company—and throughout the networking industry. With fiscal 2012 revenue of $46.1 billion and 66,000 employees, Cisco develops routing, switching and other networkbased technologies such as application networking services, collaboration, home networking, security, telepresence systems, unified communications, unified computing, video systems and wireless solutions.

Cisco Systems, Inc.

Products and services: Develops and services routing, switching and other network-based technologies such as application networking services, collaboration, home networking, security, storage area networking, telepresence systems, unified communications, unified computing, video systems and wireless solutions.

Ownership: Publicly held, NASDAQ: CSCO.

Fiscal 2012 revenue: $46.1 billion.

Top executives: John Chambers, chairman and chief executive officer; Jim Gemmell, vice president of human resources.

Employees: 66,639.

Locations: 200 worldwide, headquarters in San Jose, Calif.

Connections: www.cisco.com.​

Career Road Map

“Highly engaged employees need to know what their jobs are, what their careers look like, and what they can do in the future to align their strengths and interests,” says Joe Pinto, senior vice president of technical support services at Cisco. So, in developing a talent strategy, our HR leaders made a conscious shift from merely hiring employees to developing a road map for early-, mid- and late-career workers. We strive to hire the best talent, develop our people to their full potential, and motivate and reward employees for achievement.

After developing internal career ladders, we began to look at ways to attract, train and retain skilled talent. Initially, the company offered certification to our own employees, but we quickly recognized that partners and customers could also benefit.

Our first certification program was the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert designation. It was conceived in the Cisco Technical Assistance Center when engineers handling support calls needed more experts. This certification, first developed for our internal experts, quickly grew to include offerings for other employers’ entry-level and professional-level networking practitioners.

Then, just six years ago, we began striving to be more strategic in how we provide networking professionals with the resources they need to accelerate career growth. A partnership between HR and the Learning@Cisco team began to drive that strategy when leaders of the two organizations integrated disparate training to provide definition and accountability. The result is a systematic, thorough, roles-based curriculum. Centralizing our programs enabled us to increase participation beyond our own employees. In the last six years, we have reached nearly 2 million individuals. Cisco’s certifications now outline nearly every technology role in the networking industry, mapping roles by levels and specializations.

Certification has become core to how Cisco managers think about their technical talent. Certifications help us measure workers’ ability to perform and advance in their careers. Because of this, managers encourage employees to study for certification—and the company pays for employees’ training. Workers receive bonuses and promotions after becoming certified.

Certification provides managers with outcome-based metrics, such as passing tests and performing certain job tasks, to measure the impact of education and learners’ capabilities.

Today’s offerings include more than 40 programs, including new training in data center, video and service provider technologies as well as a refresher on security, wireless, routing and switching curricula.

Paths to Advancement

After working as a customer support engineer for less than a year, Tony Allen serves as an example of an employee who went from having no previous information technology experience to embarking on a promising IT career. Just out of college, Allen earned the associate-level networking certification.

His interest in networking was piqued after visiting the Cisco booth at a career fair and chatting with a customer support engineer. “I was not so much attracted to networking per se as I was to the job of the customer support engineer, which involves the problemsolving I’m most interested in,” Allen says. “When I came to Cisco, I had no networking experience and didn’t know a router from a switch. Now, I’m in server virtualization and I specialize in data centers.”

At the other end of the career spectrum is Carlos Pignataro, whose title at Cisco is distinguished engineer. “A guiding principle for my career was how to link technology to customer results and solutions, and how to connect those to business outcomes,” Pignataro says, adding that gaining an expert-level networking certification “was coursesetting and course-changing for my career.”

Education Ecosystem

We now have learning partner programs for students who want to be guided in some type of structure such as a classroom—virtual or brick and mortar—and for students who prefer to learn on their own using books, elearning videos, mobile labs and social media support groups.

How did we grow from an internal trainer to a global educator?

In 2006, Cisco leaders recognized that a partnership model would best serve a global education strategy and thereby expand the company’s available talent pool. This approach has helped us scale up and has kept us in sync with industry trends and customer demands.

Our education ecosystem—made up of Cisco, training providers authorized by Cisco to deliver licensed curriculum, customers and employees—supports the certification programs. We’ve discovered that providing training for our customers and partners is as important as providing it for our employees. In fact, our employees hold just 4 percent of our certifications; Cisco’s partners hold 20 percent, and customers hold the remaining 76 percent.

Different types of partnerships help us recruit new talent and encourage community development and expansion. Examples include:

  • Authorized learning partners in more than 130 countries.
  • Virtual universities.
  • Testing centers such as Pearson VUE that make certification available to self-study participants.
  • Dedicated training companies.
  • Other educational institutions.

In the University of Phoenix partnership, launched last March, executives work together to embed Cisco’s learning curriculum into the university’s standard accredited offerings, says Andres Sintes, senior director of Cisco’s Worldwide Learning Partner Channels. For example, the University of Phoenix now offers Cisco’s associate-level networking certification to its students. Learning@ Cisco provides lecture and lab curriculum to the university for a fixed royalty fee per student, and the university keeps the remainder of the tuition.

We also provide learning materials, collaboration and networking opportunities through the online Cisco Learning Network, which connects more than half a million registered users. In addition, we have a public-private partnership with high schools, community colleges and other public organizations serving more than 1 million students worldwide. We offer them free online curricula, teacher training and professional development for instructors through 10,000 Cisco Networking Academies in 165 countries.

Expanding Your Base of Skilled Applicants

Cisco strives to remove the learning barriers of place, space, time and affordability and to provide education in a variety of ways, including through live, virtual, online and custom on-the job training.

To foster an agile culture of constant evolution, here are a few best practices:

  • Engage and enable your learning community—employees, partners, customers and other stakeholders—to help develop your programs and give feedback on the education you provide.
  • Invite practitioners to develop curricula and teach courses. We recruit leaders internally to conduct programs in their areas of specialization. That gives Cisco experts a valuable practitioner view of the learners and gives us a way to introduce top talent to executives.
  • Don’t go it alone. Engage leaders within your company and customers to create partnerships.
  • Use technology to reach global talent.
  • Focus on a long-term strategy that can fill your talent pipeline and in turn fill your customer base.

As Bob Merry, a vice president of human resources at Cisco, says, “Learning professionals at Cisco have adopted a collaborative, business-centric approach to stay relevant to the various roles and careers at Cisco that continuously evolve.”

Keeping Up with the Industry

We continue to push the boundaries of education. Staying customer-centric and abreast of industry changes is necessary to survive and thrive. We’ve had to work hard to predict where the jobs are moving. Most roles must be reinvented many times in a decade, just as workers must constantly reinvent themselves and their careers.

Our talent-building programs mirror the business needs that Cisco products and services address, and you, too, can invent similar certifications in your industries, even if it is for just one job or one skill set.

The skills we help develop are the skills that Cisco and the IT industry need. Talent is our business because it translates to growth and support for our products and services.

The author is vice president and general manager of Learning@Cisco in San Jose, Calif.

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