100 Best Places to Work in IT 2007

A sense of commitment, and connection, keeps IT staffers at these top companies jazzed up about work.

In 2004, when Ed Martinez became CIO at the H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute in Tampa, Fla., the facility's IT staff was struggling with morale. The institute had grown rapidly since it opened in 1986, but within IT, that phenomenal growth was causing problems. The group had seen three CIOs come and go within the same number of years. Half of the 100 staffers didn't know the other half, and roles were as ill-defined as the mission of the group itself. "There was an overall spirit of 'Do the work; get the check,'" Martinez says.

As with any turnaround, Martinez found himself making some unpopular decisions, including layoffs and title changes. But in the past two and a half years, he has also expanded the staff, promoted some people, increased some salaries by $5,000 to $20,000, broken down the wall between the hospital and research IT groups, and sponsored events to build camaraderie, including off-site retreats and social events. He was also able to add professional development opportunities and work/life benefits such as flexible schedules and elderly care, thanks to Moffitt's overall drive to become an employer of choice in the Tampa region.

But the biggest change and one that helped propel the organization to the No. 68 spot on Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT list was the effort made to link the IT group for the first time to the organization's mission, which is to contribute to the prevention and cure of cancer. This was vastly aided by Moffitt's launch of an ambitious program to build a data repository that integrates genetic information with clinical records, with the goal of someday creating personalized cancer treatments.

H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute IT employees

H. Lee Moffitt Cancer Center & Research Institute IT employees (from left) Fausto Gonzalez, Julius Miyawa, Veronica Cruz, Zachariah Johnson and Ed Martinez. "One of our mottos is, 'This is the place where we're going to cure cancer,'" Martinez says, "and if we don't have the right people working for us, we won't get there."

Today, his staffers seem to feel the same way. "The technology I provide touches every patient every day," says Zachariah Johnson, manager of IT clinical systems at Moffitt. And he should know, thanks to time spent shadowing doctors, meeting with physicians, nurses, pharmacy personnel and patient advisory groups, and even visiting patients at their bedsides.

"It's fun to open a box with a new computer in it and see what it can do. But that gets old real quick," Johnson says. "It's much more satisfying to know hundreds of patients a day can have a more pleasant experience because of something you did."

It might be popular to blame technology for the increased isolation that sociologists report seeing in the U.S. today, but IT workers at other companies on the 2007 list of Best Places to Work in IT echo Johnson's sentiment. They say they feel vitally connected to a greater whole and can accomplish meaningful work in an energetic environment alongside co-workers they respect and like.

In fact, working in a challenging and enjoyable environment was the second most important aspect of their jobs for the more than 27,000 IT workers surveyed at this year's Best Places (see the complete list), bested only by the desire to be fairly compensated. And for a group that's often stereotyped as introverted, independent and even cynical, it's notable how many mention the "f" word family when describing the atmosphere at their workplaces.

That sense of connection can be felt in myriad ways. For Jeff Spaude, business process analyst at Pulte Homes Inc. (No. 69), it was when the company owner sent out a DVD reminding employees to keep their focus on faith, family and the company in that order despite the home-building industry downturn.

For Dan Davis, group manager of IT at Anheuser-Busch Cos., which hit the list at No. 9, it's the $200 debit card given to each full-time employee to buy a Budweiser for anyone they see drinking a competitor's product.

For Monique McKeon, an application manager in the commercial lines business unit at The Chubb Corp. (No. 63), it's being invited with 15 other assistant vice presidents to a casual lunch with the CEO. And for Bob Talda, programmer/analyst specialist at Cornell University (No. 40), it's the fact that the school found a new position for him after he was fired by a manager with whom he didn't get along. "Instead of shrugging, they showed a sense of loyalty that just doesn't exist anymore at most organizations," Talda says.

And that type of environment doesn't just happen. These Best Places nurture it by establishing mission statements that explicitly link IT activities to business goals, bringing IT workers into strategic discussions, promoting group cohesiveness, keeping policies as flexible as possible and providing no-holds-barred opportunities for growth.

Getting to the Table

That's a wake-up call for employers who could be faced with heightened competition for IT talent in the coming year. Hiring is expected to increase by 12% for IT professionals, the second-highest increase since the third quarter of 2002, according to IT staffing firm Robert Half Technology. Of this year's Best Places, 64% said they plan to increase their U.S.-based staffs this year, on average by 7%.

And this is a group of professionals with a propensity to be lured to jobs that offer opportunities for greater challenges. That's particularly true for the younger generations of IT workers, who tend to be loyal to the project team they're working with at any given time but not to the organization itself, according to Ben Dattner, principal at Dattner Consulting LLC, a consulting and research firm in New York. "There are plenty of books written about the whole world adopting the free-agent mentality," he says.

But if you help these employees forge a connection, you might be able to keep them longer. "Your best companies basically wrap their arms around people in a real way, share their vision of the company and make sure the employees are a part of that vision," says Katherine Spencer Lee, executive director of Robert Half Technology and a Computerworld columnist.

