The No. 1 Place to Work in IT: USAA

A day spent with several IT staffers at USAA reveals a supportive work environment, great amenities and a commitment to innovation.

For the third year running, USAA has earned the No. 1 spot on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list. There's little wonder why. The $19 billion, privately held insurance and financial services company is growing at a rate of 8% annually and has made its ongoing investment in IT talent a cornerstone of its success. In fact, CIO Greg Schwartz says USAA has "a very aggressive plan" to hire more IT workers over the next six years.

Launch a career here -- USAA tries to sell IT professionals on careers, not jobs -- and you'll enjoy extraordinary pay and benefits, including 26 days of paid vacation after a year on the payroll, an annual holiday bonus equal to two weeks' base pay, health insurance subsidized at a rate of up to 87.5%, an 8% employer match on 401(k) contributions and an annual performance bonus that this year equaled 18.4% of worker salaries -- it was the second highest in the company's history and was equal to last year's payout.

On average, USAA's 2,157 IT employees work between 41 and 45 hours a week. The culture is simultaneously innovation-focused, conservative and family-friendly. Brigham Young University's campuses in Idaho and Utah are key recruiting centers.

"There are a lot of great benefits here, but there's a lot of hard work that goes on," says Schwartz. "We really have a culture of high performance."

The bottom line: "We believe that people should be paid well and have great benefits, but we expect a lot out of them."

Here's a peek at a day in the life of some of the IT workers at USAA's San Antonio headquarters.

5:05 a.m. Annette York, 47, arrives at one of three USAA fitness centers for her daily, hourlong workout. By 7:00 a.m., she will have showered and changed and headed upstairs to her job leading a 200-person team and the delivery of an $80 million portfolio of software projects.

"The fitness center is a must in my life," says the 26-year USAA veteran. Exercising daily also helps whittle down the amount York personally pays for health insurance. USAA subsidizes 82.5% of all employees' medical coverage, but it also chips in another 5% for those who take action to improve or maintain their health.

running trail -- bridge
Click for a slideshow highlighting some of the on-campus amenities enjoyed by USAA employees.

The daily workouts may be routine for York, but her IT career at USAA has been anything but that. Hired as a developer fresh out of college, she has moved through business analyst and project management roles to IT planning and now into management.

She acknowledges that she wasn't sure what she wanted to do when she joined the company in 1986. "But there are so many opportunities here that you can change your career if you want," she says. "You don't have to leave to have a different experience."

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.

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.

Schwartz says he's "especially jazzed" about setting up additional agile development labs, where IT and business unit staffers work together on projects. "We now have 20% of the projects in our portfolio running through labs," he says.

11 a.m. York stops for coffee at an on-campus Starbucks, which is surrounded by several "foxholes" and "campsites" -- rooms designed for small, impromptu meetings. "Wherever we find dead space, we create a collaborative area," she says.

Forgot your wallet? No problem. Employees can charge the snacks and beverages they buy at Starbucks, as well as the cards, gifts or other items they pick up in the on-site store. Their purchases are itemized, with the totals deducted from their paychecks.

1 p.m. The spacious, modern cafeteria, with a wide variety of hot and cold entrees and plated desserts on display, is among the amenities that Will McDowell says he missed most about USAA when he left to take a job at a publicly traded insurance company in the mid-Atlantic region.

"I really missed the campus, and more than anything I missed the team environment," says McDowell, who returned after a year and now is an IT technical director who leads USAA's mobile, social and Internet development teams. "At the other company, IT was more of an order-taking organization. Here, we really work hand in glove with the business, developing strategy and executing against it."

3-5 p.m. Software developer Seth Ethington arrives for an interview with Computerworld carrying a written list of the many benefits he personally values at USAA. At the top are the countless opportunities to innovate.

"The majority of my ideas have either gone into production, so members are seeing changes, or they're on a road map to go into production," says Ethington. USAA also has submitted four of his ideas for patenting.

"Just having the opportunity to go through the patent process is very rewarding," says the 31-year-old father of two. "Financially, it's not something I'd ever be able to do on my own. USAA basically fronted all the money for me to go through the process."

Lyndsay Yerbic, 23, a software developer hired right out of Mesa University in Colorado, also has a written list. The benefit she values most: Nexus, USAA's social network specifically for recently hired college grads. She's a leader in the Nexus community, and she says one of her favorite activities has been coordinating the monthly technology seminars for IT workers.

Through Nexus, Yerbic has met friends, discovered volunteer opportunities and found co-workers with shared interests. She has also picked up tips for getting to know San Antonio and Texas overall.

"I never pictured myself in Texas until I pictured myself at USAA," says the self-described "Colorado girl."

Next: Spotlight: No. 2-ranked CareerBuilder sets projects on the fast track

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

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