Tom Sweet, an IT executive at GM Financial, needed to train and certify his entire team on a vendor's cloud technology. In this guest blog, Sweet tells how he created a contest to incentivize participation and certify a large group quickly.

Earlier this year, I was looking at my teams’ progress toward continuous learning and it seemed we had stalled. Though we had finished 2018 off strong, an IT organization-wide clarification of cloud strategy required a reset of our learning path. I wanted to start pushing certifications on the team again. 

I got my first IT certifications back in 1997, and continued to earn more of them off and on over the years. There are lots of opinions on their value, with some dismissing them outright. I don’t think anyone claims they are a substitute for experience, but certifications provide a clear path on what the vendor feels is important to know, and it provides an objective measure of skill.

My problem was that I had to get a whole team trained in the new cloud provider by mid-2020, in addition to delivering IT value at the same, or increased pace over the previous year. Some of you are reading this and probably thinking, “Welcome to the club!”  

Cloud Certification Contest

The pace at which technology is changing exceeds most companies’ capacity to keep everyone current. Though we have baked an hour per day of dedicated training into my teams’ schedules, it never seems it is enough when looking at the whole landscape of skills. I am a great believer in lifelong learning, and that each person is the CEO of his or her career. What I find often overlooked, however, is the deliberate building skills for the future, not just what is needed today.

Along the same time, I was working with my IT finance partner on budget forecasts and potential give-backs. During that conversation, I came up with the idea of having a Cloud Certification Contest. The prize for four winners would be attendance at a week-long cloud conference in Orlando, with expenses covered by our company. I put a few rules together: 

  1. Cloud certifications must be earned by a specific date.

  2. Harder certifications would be weighted appropriately.

  3. We would pay for the certification exam if the employee passed.

  4. Those in officer level roles would be expected to participate, but could not win the contest.

  5. The contest was open to other IT groups outside my own.

  6. The team’s regularly assigned work, along with their annual goals and objectives, would take priority over the contest.

Contest Results

Four months later, over 60 team members had earned new cloud certifications. Though many employees earned the first level of certification offered by our cloud provider, a number reached the much more challenging developer or architect level. From the group of qualifiers, the winners were chosen by our CIO by drawing, with the number of entries per person depending on the difficulty and number of certifications passed. We video-recorded the selection of the winners, made a big deal of the event, and even posted the video on LinkedIn. 

I can’t say how many would have earned certifications, or even studied cloud, without the contest, but I am confident it would have been far less than 60. Since the completion of the contest, the team has continued to earn more cloud certifications, and there is a continuing organization-wide push to build on what we started.

The reality in most large companies is that you can’t send everyone in IT to a big conference every year. Unless you are at the principal level, individual contributors often never have a chance to attend. The general feeling from the team was the winners had earned their tickets, and given the transparency, there was no perception of favoritism toward the winners. 

All the training was self-paced, either using content from the cloud vendor, or subscriptions to online training we had purchased.

I have been pushing self-paced training over classes for a number of reasons: Self-paced can be 10 to 20 times more cost effective, and allows learning at a pace where the material can be better absorbed. It is really hard to absorb a cloud architecture course in five days, and you can’t teach Java to beginning programmer in a week-long course. Self-paced also allows those on your team who desire knowledge to continue learning on their own, should they choose to do so.

Tying this training into your internal Learning Management System, or using the training vendor’s own reporting system helps you monitor your teams’ progress. One of my goals is to create the desire to learn within the team, and to pique their curiosity so that they start tinkering on their own. Sure, there are times where a class is appropriate, but I also don’t want my teams to think the only time they can train is during a class offered in Las Vegas, in the winter.

I am also taking the same training as my team for purposes of my own learning, to ensure they are set up for success. By far, the common theme from the group resulting from our certification contest was respect for our leadership team. They really didn’t expect to see us on the same path they were on, completing the journey alongside them.

Getting Started with IT Skills Gamification

This style of contest is easy to execute, assuming one does not overthink it.

  1. Determine what skills or technology your teams need. In some cases it may be cloud, or it could be DevOps, Data Analytics, etc.

  2. Determine your approach. You may be able to work with your vendors, as they often have systems in place to help with this. How much time do you have? What will the reward be? Try to measure and demonstrate incremental progress. Maybe you want a contest, or instead, tie a team outing to the success of the whole endeavor. 

  3. Set some reasonable targets, such as the basic-level cloud certification from your cloud vendor.

  4. Most importantly, you and your leadership team need to partake in the challenge. 

  5. Lastly, have fun with it! Life is too short not to.
Gamification Tech Skills Development2


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