In the Heartland

These Best Places to Work in IT mix the best of small-town America and big-time technology.

Forbes magazines 2007 list of Best Places for Business and Careers includes six North Central U.S. cities in its top 50 Des Moines and Cedar Rapids, Iowa; Lincoln and Omaha, Neb.; Springfield, Mo.; and Indianapolis.

But its list of the 50 best small places for business and careers includes 17 North Central cities. In fact, the top seven Bismarck and Fargo, N.D.; Sioux Falls and Rapid City, S.D.; Columbia, Mo.; Iowa City; and Bloomington, Ind., are in this part of the country.

Indeed, these small and midsize pockets of prosperity and possibilities might be the defining characteristic of the region. Other than Chicago and Detroit, the North Central U.S. doesnt have the sprawling metropolitan areas that have sprung up on the coasts, but neither does it have as much polluted air, traffic congestion and crime.

Computerworlds 2007 Best Places to Work in IT list also spotlighted a high percentage of employers in the North Central U.S.; 34 of the top 100 companies have headquarters in that region. Here, we look at the current projects and job opportunities at three of these award-winning businesses.

Cummins Inc.

  • IT head count: 700 at Cummins and 1,300 at outsourcing firms
  • CIO: Gail Farnsley
  • Current IT projects: Worldwide Oracle ERP rollout and system standardization
  • Current IT openings: Project managers, business-oriented analysts, Oracle specialists

Cross-department migration encouraged: Cummins has outsourced many of its lower-level and more technical IT jobs such as programming, help desk and computer operations to several companies, including its partner, KPIT Cummins Infosystems Ltd. in Pune, India. So while the company still hires some entry-level IT people right out of college, hiring managers there are more likely to be looking for more experienced workers.

In particular, the $11 billion maker of diesel engines and related systems seeks IT people with business experience. Its really important that someone have strong business analysis skills in addition to technical skills, says Carrie Vawter, manager of engine business supply chain IT. We need people to understand how a technology is going to solve a real-world business problem.

Nevertheless, some college graduates are hired as project managers or analysts, but they must be able to work effectively across several functional groups, says Vawter. In fact, she says, a key selling point for an IT job at Cummins is the ability to move out of IT and into an area such as marketing or finance.

Cummins is about six months into a three-year worldwide Oracle ERP rollout undertaken in partnership with IBM and KPIT Cummins. A key objective is to standardize as much as possible on key applications, says Jason Hammond, manager of IT strategy. The Oracle software will replace a number of older, homegrown systems.

The objective is to move to common processes, common applications such as order management and purchasing and common interfaces, Vawter says. Over the past 18 months, she says Cummins has been developing functional IT strategies that cross all business units. For each strategy, typically there is a recommended application, says Vawter. For example, she says, inventory management is a subfunction within the manufacturing IT strategy, and Cummins uses Oracles E-Business Suite for it.

While the ERP rollout addresses long-standing business processes, Cummins is also beginning to exploit fundamental new capabilities such as social networking, blogging and wikis Web 2.0 stuff, Hammond says.

Cummins employees speak highly of the companys ethical business behavior and its sense of social responsibility. We are very involved in the community and in diversity-related activities, says Lorrie Meyer, executive director of human resources. Our core values are not just words on paper for us; we make business decisions based on them. We choose where we will sell product, for example, and maybe walk away from an opportunity based on them.

We offer domestic partner benefits, and we are passionate about that, says Cummins spokeswoman Sarah Sullivan.

Meyer adds, Our headquarters is in Columbus, Ind., a relatively small town. It has a real sense of community, a great place for families.

General Mills Inc.

  • IT head count: Approximately 600
  • Vice president of information systems: Terry Brown
  • Current IT projects: Develop marketing information systems for activities like the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest; mentoring, networking and career development through Women in IS program
  • Current IT openings: SAP developers, Oracle and .Net specialists, business analysts, project managers

Building from the ground up: Every two years, Minneapolis-based General Mills puts on the Pillsbury Bake-Off Contest, in which it receives thousands of recipes from people competing for a $1 million prize. The system to support that is not trivial; it has to maintain and track all those recipes and manage the travel of 100 finalists who are flown in for the final bake-off.

But Randy Pettinger, director of marketing IS, says his team of 25 wont just crank up the same old system used two years ago. We are building a .Net front end for that, he says. Whats neat is this year we are really upgrading the technology. It will be accessible to users outside the company, such as travel agencies, he says.

Its a lot of fun stuff, Pettinger says of developing the Bake-Off system and other marketing tools, which deal with things such as Nielsen ratings, the 19 Betty Crocker test kitchens, Box Tops for Education for K-8 students and the sponsorship of NASCAR racing.

But, he adds, it isnt all fun and games. General Mills looks for people with strong SAP skills and for those with Oracle, SQL and .Net skills for custom system development.

General Mills doesnt rely on consultants or outsourcing as much as many large companies, says Stephanie Ball, human resources director for IS. And, although it does use application packages, it also does a great deal of custom work. We focus on building a lot of tools from within, she says. Thats exciting to people the opportunity to be part of something from the ground up and be able to truly own it.

Not all IT projects at General Mills directly involve computer technology. Stacey Lovell, an SAP senior application analyst, is on the Women in IS steering committee, where she champions the development, advancement and retention of women in IT. Today, 80% of the women working in IS are involved and contribute in one way, shape or form, she says.

State Farm Insurance Cos.

  • IT head count: 5,700
  • Systems vice president: Mark Oakley
  • Current IT projects: Migration and rewriting of Cobol systems to distributed Java/Unix systems using IBM Rational development tools; biggest current effort: rewriting the claims system
  • Current IT openings: People skilled in Java, IBM Rational tools, Unix, IBM WebSphere, DB2; database administrators; IT architects; test specialists; analysts of complex insurance data

Team players wanted: We have tens of millions of lines of legacy Cobol and PL/1 code, says Mike Fields, lead IT architect at State Farm in Bloomington, Ill., but we think our future architecture is in the distributed Java space. So, while a few new IT hires have skills in older technologies, most software developers need some combination of J2EE, IBM Rational, IBM WebSphere, DB2 and Unix knowledge, he says.

Like most insurance companies, State Farm has a huge quantity of data which it maintains on IBM z/OS mainframes so it is looking for people who can perform business intelligence analysis and other kinds of complex analytics, Fields says.

The biggest current development effort involving multiple hundreds of people is a near-total rewrite of State Farms 15-year-old Cobol system for claims processing. We are moving to new technology, plus adding significant business value, Fields says. For example, the new application will remove several existing constraints based on geography.

For this project, Fields says, the company is experimenting with IBMs Rational Software Modeler to generate code for user interfaces and user task logic using Unified Modeling Language. A lot of eyes are watching that to see how it pans out, he says.

About 160 of State Farms 200 new IT hires this year will have had some prior experience in IT, says Meta Mickens-Baker, manager of corporate IT. Those hired directly out of school will mostly be from a group of 80 students who have previously served as interns at State Farm.

While State Farm, which has 68,000 employees and 76 million insurance policies, looks for certain technical skills such as Java expertise, it already has one key skill in abundance, Fields says. We know a lot about sizing and scaling big systems.

He says that one of the things that has kept him at State Farm for 18 years is that we are willing to spend for the right tools and project structures and team sizes.

Don't miss the full 2007 Best Places to Work in IT report.

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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