No. 1 Place To Work in IT: USAA

It's a benefits bonanza here, but IT workers also enjoy expansive career options and limitless prospects for innovation.

In February, Michael Lonigro, an IT technical manager at USAA, received a record-breaking performance bonus equal to 18.8% of his annual salary. So did every other USAA employee, thanks to the San Antonio-based financial services company's stellar 2009 performance. The big payout came less than 90 days after USAA staffers received their regular holiday bonuses, which have been awarded to every worker every year since 1930 and equalled two weeks' base pay.

All 2,087 IT workers -- and every other full-time employee -- also receive a generous benefits package that includes health insurance subsidized at the rate of 87.5% and an additional $3,000 per year for out-of-pocket medical expenses. On top of that, USAA offers a variety of free health screenings, free access to three on-campus gyms, 24 days of vacation after a year on the job, and a tuition reimbursement benefit of $10,000 annually. Yes, that's $10,000 with a ten and three zeroes. Little wonder USAA hit the No. 1 spot on Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list, after making the list for 11 consecutive years.

"The benefits are just wonderful. The health care plan is outstanding. We are very, very well taken care of," says Lonigro.

All told, USAA spends more than $400 million annually on employee benefits programs. Other perks include subsidized child care, a $5-an-hour errand service, and dollar-for-dollar matches of employees' 401(k) contributions up to 8%, plus an additional retirement contribution of up to 9% of an employee's pay.

Yet pay and benefits typically don't get first mention when employees are asked what makes the company a great place to work. Lonigro, for example, answered that question by saying, "When you read about USAA, it's always positive. It gives you the sense you're doing some good. The commitment to our members is paramount, regardless of who you talk to in the organization. It makes me feel proud to work for a company that's so dedicated to its members."

History of Service

With 7.4 million customers, USAA now offers a wide range of financial services and products to U.S. military members, veterans and their families. Companywide, USAA's 21,300 employees -- about 20% of whom are veterans or spouses of active military personnel -- seem to have a passion for providing exemplary service to this particular customer segment, often referring to their work not as a job but as a mission.

Within IT, this zeal for service translates into a laser focus on quality and innovation. For example, each month, the CIO awards a highly coveted Quality Cup award in four categories: large and small development projects, enhancements and operations. Winning the cup entails earning points under a sophisticated scoring system. CIO Greg Schwartz delivers the cup personally to the winning teams, which are recognized for completing projects with the fewest defects.

That emphasis on quality played a big role in Kris Koehler's decision to return to USAA after leaving the company to work somewhere else.

Quality standards were "a lot less rigorous" at his new employer, and "I started missing and appreciating the things I had left behind" at USAA, says Koehler, a technical manager who had left for work/life balance reasons after more than eight years at the company.

"I was in a role where it was a lot of night and day work, and I was on call a lot," Koehler explains about his first stint at USAA. "But things have changed," he adds, citing the flexible staffing model USAA adopted in 2008 to finish software projects faster and improve employee work/life balance. Under the plan, international consultants who are part of USAA's offshore Availability Command cover some of the shifts involved in running a 24/7 operation.

"The problem I was having kind of fixed itself," says Koehler.

As for innovation, the numbers tell it all. For every dollar invested in IT, 50% is invested directly in new functionality. IT employees also have access to an innovation lab where they can design and test ideas before moving them to full-scale development. It was here that two new USAA offerings -- a system for depositing checks using a home PC and a scanner, and a tool for depositing checks using an iPhone -- were conceived.

IT workers say this focus on innovation, the breadth of technical and managerial career opportunities, and the relative ease with which they can change roles -- to learn new skills, change professional direction or give their career a boost -- all contribute to loyalty to USAA.

Marty Peña is a prime example. Now an IT technical manager, she joined the company in 1994 as an accounting intern. Four years later, she moved to IT, advancing through various technical and analytical jobs before ascending to a managerial role.

"There's such varied job opportunities if and when you want to try something different," says Peña. "You can work on the business side or do project management or code if you want, or be an engineer and work with databases."

The average tenure of USAA's IT employees is 10 and a half years, and the company has a keen focus on recruiting college graduates.

"Fifty percent of all hires we make in a calendar year come from universities," says Schwartz. "We absolutely recruit for careers. That is our workforce strategy."

Sara Welch, 24, a software developer and integrator, joined USAA in June 2008, right out of Northwestern State University. USAA was one of several top companies she considered joining.

"I came in wanting to work in [IBM's] WebSphere [software development platform]. I got put in a mainframe area because of my experience," she recalls. "But the first time they saw a spot for me to move into WebSphere, they gave it to me."

Marissa Andrew, 24, a software developer who also joined the company as a college graduate, credits Nexus, USAA's social networking community specifically for college hires, with affording her the opportunity to work with executives whom she may not even have met so early in her career at another company.

"It's a great way to get exposure," she says. "This group helps get you grounded and to build up a network in the company."

Kevin Bergner, chief administrative officer, largely credits Schwartz, who joined USAA as a programmer trainee in 1983, for fostering the positive attitude and innovative culture within IT.

"Greg Schwartz has brought a great deal of personal leadership and commitment to developing IT," Bergner says. "He starts with recruiting and continues right through by providing developmental assignments and continuing-education programs. Greg knows what it means to work at every level of the organization."

Schwartz puts it this way: "I've had the opportunity to experience it all. I'm an example of what many of our longer-tenured employees experience. We try to sell people on a career, not a job."

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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