No. 1 Place To Work in IT: USAA

Computerworld Best Places to Work in IT 2011; No. 1 ranked company USAA IT team members
Credit: SnowPro Photography / Courtesy of USAA

The money and benefits are extraordinary, but what IT employees seem to love most are the traditions of innovation and service.

Just how great is it to work at USAA, Computerworld's No. 1 Best Place to Work in IT for the second year in a row?

"Well, I don't want to make it sound like it's all candy and rainbows, but it really is pretty nice," says Brett Lewis, a lead technical architect and 23-year veteran of the San Antonio-based financial services company.

First he ticks off a long list of generous benefits, which include an annual holiday bonus equal to two weeks' base pay, health insurance subsidized at the rate of 87.5%, access to any of three state-of-the-art fitness centers on campus at minimal cost, 24 days of vacation after a year on the job, and a tuition reimbursement benefit of $10,000 annually. "What keeps me here is that you couldn't ask for a better place to work," says Lewis.

In February, each of the company's 22,500 full-time employees, including 2,135 in IT, also received a whopping 18.4% performance bonus, the second highest in the company's history. The highest bonus -- 18.8% -- was paid out in 2010, when USAA also took the top spot on the Best Places to Work in IT list.

Yet even more exceptional than the benefits, according to Lewis and other IT staffers, is the company's overall work environment, which emphasizes innovation, collaboration and, above all else, service.

USAA's customer base comprises 8 million U.S. military members, veterans and their families around the world. And it's not at all unusual for members of USAA's workforce to express great zeal for serving this particular customer segment.

"My No. 1 favorite thing about working at USAA is being on a team that has a single goal," says Emily Bubela, a senior research engineer and self-described military brat, who joined the company eight years ago, right out of college. Growing up in a military family, the first check Bubela ever wrote was on a USAA account, and she has had car insurance with the company since she was a teenager.

"USAA has been in my DNA for a long time," she quips. Now, working at the company, "there's never a question about everybody's priorities. It's always the same. What's best for the member is the guiding principle," she says.

"We have a strong and noble mission, and we believe in it," says Jackie Head, executive director of database and storage management. Every month, one of the company's military members is profiled in a short video. "It gives us a sense of the people we serve," Head says. "It's that emotional side that keeps you very much in sync with who your customers are."

There's also an abundance of opportunities to learn about and develop expertise with the latest technologies, through company-paid outside training and certification programs or through USAA's Open Innovation Lab, which allows employees to design and test ideas before moving them to full production. Additionally, a new Member Service Representative Lab provides an isolated production environment where new ideas can be tested in a live but controlled environment. And last year, the company launched a social media networking environment known as ICE, where employees can share their ideas about products or business-process improvements, plus comment and vote on other people's suggestions.

"What we try to do is create a work environment where our people can really innovate and they can be creative and help us solve business problems," says CIO Greg Schwartz. "I really believe people in this business are the most important asset. Hardware and software are important, but people is where you win the game."

Top-Team Spotlight: Emily Bubela, USAA's Senior Research Engineer

Emily Bubela, who grew up in a military family that banked with and was insured by USAA, also chose USAA as her first -- and so far only -- employer after graduating with an MIS degree from Texas A&M University.

Bubela had an internship with USAA between her junior and senior years in college, when she worked on USAA.com, doing advanced Java development. Today, she works in applied research.

"Our job is to research and apply new technologies, to discover which new technology is a good fit for us and how we might use it," she says.

Bubela says she especially appreciates the democratic nature of innovation at USAA. Using an online network known as ICE, employees can present their ideas to the entire company, she explains. "We monitor ideas that are submitted and discover how we can apply technology to make them happen or make them better," says Bubela.

She's also grateful for the opportunity to work on projects across various businesses at USAA.

"One of my favorite things here is that the IT shop is so large, you have the opportunity to do whatever you want to do," she says. "I'm a classic case. When I first started, I did programming, but it didn't take me long to discover that coding all day is not what I enjoy. I like interacting with customers and designing applications. That's where my passion is. I've been able to take my career there, and it has been wonderful."

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Top-Team Spotlight: Jackie Head, USAA's Executive Director, Database and Storage Management

Jackie Head was 30 years old when she went back to college to earn a degree in information systems from the University of Texas at San Antonio.

After completing an internship with USAA her senior year, she joined the company as a full-time employee and has been on the fast track ever since.

"There is such opportunity for growth here," says Head, who started out as a systems programmer, moved quickly into a team lead role, and within three years was promoted to the management team in the desktop area of the IT group.

From there, she has rotated through leadership roles in systems management, infrastructure, databases and storage.

"It has been phenomenal for me every time I move to a new assignment," says Head, now 48.

When she moved into a mainframe role, for example, she had no background in the technology. "I couldn't have been further afield of my comfort zone," Head says. Yet she learned. She says she also got plenty of support from her employer.

"USAA puts a lot of focus on training leaders and succession planning, so I have had a huge opportunity to train through leadership conferences," she notes.

Head also appreciates the opportunities she has had to give back.

"For the past six years, I've been participating in our college recruiting program," she says. "I feel honored to do that and to bring in young talent and help develop that."

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Top-Team Spotlight: Brett Lewis, USAA's Lead Technical Architect

Brett Lewis, lead technical architect, joined USAA 23 years ago as a computer programmer. What attracted him to the company was its state-of-the-art IT. A San Antonio native, he had moved back to the city from Michigan for family reasons. But he didn't want to lose the cutting-edge skills he had acquired while working in Michigan.

"I knew about USAA just because of living in the community before. I also knew their computer systems were up to date and advanced," he recalls.

Now, more than two decades later, Lewis continues to acquire the latest technology skills in his architect role. On a day-to-day basis, his work revolves around research and innovation, conducting design reviews and building technology road maps.

"My role is to assess what is happening in the industry and to do a competitive analysis of what's happening in the industry with the technology we use, our software development tools, languages and other capabilities," he explains. "The work is challenging; there's always a new design to be made or a challenge to overcome. And technology-wise, it's great. Every day I come in, I have to keep reminding myself how spoiled we are."

Lewis' most recent challenge is working on the IT architecture to support mobile banking applications. "Mobile is an extremely important technology at USAA because our members are mobile and they prefer mobile," he says.

There are also ample opportunities to learn as much as you want about new technologies, Lewis adds.

"The organized training the company offers is incredible. We have internal and external classes, and they bring in outside consultants to train on hot topics," he notes. One example: "Five gurus came in last year to talk to us about HTML5 and help us get up to speed on a new and emerging technology."

All in all, USAA offers "a lot of varied sources to stay on top of technology," Lewis says. "That's a daily occurrence for me. I'm always trying to pick up new skills."

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