Tamar Elkeles: Technology and Training at QUALCOMM

To the uninitiated or unfamiliar, life at QUALCOMM might be predicted as boring. A high-tech communications company populated by engineers working with chips and circuits and wireless equipment may be cutting-edge, but all that raises a stereotypic image

Name: Tamar Elkeles, Ph.D.

Title: Vice President of Learning & Development

Company: QUALCOMM Inc.


  • Outsourcing model that provides the highest quality of training from content experts.
  • 24×7 online learning model that focuses on providing learning opportunities to all employees, anytime, anywhere.
  • Strong focus on engineering and management development.
  • Division-specific business needs aligned with individual employee development through organizational assessments.
  • High employee satisfaction and retention.
  • Learning programs that directly support and stay ahead of business changes.
  • Information sharing across the organization.
  • Effectiveness of learning programs for employees.
  • Speed of decision-making as a result of training.

Learning Philosophy: “Learning is an integral part of QUALCOMM’S success. We are committed to expanding employees’ knowledge by providing learning opportunities linking overall business goals and professional development needs. We strive to deliver the right knowledge to the right people in the right jobs at the right times. This facilitates QUALCOMM’S competitive pace, ability to act decisively and change readily.”

To the uninitiated or unfamiliar, life at QUALCOMM might be predicted as boring. A high-tech communications company populated by engineers working with chips and circuits and wireless equipment may be cutting-edge, but all that raises a stereotypic image problem among non-tech types.

But stereotypes, like appearances, can be deceiving. Take a quick look inside QUALCOMM, and you’ll see a fairly unique corporate culture where individuality is honored and learning is a part of the mix.

Based in a 28-building campus in San Diego, QUALCOMM has 6,500 employees working worldwide. Inside those 28 buildings, visitors would find everyone has their own office. “Pods” are spaced out in common areas, with couches and white boards for less formal meetings and brainstorming sessions. You’ll find ping-pong tables waiting to be played and personal items like bikes and surfboards parked in various corners. The staff dresses California casual in shorts and T-shirts, with the only dress code being a joking restriction on furry slippers with ears.

It’s not a frivolous environment, despite the relaxed atmosphere. The method to the madness, so to speak, is producing an environment where the youngish staff (average age is about 36) is left to thrive in a balanced existence of work, learning and diversity of all kinds. It’s that commitment and that diversity that won QUALCOMM the Secretary of Labor’s Opportunity Award recently and has landed QUALCOMM on Fortune magazine’s list of 100 best places to work for the past four years.

“It’s not a cubicle environment,” said Tamar Elkeles, vice president of learning and development at QUALCOMM. “We really do a lot for the environment, to make sure that we create and sustain an environment that values the individual contribution, values ideas and that really recognizes employees’ contributions.”

As one of the leading companies in the wireless communications space, QUALCOMM has grown considerably since its creation in 1985, with about 800 employees. And workforce learning and development gets its share of the credit for that success.

“From a business perspective, we’re very much an intellectual property kind of company,” Elkeles said. “We’re really about research and development, we’re about creating new technologies. We are selling ideas, not necessarily products.”

And ideas, like human assets, need to be developed. That’s where Elkeles comes in.

In a way, Elkeles’ story mirrors that of QUALCOMM’s rapid growth in a relatively short amount of time. Elkeles started at QUALCOMM in 1992, working as an intern making $9 an hour, while still studying for her master’s in organizational psychology. Fast-forward, and she’s got a doctorate in that field now, and a VP title on her office door.

In those intern days, Elkeles was a one-woman shop starting the training department with no budget. But a $1.2 million grant from the State of California put her role on the map and allowed her to spark a learning culture that began to pay for itself quickly. Elkeles grew with the role, from intern to training coordinator, and on to specialist, senior specialist, manager, director and finally VP. She now leads a 30-person staff charged with employee learning and communications.

“There’s a lesson to be learned for people who are starting training organizations or who are new in the training space,” Elkeles said. “And that is to really find your value add and really start to think about ‘How can I contribute to this organization or make learning something that they really want?’”

The answer to that last question can, and has, filled several books. For Elkeles, it was simply a matter of combining her energetic personality with the needs of QUALCOMM’s engineers. Learning, she said, was never a hard sell at the company, especially when a large number of the staff was straight out of college and anxious to keep the knowledge transfer flowing. Support of senior management played no small role as well.

