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The No. 1 place to work in IT: USAA scores a three-peat

June 18, 2012 06:00 AM ET

7:30 a.m. Mark Thompson, a technology architect in USAA's agile development lab for business intelligence, is getting his 20-month-old son, Caden, settled in at the on-campus child development center. Located in a sunlit building fronted by a garden where begonias and snapdragons bloom, the center can accommodate up to 300 children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years, and it employs 75 teachers.

Thompson, 32, graduated from college with a degree in computer science. While working full time at USAA, he earned a master's degree in technology management from the University of Texas at San Antonio, tapping the company's $10,000-a-year education benefit to pay for graduate school.

"I took advantage of the funding to pay for courses and books, but I also had the advantage of a management team that was very receptive and supportive of the fact that I was in school. If they understood I was coming up on a big exam, they would figure that into my workload," Thompson explains.

9:15 a.m. Matthew Hecke, a lead network engineer, is gearing up for a treadmill test in the fitness center -- part of a free annual health assessment he scheduled for himself. The fitness evaluations are another way employees can earn "healthy points" to reduce medical insurance premiums.

Hecke joined USAA four years ago, moving to San Antonio from Arkansas with his wife and two children. USAA helped find him a real estate agent and paid his moving expenses -- including the cost of having movers pack up his belongings. Now, he's a regular user of the fitness centers and plays softball and basketball on USAA intramural teams.

Over the coming weekend, he will travel to San Francisco, where he will visit one of USAA's technology vendors to get a peek at its product road map. "Researching new technologies is one of my favorite parts of the job," he says.

9:30 a.m. There's music playing in the background in Schwartz's office, which is spacious and has an open door. Schwartz's No. 1 priority as CIO is innovation. "We need to continue to find new and even better ways to keep encouraging it," he says.

That means finding a vehicle for innovation that's even better than Tech X, USAA's two-day, in-house IT innovation conference and expo. Featuring more than 100 sessions, Tech X was planned by IT employees and managed by Lisette Guerra, an IT project manager and 12-year USAA veteran who joined the company right out of college.

It also means finding something even better than USAA's wildly popular Code as Ice competitions. Frequently cited by IT employees as a favorite aspect of working at USAA, the 30-day competitions challenge IT staffers to collaborate with business unit employees (on their own time) and design prototype solutions for specific business problems. Last year, 130 employees submitted 31 ideas, five of which were implemented immediately. Another 11 ideas were under development within a year, and six of the ideas were sent directly to USAA's intellectual property team for patent consideration.

Among the 2011 ideas was an Apple iPad app created by a team led by software developer and Georgia Tech graduate Josh Leonard. Using the app, USAA service representatives or customers themselves can graphically re-create and depict the details of car accidents for claims purposes. Another Code as Ice idea was "Mentourage," highlighted in the employee-created video below. (Story continues on next page.)

Conceived during a Code as Ice competition, Mentourage is a self-service system that taps into an enterprise skills database to pair mentors with mentees for specific technical skills. The team that built Mentourage, a play on the TV show Entourage, placed second overall in the competition. Team members developed the system -- and this video introducing it to other USAA IT employees -- largely on their own time.

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