100 Best Places to Work in IT 2005

What's the secret to building a strong and satisfied IT workforce? More than money and benefits, it's the value of the work itself.

For the past two years, Bill McDonough has been a project lead on one of the most stressful projects he's ever worked on in his IT career. Formerly an IT consultant, he is now senior systems analyst at Publix Super Markets Inc., an $18.6 billion supermarket chain based in Lakeland, Fla., that is ranked No. 56 on Computerworld's 2005 list of the Best Places to Work.

The project -- still in its pilot phase -- involves replacing the point-of-sale (POS) systems in Publix's 852 grocery stores in Florida and four other Southern states. So far, five stores are live, with 120 more planned for completion by the end of the year. The remaining stores will go live by the end of 2006.

So why does McDonough sound so happy? "It's been one heck of a project -- high visibility, high stress, lots of hours but a ton of fun," he says. "Getting that point-of-sale system into the store has been a real achievement."

And McDonough isn't the only one feeling satisfied with his job. To work at one of this year's Best Places is to know the rewards of challenging projects, competitive salaries and career development. In fact, our survey of 20,435 IT workers at this year's Best Places showed higher satisfaction ratings than the 2004 Best Places employees reported in a variety of areas, including bonuses, morale, corporate culture and job security.

How to account for this increase in optimism? Certainly the economy has yet to hit its stride - although the job market is improving, growth is sluggish at best, with the jobless rate holding steady at 5.1%. And the offshoring trend continues unabated, with this year's Best Places respondents reporting an increase in their companies' use of offshore contractors, up from an average of 47 contractors last year to 69 today. Meanwhile, Forrester Research Inc. expects growth in IT spending to remain at 2004's 7% level.

But McDonough's satisfaction has very little to do with economic indicators. He says the answer may have something to do with living in Central Florida itself, as well as the stability of Publix, a 75-year-old, employee-owned organization where nearly a quarter of the IT staff has tenure of 10 years or more and where no one from IT was laid off during the downturn.

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Bill McDonough, Ana Lorenz and Mike Imperiale of the Publix IT department
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Bill McDonough, Ana Lorenz and Mike Imperiale of the Publix IT department

Image Credit: Gregg Matthews

A bigger factor, though, is McDonough's experience of working on a meaningful project with a team of IT and business people who are fully vested in the project mission and what it takes to achieve a successful outcome. Despite the stress, he says, it's the best project he's ever worked on.

"There was great synergy between us," McDonough says. "Everyone was focused on solving problems, and everyone wanted to hit a home run."

Beyond the Basics

While IT workers are content with their compensation, it's becoming clear that monetary rewards alone won't catapult a company into the Best Places to Work elite. Of course, financial stability is important to IT workers, and there's good news on that front among the Best Places, where hiring, salaries and bonuses are expected to climb. Meanwhile, the percentage of Best Places that laid off IT employees in the previous year dropped, from 46% in the 2004 survey to 43% in the 2005 survey.

In fact, the looser job market probably played a role in the increased satisfaction levels, says Paul Glen, an IT management consultant in Los Angeles and author of Leading Geeks: How to Manage and Lead the People Who Deliver Technology. "For the past three or four years, people were not quitting their jobs because no one was hiring," says Glen, who's a Computerworld columnist. "I'm willing to bet people have been able to leave jobs they hate." In addition, he says, organizations seem to be starting new projects, affording IT people new opportunities.

But fair compensation just gets you in the game, Glen says. "I'm not sure satisfaction comes from the lowest levels of Maslow's hierarchy -- it's when you can forget about them that it's exciting," he says.

And that's what CIOs and rank-and-file employees at the Best Places like to emphasize: The satisfaction of doing meaningful work that clearly correlates with business goals is valued by management and business peers alike and is rewarded as such. Some even say that in an age when corporate loyalty is all but nonexistent, contributing value is the new job security.

"People have turned toward thinking that as long as they're part of a critical component of the organization that is having true bottom-line impact, that's something secure they can hold on to -- a benchmark they can see," says Jo Ann Boylan, chief technology officer at Ohio Savings Bank in Cleveland, which is ranked No. 33 on the list. "Everyone wants to know where they stand."

This will remain the case even as the economy heats up, says Chris Avery, a principal at Cutter Consortium in Arlington, Mass. "Although they want to be competitive, most companies are concentrating on creating engaged work environments to let [IT workers] feel like they're creating value, sharing responsibility and working in a community that's an enjoyable place to spend eight or 10 hours of the day," he says.

Visible Evidence of Value

So how do the companies on the Best Places to Work list foster this type of atmosphere? One way is to structure projects so that IT staffers have front-line visibility into the usefulness and importance of what they're building. "People love to see their technology get used," Glen says.

At Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corp. in East Hanover, N.J., which is No. 20 on the list, IT groups work directly with the various business units, as directed by a business information manager who focuses on the strategic issues of a particular unit. For example, when members of the IT group responsible for online marketing development see a TV commercial for Novartis' Take Action for Healthy BP program and a link to its Web site, "we get satisfaction that we contributed to making that happen," says Al DelloRusso, executive director of e-business professional services.

This type of connection doesn't just happen. At bimonthly meetings, the IT staff listens to the latest customer testimonials about Novartis' products. "The people in the audience really get that they're working for a health care company," says Rob James, CIO at Novartis.