“It’s been an interesting experience. Part of what made it interesting to me is that I grew up with the other executives. We’ve all been here for 10-plus years. Now the presidents of those divisions are people who were in my management development classes very early on,” Elkeles said. “That builds a level of credibility and trust with an executive team, and it allows you really to have good relationships with people who understand the value of learning because they were there from its conception.”

Her next words may sound like braggadocio to some learning executives, but to Elkeles it’s just stating the obvious.

“I have never been asked for the ROI of training and development,” she said. “My personal belief is that when a CFO or somebody asks for the ROI for training, that means they don’t understand the value of that investment. I personally feel that in our world, the executive team here understands the value of that investment. Our CEO here has a Ph.D. in engineering. Our president of the Wireless Internet Division also has a Ph.D. in engineering. They understand the role of academic education.

“We’re about what people know in this organization. We want them to create new technologies. We want them to learn as much as they can about the wireless industry, as much as they can about new technologies, and we want them to go ahead and create the next generation,” she added. “We don’t know what that looks like yet, so we have to have a very creative spirit, a very innovative spirit, a very high-risk-taking type of culture. A lot of that is based on how much people can learn. Part of our business is that we’re trying to create more knowledge, so the learning in this organization is not a hard sell.”

Learning at QUALCOMM takes many different shapes. Most of Elkeles’ budget is spent on technical training for the engineering staff and on leadership development. Elkeles and her staff work with about 98 percent of the training outsourced, delivered in the form of online learning, distance learning, videos and degree classes from schools like the University of California, San Diego. While classroom training is still an element, more and more QUALCOMM is heading toward electronic education.

“You really need to think about our audience and think about how you’re going to deliver learning to that audience,” Elkeles said. “Our audience is different than a lot of audiences. When you think about having an engineering audience, you really have to think about the best way they learn and the way they do their work. They get their work done on the computer, so that was where we needed to go.”

Elkeles said QUALCOMM spends about 1.4 percent of its budget on employee development, which is less than many major companies. It works out to be about $700 per employee per year for learning and training. Employee participation is entirely voluntary, but certainly not unused. Last year, Elkeles pointed out, QUALCOMM had about 30,000 enrollments in learning programs, about half of those from the engineering team.

“I owe a lot of the success not to what I’ve been able to do but to my staff,” she said. “They are pushing to make sure we have a highly efficient organization. We’re not spending the most money, but we’re getting a huge bang for these dollars.”

But being blessed with a hard-working staff and employees eager to learn doesn’t mean it’s all a cakewalk. Elkeles started “from ground zero,” creating the learning function, and took advantage of all opportunities to learn from her peers, such as joining the ASTD benchmarking forum. “Learning from your colleagues really does give you a jump on the profession,” Elkeles said.

She’s doubtless had some obstacles in her path, but Elkeles doesn’t focus on those. The key, she said, is creating a learning culture where learning is so embedded, it becomes part of the company. It seems to be working – QUALCOMM has less than 4 percent annual turnover, below industry averages even in tough economic times.

Part of what she overcame, several years ago, was the mentality. It’s not “I sell training,” Elkeles tells her staff, but “I sell solutions.”

“It’s not about a training program, it’s about creating a solution for a business,” she said. “We transformed all the staff into internal consultants. We went through an intensive amount of training for my staff to get them to be great internal consultants, so that they can go out to the businesses and say, ‘What are your business challenges? I’m going to be able to help you.’”

While helping the business and helping the employees already makes a full-time job, Elkeles is still looking ahead to other challenges and other solutions. She’s now working on more talent-management concepts to understand the skill sets available within QUALCOMM and how best to leverage those. And, she’s thinking about the employee who hasn’t yet reached potential.

“Our role as learning professionals is no longer just about talent development. It’s about how do we help acquire the talent,” she said. “Sometimes the acquisition happens internally if you can be proactive enough to develop it. That in turn saves the company a tremendous amount of time and money. I really think that’s where learning professionals have to be thinking.”

It’s a big mission, but Elkeles has big ideas and the energy to realize them.

“You say, ‘How do I feel at the end of the day?’ I’m exhausted, but I’m also energized because every day is a different day here,” she said. “I get to create the world that I want to live in. If that world is about leadership development, that’s what we’re doing that day. If that world is about engineering or technical development, that’s what we’re doing that day. Creating your own world every day is a pretty powerful experience.”

September 2003 Table of Contents