Career Advice, Insights, Interviews

Here’s What It Takes To Get Hired At IBM Today

IBM Watson 8

If you haven’t heard, artificial intelligence is the future. From autonomous cars to virtual assistants, the ability of computers to perform functions once managed exclusively by humans is projected to boom in the next decade. Some experts say that humans must merge with machines or risk becoming irrelevant in an AI age. While the situation may not be as dire as that, it’s important for all job seekers and employees to see the trend, anticipate the implications and ride the wave of innovation.

“We are at the cusp of something that is going to be with us for the next several decades,” explains Obed Louissaint, VP of HR for IBM Watson. “It requires a curiosity of thinking about how technology is going to really augment human intelligence and help solve the world’s toughest problems through machine learning.”

At the forefront of this technology, Louissaint is responsible for recruiting and hiring IBMs workforce that will tackle these tough challenges. But surprisingly, the ideal candidate isn’t the tech genius from MIT that we might have assumed. IBM is at the forefront of hiring “new collar workers,” which is a growing group of talent who may not have the tradition four-year degree plus professional school, but may have 15 years of experience thanks to coding camps, massive open online courses (MOOCs) and non-traditional work. New collar jobs make up more than 10% of new hires across IBM — some candidates don’t necessarily need 4 year or advanced degrees.

With more Americans getting their diplomas but fewer enrolling in college, IBM and Louissaint may be on to something. “The world has pivoted. It doesn’t start and end with a degree,” says Louissaint. IBM helped create the P-TECH vocational schools, which involve six-year programs that combine four years of high school and an associate’s degree. Many of the students go on to work at IBM or other tech giants.

So how do you land one of these prized IBM jobs? Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson cut straight to the point with Louissaint to talk about what it takes to be an IBMer and what he looks for in candidates. Oh, and he’s hiring now.

Glassdoor: Obed, you are one of the unicorns in tech because you have been in IBM for 15 years. That is unheard of.

Obed Louissaint: Time flies when you’re having fun.

Glassdoor: Seriously, what is it about IBM that has made you loyal?

Obed Louissaint: My plan was to come to IBM for two years. Then every time that I think that I almost accomplished a challenge, another one presents itself whether it’s personal growth or professional growth. I’ve lived in about four or five different locations. I’ve traveled to nearly 80 or 90 different countries. The breadth of experiences that I’ve gotten here I know I wouldn’t have gotten anywhere else. At every turn of the crank as the business is transforming, IBM is transforming and I find that I’ve been transforming with it.

Glassdoor: Is that indicative of your colleagues at IBM? Is IBM’s culture one of innovation and longevity?

Obed Louissaint: I do. One of the things that I found precious is if you throw yourself at it and you embrace challenge there is a challenge at every turn that you take.

Glassdoor: As VP of HR for IBM Watson, you know better than anyone the answer to this next question— What does the idea IBM Watson team member look like? What do they bring to the table?

Obed Louissaint: First, we test for technical chops. Then you go into “can the person fit in our culture? Do they embrace our values and are they going to be an IBMer?” It’s not that you’ll be locked into a cult, but when we look out into the future do we see the same thing? Is innovation at the heart of your work? How do you deal with relationships? If you are a brilliant loner you may be technically astute but you’re not going to do well here. But if you’re a collaborator and you know how to value personal relationships, you’ll excel. The third thing would be around diversity. When I say diversity it’s easy to go down a path of ethnicity or creed but it’s really about “Are we thinking differently?” Is a candidate going to challenge us to think differently.

So those three things are key: One, you’ve got the technical chops. Two, you’ve got the values. Three, you value diversity in the way in which we value diversity.

Glassdoor: Technical chops and values are traditional things that interviews test for. However, diversity is a tricky one. How do you measure that in candidates?

Obed Louissaint: We ask questions in the interview process around the things that a candidate is interested in. We want to understand the expansiveness of the things that they did while they were in university, how they’re spending their time, what types of things that they engage in? Those types of things will speak to somebody that is more well-rounded than the code in which they write.

Glassdoor: How have you seen diversity of workforce impact innovation at IBM?

Obed Louissaint: We have employee diversity groups at IBM, including executive diversity groups for women, Latinos, Asians, for people with disabilities, people from the LGBTQ community, veterans and for individuals who are living and working with flexible work arrangements. We allow people to be in environments where they feel comfortable working with each other, learning from each other and share experience about how they can help each other grow. I’ve just finished with an interview of a candidate. He asked, “what does it take to be successful here?” I told him, you have to bring your own identity to work.

Glassdoor: IBM’s CEO Ginni Rometty has recently spoken about “new collar jobs.” This is a relatively new term that refers to those without traditional four-year college degrees, but it’s also a new frontier of diversity. How are you embracing new collar workers?

Obed Louissaint: When did you graduate from Stanford?

Glassdoor: 2005.

Obed Louissaint: Things are a little bit different from when you and I graduated. When we were graduating school you got a job and then if you were working for three or four years you had three to four years of experience. Today, we’re going on campuses and finding technical people who already have 5 to 10 years of experience because they’ve been coding since they were 10. It’s such a new world.

Glassdoor: So basically you’re saying that I couldn’t get into Stanford now.

Obed Louissaint: <Laughing> The world has pivoted. It doesn’t start and end with a degree. We’re finding individuals who can go to community college and then practice. They’re going to some levels of trade. They’re doing great and they can perform great jobs in the area of like a cyber security analyst. They could be a computer technician, a web developer. Or go into some of the cities where kids don’t necessarily have access to the same schooling that we did but they can then go into some of these programs and make quite an impression and a name and a career for themselves in a way that is very different than the way in which you and I might have been taught.

There’s a special program that I just started working with called YearUp that takes individuals through a two-year program and then puts them to work in half the time.

Glassdoor: How did you and IBM first recognize this talent pool?

Obed Louissaint: It came over time. When we looked back and looked at the way in which we’ve been employing and the way in which our business have pivoted and where we can and how to leverage skill because at the end of the day skill is the new currency. Where are we finding and where do we get the skills. We found that it is quite a source for talent. It’s about their focus, discipline, and training.

Glassdoor: Changing topics for a bit. Artificial intelligence (AI) is the hot hiring trend. Every techie wants in on AI. What does it take to break in and succeed in this burgeoning (and lucrative) field?

Obed Louissaint: Curiosity. We are at the cusp of something that is going to be with us for the next several decades. It requires a curiosity of thinking about how technology is going to really augment human intelligence and help solve the world’s toughest problems through machine learning. Passion is also very important. Our message is very simple: the smartest people want to gravitate towards the world’s toughest problems. If you’ve got that curiosity and passion to address the world’s toughest problems and you’re not going to relent until you make progress, then you’re probably right for AI.

Glassdoor: What would you say to job seekers who are about to click send on that application to IBM?

Obed Louissaint: Be yourself. The reason that I say that is because they have to be comfortable in this environment. We work too hard. We have to have fun where we are and if you sell yourself as a candidate that is different than who you are, then you may pick the wrong culture and you’re not going to have fun there.

Glassdoor: What was your first job?

Obed Louissaint: My first job was as a summer camp counselor when I was 14 years old. I learned that trying to get a bunch of kindergarteners to do what you say isn’t as easy as it seems. I learned humility and team leadership. Then my first legal job that wasn’t a summer work program was as a cashier at Bob’s Stores. I learned customer service. Being a cashier in the clothing department during holiday season is either you’re going to kill yourself or you’re going to kill the customer, so customer service and patience are essential.