At the University of Pennsylvania -- where projects are led by a joint team that includes a technology and a business project manager -- IT staffers are intimately intertwined with the functions of the university, be it the research department, the admissions department or student services, says Robin Beck, vice president of IS at Penn, which is ranked No. 8 on the list.

Penn makes sure the fruits of IT staffers' labor are visible by, for instance, creating a public record of how much money it saves by using the Web-based e-procurement system, developed in part by IT. "If you isolate IT people, they wonder, 'What am I doing here?' " Beck says. "But if they're working closely with their clients, they find a bond and see how what they're doing contributes to the organization."

At the California State Automobile Association in San Francisco, which is No. 54 on the list, the IT staff had a dramatic entree this year into how technology affects not only the lives of their business counterparts but also those of CSAA members.

The organization just completed redoing its membership system, moving from a 15-year-old system to one based on a new Web-based infrastructure. IT developed the system but also partnered with the training department to develop e-learning modules to enable everyone (including IT staffers) to understand how people in the call center and district offices would interact with members on the new system.

This intensive interaction grew out of CSAA's 3-year-old Vision & Values program, intended to bring about a cultural transformation at the organization, according to CIO Sally Grant. "It's aligned us and given us a charter," she says. "The IT organization is feeling more valued now than it ever has, at least in my time at CSAA."

Business and IT: Joined at the Hip

Visibility can happen only when IT comes out of isolation and works directly with business peers. During the POS project at Publix, two former store managers worked with McDonough's team full time, from requirements through final testing. This ensured that the system would meet store associates' needs, and it also made the managers completely sympathetic about what it took technology-wise to develop a bulletproof POS system, McDonough says.

At Partners Healthcare Systems Inc. in Boston, which is ranked No. 42, IT workers interact with all levels of the organization, from senior executives to medical directors and staffers in patient registration and the labs. "Teamwork is promoted here, and that allows you to learn the business and operations so you can put value on the work you do," says Lisa Adragna, a senior project manager and 20-year veteran at Partners. Adragna says she also enjoys Partners' leading-edge use of technology. "We get to work on stuff that folks across the nation haven't done yet," such as an enterprise master patient index, which Partners was among the first to develop, she says.

Seating IT workers with the people they support is a key part of the agile workforce that Cutter Consortium's Avery sees forward-thinking corporations trying to develop. In those companies, clients come "live" with the IT team to work together in real time, he says. But the fact is, successful teams can only be encouraged -- not forced. The key ingredient: allowing them to focus on important work.

And that's just what Ohio Savings Bank's Boylan plans to emphasize as she sees the job market in Cleveland heating up. "IT folks want to know they're not doing discretionary work, and that's been one of the biggest things we use when we're talking to job candidates," she says.

Meaningful Rewards

Just as work needs to be meaningful, so do the ways in which you reward the work. Best Places have a variety of rewards programs, ranging from glitzy ceremonies where employees are honored by the CEO to performance-related bonuses, team parties, handwritten thank-you notes and gift cards.

But peer recognition is perhaps even more meaningful. Employees at CSAA are encouraged to hand out nonmonetary awards to peers whom they see living out the organization's six defined core values, and through CSAA's Quick Hits program, they can give out a total of four $25 gift certificates to one another in a year.

And it helps to make it fun. In large group meetings at Novartis, IT staffers have watched colleagues and managers perform parodies of American Idol and The Apprentice, and sing karaoke "very badly," James reports.

Great Relationships

But just as you can't force good teamwork, you also can't force fun. As Glen says, if people are worried about job security, having Friday pizza parties is like planning a beer bash on Death Row to get people's spirits up.

At the same time, good relationships can make or break the quality of your corporate culture. The quality of office relationships is an important ingredient for employees at the Best Places, with 94.8% reporting that they have good relationships with co-workers.

At Penn, positive relationships are forged in part by the university's open communication environment, as well as its willingness to confirm the value of individual contributions through tangible action, according to Marion Campbell, an IT director there. For instance, when her group wanted to emphasize the importance of preparing end users for new technology, it coined the phrase "community readiness," which is now used on all projects.

Similarly, the IT staff at Novartis has adopted "open space" meetings to encourage a "speak-up" culture. The meetings are often shaped around a single question for employees to probe. The purpose, James says, is to "get the moose on the table," or in other words, put out a difficult issue for people to discuss without fear of repercussions.

Of course, the only way a company can be a "best place" is if IT staffers who work there perceive it that way. And that can happen only when there's a good fit between the employer and the employed. "It's like asking, 'What's the best country to live in?' " says Glen. "It's really a matter of who's managed to put together the best fit between the environment and the staff."

For instance, Beck lets job applicants know about Penn's flat, team-based setup. "I absolutely know you will not like Penn if you measure your career development linearly," she says.

The key is to be really good at choosing employees who will fit in.

For his part, McDonough says that although he might prefer to fish all day if he didn't need a paycheck, happiness comes from knowing he has completed a project that delivered what people really needed, without losing sleep at night. "I want to work at a stable company with a decent salary," he says, "where I can walk in with a smile on my face."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer in Grand Rapids, Mich. Contact her at mary.brandel@comcast.net.

Special Report Table of Contents

2005 Best Places to Work in IT
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