IT Workers Skills Tested

Some employees resist the trend toward internal testing, while others say it can be beneficial.

Lets say that after a tiresome job hunt, you finally get hired into the Internet group at Cable & Wireless Global Internet Group, one of the telecommunications big boys. It is now time, is it not, to kick back, start pocketing paychecks and find out where the Cremora is in the kitchenette?

Not so fast. First, you might want to sharpen your online pencil because you have tests to take. Lets start with Computer Industry Knowledge. Then theres E-Commerce Concepts. That will be followed by E-Commerce Implementation, which leads to Internet Concepts, after which you can exhibit your profound knowledge—or lack thereof—in the realm of Internet Industry Knowledge and Internet Technology Fundamentals. If youre still coherent, you can wrap it up with Telecommunications Industry Knowledge.

Each test is mandatory, and you have five months to complete them all. Oh, and youd best make time to complete them after work hours. After all, theres actual work to be done from 9 to 5 (or 6 or 7).

C&W is among a growing number of companies that are presenting employees—both new hires and long-standing company fixtures—with such lists of mandatory tests. Theyre doing it, they say, to improve technical skills, to identify skills shortfalls in their worker populations and to understand exactly what kind of beast theyre stitching together when they put individual technologists into teams.

For C&Ws 65-person Global Internet Group, managers say, its also a good way to connect business employees to Web technologies by requiring that they take technical tests and, conversely, to connect technical employees to the industry by requiring such tests as Telecommunications Industry Knowledge.

But companies considering testing the knowledge and skills of their IT workers should beware, experts say. Implementing such a program without carefully communicating why and how the results will be used could stir up a wave of resistance in the IT department.

Whats enabling this minitrend toward internal enterprise testing of IT skills is that the Internet makes testing so easy. Indeed, services companies such as Brainbench Inc., in Chantilly, Va., have popped up expressly to test IT skills online. Brainbench—which C&W is using—offers online certification and assessment of more than 375 skills.

"In terms of human capital, companies are increasingly looking for ways to measure all kinds of things, [such as] metrics that tell them ... whether theyre hiring the best people or deploying their people in the best ways," said Judith Scott, an analyst for Robert W. Baird & Co. Inc., in Milwaukee, a company that follows staffing issues. "The Internet makes it much more accessible."

Testing IT workers may be a growing trend, but IT workers are not necessarily eager to have their brains relentlessly poked and prodded. Small wonder: Brainbench President and CEO Mike Russiello said many companies use the tests as input into layoff and termination decisions, which causes IT workers to resist the tests, at least initially.

"There has been resistance ... in every company that implemented Brainbench in a strong way," Russiello said. "In all cases, its an input to ... [termination] decisions, just like its an input to promotion decisions. [But] it isnt an unreasonable request to have them demonstrate skills and knowledge areas. The complaints bubble up, but then people realize its silly to raise them, and they get back to work." C&W IT workers were initially concerned that test results would be used against them at some date, but managements assurances put their fears to rest. "The questions did come up when the tests were first proposed," said Jorge Arango, a senior Web technologist who heads a team of five Webmasters, including himself. "But our management was straightforward that this was not the objective."

It helps that the testing pill is going down with a spoonful of sugar. Incentives at C&W range from $100 to $1,000 and are awarded to the first member of each team to finish the tests, the first member to pass the tests (tests are repeated as often as necessary) and any team member who achieves the highest score on a given test. According to Vicki Vance, director of e-commerce for the Global Internet Group, this competitive setup suits C&Ws IT people. "We have some motivated competitors who love the idea of getting there first and achieving highest-score status," said Vance, in Vienna, Va.

At the very least, IT people may get another few lines to put on their résumés. C&W IT workers who do well on tests get the informal designation of mentor in various areas—which certainly doesnt hurt during employment reviews. Arango himself was the worlds top scorer in E-Commerce Concepts as of May 20, according to Brainbench, as well as placing in the 99th percentile for Internet Concepts and Computer Industry Knowledge.

Bryan Mihalick, an IT specialist for IBM whos based in Buffalo, N.Y., said testing serves consultants well in their efforts to secure choice assignments. To that end, Mihalick used Brainbench tests to bypass the prerequisites for a Mobilization exam, which covers material such as the creation of Java servlets. "It definitely helped me," Mihalick said. "I got a little more oriented to [JADE, a Java-based middleware] technology. Its one more thing I can do."

None of this is to suggest that IT workers should blindly shackle themselves to a grueling test-taking regime (tests can take between 30 and 90 minutes each). Experts say employees should make sure theyre getting something out of the bargain. First, make sure the tests mean something to potential employers. "If Im working for a company that wants me to take certifications or assessments, I look for how externally recognized are those qualifications," said Martin Bean, chief operating officer for New Horizons Computer Learning Centers Inc., an IT training company in Anaheim, Calif.

Second, ask for copies of assessment test results that can then be used for other opportunities, such as internal promotions or external job searches.

Last, say experts, IT pros should keep an open mind about skills testing. In the current job market, if you claim to know it, be prepared to show it.

IT Careers Managing Editor Lisa Vaas can be reached at