How Intuit is reskilling talent to win big on its $20 billion A.I. bet

Workplace Illustration
Intuit is retraining employees for its A.I. future.
Illustration by Studio Muti

Many companies have only just begun to think about talent redistribution—call it doing more with less. But for Intuit, moving talent around is part of its DNA. The financial software company known for products like QuickBooks and TurboTax has long retrained white-collar workers to fill talent gaps and remain competitive as a result, moving employees into new roles that suit its shifting goals as an innovator in financial technology.

“At every major inflection point, there has to be an evolution,” says Humera Shahid, chief diversity, equity, and inclusion officer and head of talent development at Intuit. Its current inflection point: transforming into a fully A.I.-driven software company

“That means the way that we’re organized is different, [and] the skill sets that we need are rapidly changing, especially in technology,” Shahid says. 

Intuit has undergone many iterations since its inception in 1983 as a digital checkbook to help people pay bills, later known as Quicken. Over the past four decades, the $13 billion software firm has repeatedly reinvented itself, notably selling Quicken in 2016, then pivoting from operating solely as a tax and accounting platform to a more holistic financial platform for individuals and small businesses. It recently made two big acquisitions in Credit Karma ($8.1 billion) and MailChimp ($12 billion) as part of its data play. Each of these versions has required new skills and training for employees in functions that are in decline or no longer a priority.

Now, Intuit’s CEO, Sasan Goodarzi, who became CEO in January 2019, is running the ball squarely into its A.I. future and doubling down on reskilling workers as the company navigates a tight labor market, a shortage of talent with the necessary skills, and financial constraints brought on by the broader economic climate.

In June 2020, Intuit laid off over 715 employees, simultaneously announcing it would add over 700 roles to align with its goal to become an A.I.-driven company. 

Companies that want to become technologically innovative, says Shahid, must invest in training their employees: “You can’t buy your way there.” Intuit declined to share how much it invested in employee training over the past three years, but Shahid says her team has committed resources to build a learning culture where employees can seamlessly transition to new roles and assignments. “I have someone on my team who came in as an executive assistant and is now interested in going down a more technical path,” she shares.

Exposure comes in the form of introductory programming open to any employee interested in learning about A.I. The company led a three-part series of lunch-and-learn sessions with its SVP and chief data officer, Ashok Srivastava, in August 2020. About 120 employees attended the introductory courses, which Intuit eventually transitioned to a five-part online course. 

And when online courses aren’t enough, the company employs partners to lead in-person boot camps. While pricey, Shahid says creating and scaling a similar learning infrastructure in-house is far more difficult. 

“What we’re pushing right now is to expose [employees] to all these skills. You might be a data analyst and know what’s needed of you. But we also want you to know what it takes to be a program manager,” Shahid says. She wants as well for employees to get a sense of which skills are transferable.

Across the tech space, A.I. has emerged as a top priority for growth. It’s no different at Intuit, which has developed intensive programs to upskill employees for technical roles like its signature six-month A.I. course. 

The company began offering a seven-month apprenticeship program for nontechnical employees last year, which has proved especially popular among data analysts and project managers who want to transition into engineering roles and obtain hands-on experience, says Shahid. Employees graduate as level one software engineers. Eleven employees participated in the pilot apprenticeship program; nine have converted to full-time technical roles at the firm. 

It’s a sign of mobility that company leaders are eager to promote. The second iteration of the apprenticeship program will accept 43 participants—30 of whom will be based at Intuit’s Mountain View, Calif., campus and 13 in San Diego. 

Intuit’s chief data officer says that while employees must have the right credentials to move into more tech-heavy roles, he firmly believes in people’s ability to reinvent themselves and reskill. “Given the opportunity, I think that people have remarkable abilities to grow and to change,” Srivastava notes. “Having said that, not everyone wants to go into the deep mathematics of machine learning, and I appreciate that.” 

The transition from nontechnical to technical roles in particular ostensibly comes with challenges. Driving awareness of the courses and getting staff to sign on has proved much harder among employees without some technical background who might be slightly intimidated or unsure about future use cases for these new skills. And even after employees gain the necessary learning and credentials, additional tensions can naturally arise when team members have varying experience levels.  

“You’ve got apprentices who are software engineers, ones with no technical background, and others who literally did four-year degrees in computer science. And they’re side by side,” Shahid says. “You have to keep thinking about that equity equation. What are you doing to support folks you brought in, [and] how do you continue that support system?”

That support system is essential for marginalized employees moving into new technical roles, who often don’t have large networks within the industry. Because of this, Srivastava says creating a sense of belonging on technical teams is key. 

“Regardless of where the person’s background is, and what we view as a traditional or nontraditional background, what’s important is that in the context of that background, we create a sense of belonging and participation,” he says.

Meeting Intuit’s goal to reskill workers for an A.I. future hinges on its ability to create a culture of learning and mobility. “Our big focus is, How do you combine those two things?” Shahid muses.

Check out this global study on cultural fitness by HR research firm i4cp, in partnership with Fortune.

This article is part of Fortune @ Work: Leading in Economic Uncertainty.

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