How T-Mobile brought an Un-carrier approach to tech hiring
During the thick of the pandemic in 2020, T-Mobile revamped its approach to recruiting and hiring tech workers. In just two short years, the company has seen tremendous results.
Graduations are special, and this one felt particularly so. The nine members of cohort 33 of T-Mobile’s Enterprise Technology Solutions (ETS) Software Engineer (SWE) Laboratory Program were set to present their capstone projects to their managers, peers and other stakeholders. The virtual presentations were the culmination of a five-week program that introduced them to the basics of software development at T-Mobile.
“It's like graduation day from school—I feel a sense of accomplishment,” says Pravin Alhat, an incoming senior software engineer based in Overland Park, Kansas, T-Mobile’s second headquarters. “I got the chance to learn new ideas, new things and a way of thinking about doing things differently.”
Other members of his group echoed a similar sentiment as they introduced themselves. “I learned a lot these last few weeks,” says Biniam Tesfamariam, an incoming engineer based in T-Mobile’s Bellevue, Washington, headquarters. “It was a great opportunity, a great learning experience and I’m glad I joined T-Mobile. I can’t wait to show you what we built.”
Cory Pease is a software engineer and teacher at Seattle-based coding boot camp Galvanize, the organization that leads the program. He gave some final words before the group dove into their project. “This whole process is about empowering engineers,” he said. “Now, let’s get started.”
Turning the pipeline into a funnel
All newly hired engineers go through the program, which includes projects that immerse participants in the standards, tools and infrastructure they’ll use when they join their teams. Working in small groups, the engineers solve a problem and then present their findings to the group on the last day of training.
The laboratory is part of a broader set of changes to the way ETS recruits, hires and trains employees for software engineering jobs at T-Mobile. Known collectively as Workforce Transformation, ETS adopted and implemented these changes in 2020—right in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
The changes were born out of a few key realizations, explains Craig Thomas, vice president of IT Development. First, there was a desire to bring software and applications built by third-party contractors back into T-Mobile.
“We didn’t build a lot of tools in-house, and we relied heavily on third-party builds,” he says. “It’s hard to maintain continuous improvement on your tools when someone else is doing that work.”
In order to take ownership and control over building IT infrastructure, Thomas says the organization shifted away from “replacement mode”—hiring to stem attrition—and toward a proactive, skills-based approach to build new teams. This allows ETS to rapidly increase the number of hires each quarter, which is critical to supporting in-house projects and activities.
We’ve seen a shift in how companies attract and retain top tech talent in the past few years. As the Un-carrier, we knew we needed to be responsive and adaptive to stay competitive. I’m proud of the transformative changes we’ve made so far within ETS, and we’re already seeing tremendous results through Workforce Transformation.
We write job descriptions to attract a wide range of candidates, and a hiring committee chosen from a pool of more than 300 current team members interviews qualified candidates. Jennifer Kronberger, director of Workforce Transformation and the Laboratory program, describes this as a pipeline approach.
“This approach takes the heavy lifting off the hiring manager because by the time a candidate gets to that interview stage, they’ve already been vetted by a group of their peers,” Kronberger says. “That helps us get a more diverse group of interviewers and means we can hire faster because the burden is spread among more people.”
It also leads to candidates with more diverse or nontraditional backgrounds who have a better shot at getting hired.
“The hiring committees look for generalists that will grow with us,” Kronberger explains. “We’re looking for people who understand software development broadly and who come in with a more general profile, and then we can train them for specific needs.”
In just two years, the program has seen results. The number of candidates hired increased 56% from 2020 to 2021, and the organization hopes to make even bigger gains in 2022.
“We’re proactively managing skills and resources that help accelerate every part of the business, including Sprint merger-related activities and agile development practices,” Thomas says. “It really is helping a rather classic IT shop move toward being a true digital product shop.”
Overhauling the recruiting and hiring process at an organization the size of T-Mobile is no easy task, and not everyone was on board at first.
“Initially, I was not excited about this process at all,” says Eleanor Zoppe, a senior manager of product technology who has more than 20 years of experience in the software industry. “I didn’t want to give up total control over hiring my team.”
Eleanor was one of the first managers to go through the new process in 2020. More than two years and dozens of hires later, she describes herself as one of the program’s biggest fans.
“It really is transformational,” she says. “I don’t think I’ve ever had a more talented team. The tenacity, the drive, the innovation they bring. They challenge me every time I'm in a meeting. I think it shows exactly how great this process is.”
John Oleinik, senior manager of product technology, says the process introduces more accountability into the hiring lifecycle. Previously, hiring managers sifted through candidates themselves, conducted interviews, and then hired based on specific team needs. Now, current employees vet and interview candidates before they meet with managers, who seek to hire for multiple roles within their teams and elsewhere.
“As managers, we could sit together after talking to someone and say, ‘Wow, that person really suits the needs of your team more than mine,’” Zoppe says. “So sometimes I would recommend hiring someone who wasn’t going to be on my team, but they would end up on John’s team, or somewhere else. You know you’re keeping the talent you’re bringing in.”
The process helped in recruiting more diverse candidates, too.
“As part of Workforce Transformation, hiring committees provide a more diverse pool of interviewers,” Oleinik says. “They can offer an additional layer of bias-checking that provides consistency and accountability.”
A bright future at T-Mobile
Piya Saetiew started as an entry-level software engineer in November 2021 and joined the Academy in early January. She said the program immediately helped her feel more connected to her fellow employees and T-Mobile’s culture overall.
“Of all the companies I've been with, there was not much focus on the onboarding process,” she says. “This program is unique in that it brings all the new hires together to immediately learn about T-Mobile tools, processes and platforms. It would’ve taken a long time for me to understand all of that without going through the training first.”
Piya’s project in the lab was to improve an existing repository for all capstone projects. Now, in her full-time role, she primarily builds and maintains web applications for inventory management teams. She says the Laboratory experience helped her onboard much faster and envision a bright future with T-Mobile.
“I really enjoyed my experience. A lot of companies don’t prepare you to work with a team at a company this size, and to be so openly well-received and encouraged, it’s invaluable,” she says. “You don’t really see this anywhere else.”