Vision-sharing has been a big part of the experience for Davis, who just finished rolling out an animal health care system across all of Anheuser-Busch Entertainment's adventure parks, including SeaWorld, Discovery Cove and Busch Gardens. The success of the project, he says, depended on IT being called in when the park veterinarians were first discussing the need to share information across the facilities. Through some out-of-the-box thinking, he says, the group was able to adapt an existing health care system designed for humans. "We have a close tie to our customers," Davis says. "It's not an 'us/them' relationship; it's a 'we.'"

"[The CEO] wants to make sure we're not just order-takers, and that's a culture we think works best if it starts at the top," says Joe Castellano, who became CIO at Anheuser-Busch this spring after 24 years at the company, most recently as vice president of human resources.

That's also the case at Pulte Homes. "Our people usually get involved at the stage where there's still a question and not an answer," says CIO Jerry Batt. A case in point was when the construction department changed its building model, spurring changes to the scheduling system. "We had a team of people talking routinely with the vice president of construction about his vision of what he wanted to accomplish," he says. "I've never seen a more jazzed group of IT people."

Question Authority

But that also means fostering an environment where ideas can percolate, which in turn means favoring flexibility and innovation over policy and hierarchy. "People in technology are independent thinkers because their jobs are really about creativity and teamwork and about challenging established wisdom and innovating," Dattner says.

Having worked at a large telecommunications firm before joining Pulte in 2003, Batt says that in his first week on the job, he was struck by the company's lack of rules and regulations. "I'd ask, 'What's the policy on such-and-such?' and the answer would be, 'We decided not to have a policy on that,'" he says. "There are very few prohibitions."

Batt drew on that relaxed approach and what he calls the "unbounded optimism" of home-building professionals and established a three-word mantra for IT to apply to all of its projects and activities: easy, fun and sustainable. "We frequently ask ourselves whether our projects are meeting those goals, and if not, how can we change that?" Batt says. Just last year, the group realized that it needed to increase its "fun" quotient after four years of high growth, so it started planning activities such as a two-floor indoor miniature golf tournament in its Michigan facility.

Flexibility also has to extend into work/life benefits. At Anheuser-Busch, 40% of the employees in Davis' group are taking advantage of some form of alternative schedule, whether working from home or working four 10-hour days. At Cornell, Talda is granted time during the workday to pursue an MBA in education. And McKeon joined Chubb in part because as her children got older, she wanted the flexibility to leave the office in the late afternoon if need be and resume her work again in the evening. "Here, as long as the work gets done, everyone's happy," she says.

Moving Up Not On

But like the best families, companies that want employees to feel connected also have to be just as ready to let go when other opportunities call or provide those opportunities themselves. That's why this year's Best Places offer healthy training and development benefits as well as access to interesting projects, and they pay close attention to matching staffers with roles that magnify their talents.

Cornell has seen staff mobility increase over the past three years, thanks to both an annual talent review meeting conducted by its senior management team and the fact that it now breaks out career development discussions from its performance reviews.

"We're focusing on staff members' individual strengths and helping them find roles where they will be most satisfied and successful," says Nancy van Orman, assistant to the vice president of Cornell IT. For instance, in 2003 only three staffers moved from one division of Cornell to another, but in 2006 that number increased to 21.

In his nine years at Anheuser-Busch, Davis has worked in materials management doing SAP configurations, in the wholesaler/marketing division and now in the Busch Entertainment unit. IT staffers can become familiar with other areas of the organization, from wholesaling to brewing, by attending talks in which speakers describe what they need from IT in order to be successful.

Retention is also encouraged by rewarding IT employees for their abilities rather than their tenure. "I'm very loyal, but I need to be challenged or I'll move on," admits Johnson. However, at Moffitt, "each project is like that new, exciting project, so I don't have to jump to the next client to keep it interesting," he says.

That's true not only because of the organization's pioneering cancer research, but also because of its merit-based promotion policies. "Moffitt promotes from within, but only if you're the right person, not because you've been there 20 years," Johnson says.

Case in point: When Martinez joined Moffitt, he met with everyone in IT to assess their skills and personalities and then moved people to where they'd excel in the organization. "I had one guy [assigned] to fix PCs, but he had a Ph.D. in biochemistry," he says. "Now he's helping to build the database for the biotech group."

Similarly, within a year of being hired at Chubb, McKeon quickly moved from an application management position to project manager, when the application she was managing required significant functionality enhancements. "As a result, I've become somewhat of a subject-matter expert in business proc­ess management and provide support to other business units as they explore BPM," she says.

Continuous Improvement

What unifies the companies on this year's list of Best Places to Work is thedrive to do what it takes to be on the list next year as well. "We recognize that there's no finish line," says Anheuser-Busch's Castellano. "The worst thing we could do is get complacent, because people here have high expectations, and they should."

June Drewry, worldwide CIO at Chubb, has the same mind-set. She came out of retirement one and a half years ago to help the company groom its senior leadership team following the departure of the head of IT. She joined a group that was highly functional and thanks to its federated organizational model closely bonded with the business units it served. Many IT organizations might have stopped there, but when Drewry asked the business line CIOs what they'd want to improve, they said they wanted to strengthen their relationships across the business units.

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