While Des Moines, Iowa, might not be the first spot that comes to mind for technology innovation, its startup scene is growing and the area offers a number of tech job opportunities.
One company, the Principal Financial Group, is focused on creating a pipeline of talent for its global business. The firm offers a range of products and services including retirement plans, insurance, and investment and banking products. It’s acutely aware that it’s competing for talent not only with local tech companies, but the likes of Google, Facebook and the other big names. In that regard, it must be doing something right: For more than a decade, it’s been ranked in ComputerWorld’s 100 Best Places to Work in Information Technology.
“Financial services companies are high users of information technology,” observes said Gary Scholten, Principal’s Senior Vice President and CIO. “Information is the core of our business. Among our U.S.-based employees, almost a quarter of them are IT pros.”
In addition, PFG operates in 10 overseas markets, which means even those IT pros in Des Moines likely will work closely with offices in Latin America, Asia and Europe.
PFG has a large IT staff – 2,500 globally and more than 1,800 in the U.S. It has ongoing hiring needs that fall into four primary categories: data analysts, both on the analytical side and the technical side of data; software designers; architects; and information security.
“We’re competing for those who want to be entrepreneurial, but can do that within a corporate environment. We try to create an environment where people can do that,” Scholten says. “Part of it is the culture we’ve established where IT is very embedded with our businesses and IT has an ability to influence at a level that’s fairly unusual in a corporate environment.… We expect people to understand our business at a deep level. They like to use technology, but they’re really attracted to understanding our business and what it takes to be successful.”
PFG provides tech professionals with career paths that can be deeply technical or, if they prefer, more business-focused. One recent technical project involved figuring out how to open data to partner foreign banks and other non-wholly owned subsidiaries in a secure way. A more business-focused project was opening business processes to third-party administrators who sell PFG and other companies’ products in a way that made it technically easy and provided incentive for them to prefer PFG products.
How to Read a Job Posting
Principal’s job postings give an overview of the role and the technology a person would be working with, but that’s just the beginning of the conversation, says Matt McDonald, IT recruitment consultant for the company.
“The interview is where you’ll learn about the culture, the team you’ll be working with.,” he explains. “But we don’t pigeon-hole our applicants. If they apply for a role and we find they’re be better at a different level or a different discipline altogether, we’re able to adapt and find them another spot in the company. When we have the top candidates, we want to find a spot for them at the Principal.”
In many companies, IT is a second thought or looked on as an expense. At Principal, technology is completely embedded in the businesses. So, the company’s business leaders see the value that IT brings to the table. They look at IT as an investment, Scholten says.
“That’s a great environment for IT professionals, because they’re working with the business, they can see the impact of what they do on a fairly near-term basis,” he continues. “They have influence. They may be able to change the direction of a business strategy that you don’t see at a lot of companies.”
When it comes to hiring, Scholten’s No. 1 criterion is the candidate’s willingness to be a lifelong learner. “No one is going to come out of university or other work experience with a deep understanding of a global financial services business like we have. So there’s going to be learning going on. The industry changes quickly, technology changes quickly, so they have to keep up with that,” he explains. His second-most-important trait: the ability to work collaboratively.
Advice for Seasoned Professionals
An important – but often overlooked — point it the ability to articulate how your past experience fits the job opening at PFG. “What we’re all looking for is whether this is a job fit, not how smart they are,” Scholten says.
But while technical skills are very important, McDonald adds, PFG also is looking for business aptitude. “While they don’t have to know everything about mutual funds or annuities, we want to know that they can talk to those business partners.”
Advice for Recent Graduates
This summer PFG brought in 75 college interns, giving them experience with an eye toward hiring them after college. It hosted students from 20 colleges in 14 states.
“One thing I learned in working with our interns this summer in our code-a-thon was that although people think that coming out of college they might not have any experience, in reality they have a lot of experience,” Scholten says. “I found out about things they did as volunteers, activities on campus, leadership roles they took on campus. I was impressed with the level of experience they came in with.”
So, it’s no surprise that he advises students to take advantage of the opportunities such internship or other experience outside the classroom.
“At events at local universities, we’re often asked what languages they should be focusing on,” he says. “My response is always that if a person can demonstrate that they can do software engineering tasks, it doesn’t matter if they know the same languages we use in our company. It’s more about their critical thinking ability. With the ability to demonstrate critical thinking, they might not all come out of the computer science department. The ability to speak to examples where they used critical thinking is more important than knowing Java.”