‘Coming here was an amazing experience’: Life at IBM in Groningen

IBM's first Dutch Client Innovation Centre (CIC) was opened in Groningen in 2013. The centre allows IBM to support its clients in the transformation of their business through the company's digital and business expertise. Make it in the North sat down with Farooq Azam to learn more about IBM's international workforce.

IBM Farooq (1)

Make it in the North sat down with Farooq Azam from Groningen's IBM Client Innovation Centre (CIC) to learn more about how they embrace their international workforce and foster a culture to create an environment that Azam describes as "an amazing place to work in".

Can you introduce yourself and the place we’re at right now?

My name is Farooq Azam and I'm originally from Pakistan. I moved here to the Netherlands 2 years ago. Right now, we’re sitting in IBM's Client Innovation Centre (CIC) in Groningen.

What do you do at IBM?

I’ve been at IBM for 13 years and I have multiple roles. I'm a solution architect, work as a career coach, and I’m also an architect professional lead.

How did the centre start? 

IBM itself is more than 100 years old. But this particular CIC was opened in 2013. We celebrated its 10 year anniversary just a few months ago. There are also CICs in Eindhoven and in Amsterdam, but the main one is here in Groningen.

When did your company or this part start hiring internationals?

IBM has been doing so since its inception and even here at the CIC, the main idea was to attract more young people and young talent from all over the world.

Did you face any challenges while hiring internationals to work alongside Dutch colleagues? 

Since I’ve joined this CIC a few years ago and during my time in other CICs I haven’t seen any particular challenges. Of course when you’re hiring new people you start better understanding how the process works. So down the road you learn new things, adopt new things, start implementing along the way and improve on it.

Were there any significant cultural differences between the international and Dutch employees?

No I don’t think so. They seemed to have blended in well together at IBM. IBM has always been diverse in terms of culture and the work itself. But no I didn’t see any major differences.

Does your company deal with international clients or are they usually Dutch? 

This CIC mainly deals with clients from the Netherlands but we also have ones from other European countries. IBM itself overall deals with international clients, of which we also have a few ourselves.

How do you think IBM benefits from mixing cultures together?

There’s always been this idea of learning from different perspectives, from different knowledge bases. So hiring internationals means understanding new cultures, sharing knowledge together, and getting the best out of the different knowledge bases around the world.

Would you say that internationals who studied outside the Netherlands are as competent as people who’ve studied locally?

I think both sides are competent. So I don’t see a particular difference. However, from a language point of view, Dutch people have the advantage of already knowing the local language. This helps them communicate better with clients in the Netherlands. However, most clients conduct their business in English making it easier for both Dutch and international people to work with them.

Is IBM familiar with the process of sponsoring job seekers who don’t have an EU passport?

Yes IBM follows the process set out by the government when hiring people from outside the Netherlands.

Do you have an onboarding process for internationals who’ve just arrived in the Netherlands?

I think the CIC has an amazing onboarding experience which I can attest to from my own experience. They introduce you to the CIC, to the people, you’re assigned a buddy. It’s all very interactive. Coming here was an amazing experience. 

Does the onboarding process cover integration into Dutch culture specifically as well?

It is more about integrating into the CIC and its culture. The CIC is not Dutch culture. The CIC has a CIC culture. An IBM culture. It blends all the different cultures together regardless of whether that’s Dutch, Middle Eastern, African, or American. Integrating into Dutch culture is a wider process I’d say which is also takes place outside the CIC.

How long does it usually take international employees to learn Dutch to be able to use it professionally?

Our business language is mostly English but we do have some specific projects with Dutch language requirements. Learning Dutch really varies from person to person. Groningen’s IBM CIC supports education and also learning Dutch so you’re provided with the learning material. You’re also given an opportunity to enrol at one of the University of Groningen’s Dutch courses.

IBM provides you with every facility to learn Dutch so then it depends on how quickly someone can learn a new language. But the opportunity and the baseline are all provided. The facilitation is there.

Did you feel a language barrier when you started out?

No, I’ve never felt it because Dutch people speak English so well.

Would the Dutch employees speak Dutch to each other?

It's a human thing – when Dutch people are together they may find it easier to communicate in Dutch. But whenever I'm around, they always switch to English. So they make other people comfortable when they are around.

What makes this specific IBM branch more attractive than the ones in the Randstad for example?

In the Netherlands, all the CICs share the same kind of culture and facilities. But Groningen’s CIC does have unique features compared to the other CICs I have worked around. So for example they are more fun, young, more interactive, and agile. It's an amazing place to work in. 

Do you post your vacancies in Dutch or English?

Mostly in English but if there’s a particular requirement where it’s necessary to understand Dutch then it might be published in Dutch as well.

Do you think the internationals want to settle down in the Netherlands or do you think they would want to return to their home countries?

It varies from person to person, but, I think it's the best place to work and live. If we’re talking about myself, I’d prefer to live here. I think the environment is there, the facilities are there, the motivation is there. Living here is an amazing experience.

What would your recommendation be for companies looking into hiring internationals?

Having an international workforce is beneficial in many ways. You share different cultures, different experiences, and that's one of the biggest assets that you can have for your company, because it's just not from one perspective, it all covers the whole world in a way. That improves the working relationship and the technical expertise as well. 

Some things they might be able to learn from us include how open we are in terms of accepting an international workforce, how we facilitate the process for internationals, and how easy we make it to work here in terms of culture, language, and providing other facilities they need to adapt to this new culture and workplace. We also provide them with different opportunities to grow in their career and in life.

The interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Video: Julia Dumchenko

Interviewer: Annaléa Chatelier