Best Balance: Tech for the Techie

Dole out sexy technology assignments, yet keep day-to-day systems humming. Avoid the urge to overhire, yet keep up with business growth. Here's how Best Places make everyday balances work.

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Financial services firm Sallie Mae (No. 64) in Reston, Va., is moving toward a service-oriented architecture, creating plenty of opportunities for interesting IT work. "The real challenge is balancing [new technology] with our everyday systems and projects," says Jo Lee Hayes, vice president of enterprise technology.

Sallie Mae keeps IT staffers who work on everyday projects engaged in new technology with semiannual contests to solve IT challenges. This year, its 871 IT workers were asked how the IT team could be more agile. Some 120 ideas were submitted, and the top three are being implemented. "It's almost like 'Congratulations! Because you provided your opinion, you now get to work on the solution,'" Hayes jokes.

"That did happen. But in truth ... I wanted the opportunity to get in there and see what I could do with it," says Rich Drew, one winner of the contest. Drew, a PC applications analyst, suggested using technology to streamline the installation of operating systems and software on Sallie Mae's 12,000 desktops. "It's not necessarily new technology, but we're ... collaborating several technologies that are new to us," he explains. Drew is now scripting software installs using Microsoft Windows Installer technology to streamline and standardize all PCs.

"It's one thing to work on the same thing day after day; it's another thing to get accomplished at what you do and then try to find ways to make it better," Drew says.

The Trickle Down

At USAA (No. 17) in San Antonio, the most sought-after IT projects involve the Internet -- WebSphere and Java programming. But that doesn't mean they'll stay hot for long. "Legacy is something you implemented yesterday. We have developed organizational discipline that allows employees maximum involvement across technologies," says Greg Schwartz, CIO and senior vice president of enterprise business operations.

So it's no surprise that about half of USAA's 2,223 IT employees actually like the maintenance role, Schwartz says, because leading-edge technology soon trickles down to them.

"Even if you have an old mainframe-style system, now that we're moving toward the Internet, you still have to interact with Java and JSPs," says lead programmer James Karras. "You take those on, then the newer technologies come out, and you still have a base you need to maintain."

The Difference

It's not just the new technology that motivates IT workers, says Brad Friedman, CIO at Burlington Coat Factory Warehouse Corp. (No. 86) in Burlington, N.J. It's being involved with projects that make a difference.

The apparel company's IT staff is working on several customer-related IT initiatives that include Java, XML communication between various systems, real-time interaction with legacy systems and high transaction volumes. But the IT unit also adds "immense functionality" to the retailer's legacy point-of-sale system, which is written in C, Friedman says.

"It's not just the techie stuff; it's the visibility stuff. Everybody wants to feel part of the company," he explains. "By working on these customer-centric initiatives, they're making a difference in the bottom line. That motivates people."

But electronic data interchange manager Sameh Ayadi adds that new technology motivates her people, too. "If I have a C programmer for 10 years, and I move him to a Java or Linux platform, you see a different push. They're more motivated when they have the most current technology."

Collett is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at stcollett@aol.com.

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Copyright © 2006 IDG Communications, Inc.

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