Overview: 100 Best Places to Work in IT

If you work in IT these days, you don't need anyone to tell you that times are tough. You might have watched as colleagues packed their cubicles and headed to the unemployment office. You probably haven't gotten a promotion or a decent raise in a while. And morale in your department has likely shrunk right along with the IT budget.

Although it may look bleak where you are, not all of your IT brethren are singing the blues. Some employers are bucking the negative trends. They're finding ways to give their IT workers the pay, training and technology projects they crave.

At Caraustar Industries Inc., which ranked No. 13 on this year's Best Places to Work in IT list, staffers are reveling in the family-friendly flextime. Instead of going to offshore outsourcers, cool technology projects at No. 17 Ford Motor Co. are staying in the hands of the Dearborn, Mich.-based IT staff.

Computerworld's search to find these top companies began six months ago with a call for nominations. Surveyed companies earned points for great training options, benefits and pay, but this year, it was the employees who got the final word. More than half of a company's score came from a survey of its IT employees and what those employees said is important to them in their jobs.

These companies start with the standard fare that IT employees used to take for granted—competitive pay, health insurance and sufficient vacation time. According to our survey of more than 11,500 employees at these winning companies, those basics are very much appreciated in today's economy. But what separates the good employers from the great ones?

Interviews with IT workers of all stripes—from help desk technicians to CIOs—indicate that in a down economy, the 100 Best Places earn the honor by using modern technologies that offer challenges, ensuring that employees get the training they need to meet those challenges, bending to accommodate family and personal needs, and tying all of them together with pride in the work of not only IT, but also the business as a whole.

Flare for Flexibility

"This company is just so family-flexible," says Kaci Turner of her employer, Caraustar, a cardboard-packaging company with 2002 revenue of $950 million. "On the one hand, I want to say they're strict because they sure expect you to do your job. But when you show you can do it, they'll do anything to accommodate your family needs," says Turner, a systems operator and help desk technician at the Austell, Ga.-based company.

As our survey of IT workers at these Best Places indicates, flexible work hours and telecommuting programs are prized by staffs. Said one IT worker, "I'm given the flexibility with my work schedule that helps me stay balanced between home and work. I don't feel that I have to choose to be a mother or an employee. I'm empowered and able to accomplish both."

"IT people are working their butts off," says Tim Talbot, CIO at PHH Arval (No. 14), a fleet-leasing company based in Hunt Valley, Md. "You've got to support that any way you can." PHH Arval uses work-at-home products from Avaya Inc. and a virtual private network from Cisco Systems Inc. to let IT staffers telecommute full time or on an ad hoc basis.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CIO Linda Dillman agrees with Talbot. "IT people here know that sometimes the hours aren't 8 to 5," she says of the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant, which came in at No. 15. "In turn, we need to be flexible." Dillman says the bulk of Wal-Mart's telecommuting and flexible scheduling is done informally, allowing managers and workers to create sensible arrangements.

The Pride and the Passion

In the post-Enron, post-WorldCom, post-job-security era, eyes may roll when two notions arise: pride in the corporate mission and a warm, familial work environment. But make no mistake—these are crucial components at the top IT employers.

"In my department, it is easy to see that the work we do is important," one respondent says. "Therefore, individuals perform at high levels and stay motivated." Many workers echo that sentiment. Whether they are remotely monitoring intensive-care hospital patients or supporting sales of three-day Caribbean cruises, IT workers excel when they believe their employers are going about their business honorably. Pausing to search for the right word, Caraustar's Turner says, "This company is very ... moral."

And while "We're like a family here" may be a cliche, the phrase comes up too frequently to be ignored. An astonishing percentage of employees at these top IT employers have good relationships with their colleagues.

"The economic downturn hasn't been good for anyone," says Donald H. Newsom, IT director at Caraustar. But leading employers have found creative ways to keep IT employees satisfied and loyal. "Our pay increases have been down, and our bonuses have been reduced," Newsom says. "But everyone here feels good about their jobs and realizes that as times get better, so will these benefits."

Loving Learning

Education and training are crucial to technologists, and that importance was reflected in the survey. "[My employer] provides significant opportunity for advancement and emphasizes everyone being a leader with a top-down commitment to leadership training," one survey respondent said.

David Foote, president of IT workforce research firm Foote Partners LLC in New Canaan, Conn., and a Computerworld columnist, says the training budget is the single best predictor of Top 100 status. "You see it year in and year out," he says. "The companies that invest in their workers are consistently rewarded."

