Noah Consulting had a couple of hurdles to clear on its way to becoming the No. 1 small place to work in IT: It's an all-virtual company with employees scattered across the country, in a field that's synonymous with long hours and cutthroat competition among co-workers.
So how does the Houston-based information management consultancy counter those oh-so-modern problems and keep its 60 IT employees happy? With a secret weapon that's decidedly old-school: a tug-of-war.
It's a highlight of Noah's annual summer gathering, where consultants and their families are flown in, put up in a hotel and treated to a weekend full of festivities, such as picnic suppers, themed entertainment and other family-friendly activities.
The summer gathering is just one way the small consultancy, which specializes in the oil and gas, energy trading, and power and natural resources industries, fosters work/life balance for employees who spend a lot of time on the road.
"Consulting is a particularly challenging environment to work in," says Shannon Tassin, who co-founded Noah in 2008 with two colleagues, all with more than two decades of experience in oil and gas information consulting at both large and small firms. "We saw the good and bad in these environments, and our intention was to create a consulting company where individuals would come to work and it would be the last job they ever had. We wanted to make it a place where not only do employees feel valued and make connections, but we got to know their families as well."
Getting to know the people who stand behind the employees is just part of the culture that sets Noah apart from other consultancies, says Kelly Guillory, a 20-year IT consulting veteran and now a senior principal at the firm. In addition to the summer gathering, Noah hosts regular happy hours for consultants and their significant others.
While those are great, Guillory says, the real backbone of Noah's family-oriented culture emanates from the firm's leaders. "They give us the benefits that allow us to spend time with our families and be recharged and take care of ourselves," she explains, citing as an example, a leave of absence she took last year to care for her ailing mother. "The partners checked in and sent flowers to my mom when she got out of the hospital. They made me feel like I wasn't just someone working for them making them money, but that they cared about me as a person."
Swept up by all the social activity and camaraderie, Jim Briggs was lured out of retirement to join Noah, first as a contract employee and eventually as a full-time senior business analyst, which he's been for the past two years. Briggs says he likes the socializing, but the real draw was being part of a closely knit network of skilled consultants who are more than willing to collaborate and pool their knowledge -- a mindset that's rare at larger consulting firms, he says, where peers are more apt to be territorial.
"I like having a virtual network of people I trust in California, Atlanta or Chicago," Briggs says, explaining that Noah consultants are dispersed across the country, working out of their homes when they aren't at a client site. "If I'm at a client [site] and I come across some issue, I don't have to be all-knowing. I can tap into the Noah network and get feedback."
Prasanna Balakrishnan, who has 13 years of consulting experience in the oil and gas field and has been a principal at Noah for two years, echoes Briggs' enthusiasm for the collaborative environment. "I don't see any kind of issue with seniority -- it's an environment where you can be comfortable asking questions and can tap into the best expertise in the field and they are very open to sharing knowledge and teaching you," he explains.
That's even the case with the partners, whom Balakrishnan has contacted on numerous occasions to talk through a client issue or simply to float an idea. "When you are at a large company, you don't have access to top-level management. Here, the partners are very approachable; you can book a meeting with them anytime," he says.
In addition to one-on-one encounters, Noah fosters collaboration among its dispersed IT consultants and partners in a variety of ways. Because most employees don't work out of the small, barebones Houston office, the company relies on technology to keep people engaged and connected. Using Microsoft technologies such as Office 365, SharePoint and Lync, Noah IT consultants stay in touch via videoconferencing and collaborate on shared documents and presentations.
Perhaps the most important communications bridge is the weekly "all hands on" teleconference, where all employees are invited to give project updates, share experiences, troubleshoot client challenges or present lessons learned from a particular engagement. For Sowmya Sethuraman, the call is the time brainstorm with colleagues or even be formally recognized for a specific achievement -- which, she says, marks a refreshing change from her days at industry giant Infosys, where she spent 13 years as a consultant.
"At Infosys, there was a lot of red tape and it wasn't easy to set ideas into action," she recalls. "You'd go to your manager, who would go to their manager, who would then go to the energy division and then to the board. By then, you would have forgotten what your idea was. If you did get the idea implemented, the credit and recognition was not great at a larger company."
It's a very different scenario at Noah, says Sethuraman. Recently, she had suggested some modifications to a strategy and road map tool that are now implemented as Noah's standard practices. At one of the Tuesday all-hands-on meetings, Sethuraman was cited for her work and, better still, received a spot bonus of several hundred dollars for the effort. "People are recognized and given bonuses for work they do -- it could be getting a new client or turning a project from red to green," she explains. "You don't have to wait for year-end to get your bonus."
The Personal Touch
In fact, Noah's bonus plan is 100% tied to individual goals, notes Tassin, who wasn't so lucky early in his career when he failed to get a bonus despite exceeding all of his personal goals simply because his company had a down year. That experience motivated him and the other partners to design a radically different compensation and performance management plan at Noah.
John Harold, a senior consultant at Noah for only seven months, says the compensation plan is better than he's seen in his 12 years as an IT consultant. "If I have 80% billable hours, I get a minimum bonus of 20% of my base pay," he says. Last year, he was 99% billable, which landed him an even bigger bonus.
Money aside, Noah's career development and training are also standouts in Harold's opinion. Each consultant is allotted $4,000 annually to spend on development, and a robust mentoring program provides guidance on everything from training to career advancement. "In my previous company, I had a mentor, but it was by namesake only. We met once a year for a performance evaluation," Harold says. "Here, I really feel like my mentor is involved in my career. We meet at least every four to six weeks."
It's that personal touch and all-hands-on-deck culture that ultimately separates Noah from better known and larger consulting competitors and makes it a special place for IT professionals. "You're working with some of the best people in the industry, and the fact that the culture gives you access to their wealth of knowledge and experience is just amazing," says Balakrishnan.