Tech Recruiting in Silicon Prairie: A Q&A With Principal Financial Group

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Gary Scholten is the Senior Vice President and Chief Information Officer of The Principal Financial Group, a global investment management leader and Fortune 500 company  based in Des Moines, Iowa. Principal has consistently been ranked in the top half of Computerworld Magazine’s list of the “100 Best Places to Work in IT” and InformationWeek Magazine’s “Top-500 Most Innovative Users of Information Technology.” Matt McDonald has over six years of recruiting in the Information Technology space and has been with Principal for nearly three years. I spoke to Gary and Matt about the Tech scene in the Midwest, the best ways to recruit regionally, what Principal looks for in entry-level hires, and where to go in Des Moines on a Friday night.

InternMatch: What are Iowa’s advantages for students or recent grads interested in the tech field?

Gary Scholten: Iowa, like many Midwestern states, is working very hard to encourage growth in the tech industry. One of the biggest draws to this part of the country, and Iowa in particular, is a much lower cost of living.

Matt McDonald: The tech industry is a booming one, just as it is in other parts of the country. Iowa is affectionately referred to as a part of Silicon Prairie. There is a lot of interest in the startup space out here, that combined with plenty of great talent in the region makes for a lot of interest in the tech field.

IM: How have you been successful in garnering the interest of talented and motivated students in the past?

GS: It’s something of a two-pronged approach. We constantly look for entry-level hires. As of right now we have over 1800 professionals working in the technology space. Our most recent strategy includes a Nationwide search for employees because we believe that this contributes to diversity, and diversity always contributes directly to ingenuity and innovation. We have seen very positive results from this recruiting style. Currently, we have 75 interns from 30 different colleges and universities and from 14 different states. Most importantly we strive to give our employees, new hires or otherwise, an environment where they feel like they can be successful. Ultimately, that’s our job, to enable success. We ensure that our interns are given jobs that will challenge them and they will find interesting or important. That’s all about collaboration, which is the name of the game in business. World class IT professionals work directly with the same caliber business professionals and vise versa, right here in Des Moines. We also go after a very broad range of technologies, not just what is bright and shiny right now. That’s another attraction.

MM: He’s right. Just as an example, we have a partnership with North Carolina State University that has allowed us to bring talented interns to our corporate office in Des Moines and help staff our local office in Raleigh. We can recruit people from North Carolina to work remotely for our company in Des Moines. We try to be very accommodating in our recruitment strategies.

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IM: What challenges have you faced from coastal-based competition, especially from companies in Silicon Valley? How have you stayed ahead of the curve?

GS: As the IT workforce becomes tighter and tighter the pool of talent becomes smaller and the race to recruit that talent becomes more and more competitive. That’s good for businesses in every part of the country. With that being said , it means we have to compete with more companies within the Midwest, even within Iowa. In Iowa especially, the startup space has really taken off. That only furthers competition. This is great for the state because all talent matters. We have to let Des Moines do some of the talking in that regard. It really is a great city with a lot to offer young professionals. We also organized, very successfully, our own version of a Hack-a-thon. We split all of our interns into 5 teams and threw them into a software development competition where they collaborated intensively with their teammates over three days to build an application that addressed a real business need. Like the Hunger Games, but with App Development.

MM: Not only do people love Des Moines, but we offer a very manageable work/life balance. Some other tech workforces, especially those that are on a coast, seem to require you to devote your entire life to the company. We don’t do that. Again, if you have the skills you can work from where you want. Oh, and we also offer very competitive compensation. Our campus has onsite cafeterias, ATMs, free parking, housing assignments on a need based basis and, for the people who are afraid of the Iowa winters, Des Moines has a SkyWalk that connects a lot of the downtown buildings to one another.

IM: What do you guys look for when hiring new employees or interns?

GS: The ability to think critically and independently. That’s pretty much all it comes down to. We don’t really care what languages you know or don’t know, since those change constantly. It’s a willingness to learn them and solve problems in actionable ways that makes a good hire a good hire. Also, the ability to work on a team in any capacity, whether that be team leader or team member.

MM: Exactly, we want to hire people who want to learn. It’s as simple as that.

IM: Where do all the cool kids hang out in Des Moines?

GS: Des Moines is great. My wife and I live downtown and that part of the city has transformed in recent years. It really is a perfect place for young professionals. It’s consistently on those lists of “Best Midwestern Cities for Young Adults” because it has everything that a bigger city has but within walking distance. There is live music every night of the week. We have an incredible farmer’s market. The Civic Center is awesome. People are always surprised by how much there is to do in Des Moines.

MM: Seriously, I lived in San Francisco for a number of years, and I think Des Moines has it beat dead to rights. Everything is right there, or  within a 10-minute walk.

Photo Credit: kla4067 via flickr

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Nathan Parcells

Nathan Parcells is VP of Marketing and co-founder of Looksharp. He has spent the past decade helping students launch their career, researching best practices for hiring millennials (including running Looksharp's annual "State of College Hiring") and sharing these insights with employers. Nathan's work has been featured in Forbes, TechCrunch, Business Insider and more. Outside of work, Nathan is an avid rock climber, back packer and Bob Dylan fan.