In addition to generous certification and tuition-reimbursement programs, many Top 100 companies seek to make training, education and professional growth part of the IT environment. At ninth-ranked Discover Financial Services in Riverwoods, Ill., IT employees set individual plans annually, according to CIO Diane Offereins. This year, each worker has been encouraged to set a goal of 40 hours of education not directly related to his job.

Top 100 employers' education and growth initiatives range from grass-roots efforts, such as the worker-initiated "Lead IT" leadership program at Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. (No. 11), to more formal programs.

For example, Ford has learned that because it relies less on outsourcing now, "we need a robust learning environment," says Roger Mitchell, the automaker's director of IT strategy and development. "That's the only way to help people understand what they are to the organization and what [that organization is] going to look like three to five years from now."

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Quirky Perks Sun 'n' Fun: Edward Jones (No. 57) employees can earn $100 in the Good Idea Contest and are entered to win a one-week, all-expenses-paid trip for two to exotic destinations such as Hawaii or the Cayman Islands (plus an extra week of paid vacation). A satellite broadcast announces the winners at the moment they are surprised in person. In 2001, eight associates won Caribbean cruises.

Living Healthy: Hilton Hotels Corp. (No. 42) offers the Miavita Health Program, a personalized service to help manage weight, improve cholesterol levels, boost metabolism and reduce risk of disease.

Fast Track: IT leaders at Allstate Insurance Co. (No. 26) recently went to a luge run to learn about the sport and practice risk-taking and team-building in an unconventional setting.

Staying Fit: Avon Products Inc. (No. 18) offers on-site yoga classes and massages and subsidizes an on-site Weight Watchers program, fitness centers and cafeteria.

Getting Involved: Intuit Inc. (No. 37) offers employees 32 hours of paid time off per year for company-sponsored volunteer activities.

One-Stop Shopping: Marriott International Inc.'s (No. 51) building amenities include on-site child care, dry cleaning, a bank, gas pumps, a cafeteria, a health club, a convenience store, a nurse, a photo processing service, a gift shop, Starbucks coffee, security, free parking, massage, a post office and a copy center.

Source: 2003 Best Places to Work company surveys

One popular component of that education program is "shadowing"—having IT workers follow operations employees for a week to better learn the business. Many Top 100 companies offer similar "mile-in-my-moccasins" programs.

Fresh Challenge

Two years ago, Ford's IT personnel consisted of 30% internal staffers and 70% outside consultants. Marv Adams, vice president and CIO, elected to buck the outsourcing trend and reverse that ratio. Morale was a major factor. "When 70% of the work is on the outside, the best projects tend to float outside," Adams says, which stirred resentment among Ford IT employees.

"Now, the really exciting work—Web services, grid computing, a massive server consolidation, new CAD/engineering tools—is all inside. Not only are these the really fun technology projects, they're the ones that bring Ford the most value," says Adams. In the past 18 months, he adds, Ford IT has hired 775 people—and lost seven. The result? In an annual internal survey, IT job satisfaction rose from slightly under the company average to five points above average in a single year.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, devastated the travel and leisure industry. As a result, the IT organization at Royal Caribbean watched a $200 million revamp of all major systems, internally dubbed Project Leapfrog, slam to a halt, and half of the Miami-based company's 400 IT staffers were laid off.

"People were mentally beaten down and morale-challenged," says CIO Thomas Murphy. "Through [fiscal] 2002, we were in maintenance mode. About all we could do was keep the engines running."

Entering fiscal 2003, though, Murphy devised a way to keep Royal Caribbean's IT department focused and challenged. The problems that had plagued the ill-fated Project Leapfrog persisted: The company's systems were a jumble of siloed legacy applications with little interapplication communication or data sharing. The company needed a more modular, less expensive way to rationalize its applications.

Enter Project Jumpstart. Royal Caribbean is in the early stages of a program aimed at "detangling all of this mess, a component at a time," rather than in one massive $200 million gulp, Murphy says. Using IBM's WebSphere middleware and Microsoft Corp.'s BizTalk, Royal Caribbean is retaining its AS/400 system and rewriting its enterprise applications (such as the software it uses to book tours for groups) one at a time.

Not only is the project helping the business move forward during rocky economic times, but it's also challenging IT staffers to learn new skills and be more resourceful.

Survey respondents value a challenge, and Top 100 companies tend not only to work with advanced technology but also to spread that work throughout their organizations to avoid creating groups of haves (those developing cutting-edge applications) and have-nots (those stuck maintaining old systems).

This year's Top 100 make it clear that even during hard times, employers can earn the respect and loyalty of their IT workers. "The economy may change," Foote says, "but human nature doesn't."

Ulfelder is a freelance writer in Southboro, Mass. Contact him at sulfelder@charter.net.

Special Report

100 Best Places to Work in IT 2003

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Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.

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