Taking techies to their limits

Nothing is more important to a technologist than technology, so the Best Places to Work make sure their full staffs share access to hot projects, key skills and leading-edge development critical to the business.

Waking up in the morning and looking forward to getting back to the technical challenges of your work is one of the most potent sources of job satisfaction. For technologists, that means intricate projects that amaze and awe.

The respect and appreciation from the business side for information technology's contribution to success are what employers with hot projects offer their IT staffs.

"Your Web site is only as good as the product that ends up inside the customer's house," says Roseann Lucas, a technical delivery project manager at Electronic Data Systems Corp. in Des Moines, Iowa. "We want to be the engine that's powering the action behind the scenes of the glamour of the Web site." Lucas says her team intends to have a new order-management system available by late summer or early fall to clients who sell merchandise online or through catalogs.

"It gives them the capability to interact with the end consumer online and in real time, through a consumer response or call center as well as in the e-commerce realm," Lucas explains.

Being part of that kind of technology, taking it to its limits and gliding on to the next generation attracts the top talent and keeps them happy. Vendors like EDS, Intel Corp. and NCR Corp. - all on the list of Best Places for Hot Projects - are in the business of staying on the bleeding edge, creating the technology that industry runs on.

Lucas joined EDS's 80,000 IT employees via an acquisition in 1991. Since then, she has made her way through a variety of projects in what Dan Ward, director of organizational resource planning, describes as a matrix, or lattice, of job opportunities.

At Plano, Texas-based EDS, IT professionals can find out what skills they need to join a particular team, get the training and let the company know when they're ready to move ahead. "When you meet the criteria, you move up," says Lucas. "You choose when you are ready."

Technologists are also taking their place at the table for business-management decisions. With a full appreciation for the importance of technology issues comes greater opportunities for IT to participate on the business side.

Rapid Deployment

Intel's IT staff had to be ready when its e-commerce investment went from zero to $1 billion per month in six months. "It's a combination of really smart people, disciplined management, a strong team ethic, the ability to apply resources where we need them and a culture that lets people switch gears rapidly," says Doug Busch, Intel's vice president of IT.

At Intel, IT is consulting on new projects like virtual private networking, load balancing and Secure Sockets Layer acceleration products for e-commerce. The close connection to Intel's business strategy gives IT constant feedback on how the products impact Intel's ability to deliver in the marketplace.

George Moakley now leads a team of 16 as director of enterprise architecture in a lab spun off three years ago from IT. "We anticipate the kinds of business systems that will be built in the strategic time frame so we can understand how to make Intel products the best possible products for those businesses," he says.

Moakley will be tripling his team in the coming months, looking first within Intel's ranks. Then he will cast around for outside talent who can inject new perspectives, whether fresh from graduate school or other parts of the industry.

"We think there's going to be some interesting development in the third generation of e-business and how that maps to finer-grained enterprise application integration and the whole outsource solution provider space, like ASPs and ISPs," Moakley says.

Internally, technologists are coping with the conductivity issues of a rapid rollout to provide Internet service to 70,000 PCs in employees' homes. Intel employees spend about two years at any given job. "You are encouraged to broaden your skills and visibility," says Kevin D. Small, acting human resources manager for IT at Intel.

With open encouragement across business functions and IT, Intel's technologists move into a wide range of opportunities, from Web hosting to Intel Architecture Laboratories and the IA64 Venture Capital Fund, which makes equity investments in start-ups.

"Intel makes a point of cross-pollinating, moving people between business units and IT," giving everyone the opportunity to benefit from other kinds of experience, Moakley says.

"We're really proud of the fact that IT is the development pool for people to develop skills that are incredibly valuable to other parts of the company," says Busch.

"We consider NCR's IT department a software engineering business," says Don Hopkins, NCR's vice president of global application development. Dayton, Ohio-based NCR provides hardware and software for business transactions as well as data warehousing to collect and store customer information.

Using its own Teradata Corp. warehouse, NCR pulls in the company information and stores all data from the Web site, so it can analyze what customers are doing. "That's a directly derived business benefit," says NCR CIO Sam Coursen. "IT people want to know they are having an impact on the company's success."

Using global pools of employees with similar skills allows more employees more opportunity to work on hot projects. Taking on a variety of roles on different projects helps IT workers broaden their skills, build their resumes and gain experience for future advancement into management.

E-commerce is extending its reach to global markets and its penetration through layers of business. New applications take on lives of their own and spin off into new businesses. The technology to manage and support all the new infrastructure is more complex and mobility and geography demand new answers from IT organizations.

Avnet Inc. is extending globally from its Phoenix headquarters, rolling out products across Asia. "We really need to understand our impact on the industry and, in some cases, the economy," says CIO Steven J. Bandrowczak. "We're redefining business."

Touching People Through Technology

IT staffers have to think like the sales side to create e-commerce tools. "How do I touch that person through technology?" Bandrowczak asks rhetorically.

Avnet distributes semiconductors and interconnections, passive and electromechanical components and computer products. "Just say you are interested in working on a hot project," says Yogesh Patel, who started as a programmer 15 years ago and is now a senior business technology consultant.

On the North American SAP AG project that he first volunteered for, Avnet provided the new SAP training and Patel became a financial leader. "My exposure was primarily on the mainframe side," Patel says. He also acquired his MBA through Avnet's tuition-reimbursement program. Now, he's leading teams that have implemented SAP at the company's sites in seven Asian countries, with China next.

Going global was part of the fun for Andrew Horton, who majored in a combination of geography, computer science and economics in college. He's now technical products manager for geographical information systems at Autodesk Inc. in San Rafael, Calif., where he sees all the software that manages workflow and design for use in government and telecommunications infrastructures. By integrating the Internet into design, Autodesk creates more interactive and intuitive tools for the iDesign process.

Horton says he always liked maps and travel - he got his private pilot's license while in high school. Now, he's involved with challenges like mapping the infrastructure of London's water system and the fiber-optic, water and sewer lines in Northern California, so that all relevant parties can have access to the information, even out in the field.

"Mobile stuff is the fastest-growing area," Horton says. The complexity of these systems and the number of customers can only be satisfied with sophisticated IT systems.

Horton says he also liked riding around in the phone company trucks for the project. "We're transforming business by design," he says. Applications have spun off into other businesses on the Web, like Buzzsaw.com Inc. in San Francisco and RedSpark Inc. in San Rafael, which allow individuals and businesses direct access to solutions for their business problems.

"The paradigm we've adopted at Hewitt is, 'More Information to More People in More Ways,' " says Perry Cliburn, CIO at Lincolnshire, Ill.-based Hewitt Associates LLC. "One of our competencies is taking new technologies and packaging them in competitive ways."

That means IT professionals customize and tailor new systems to support companies in all kinds of benefits administration. Hewitt is the nation's largest human resources outsourcing provider, Cliburn says, offering major benefit delivery programs to 12 million employees. Their work spawns new product lines like Compensation Center, which launched recently to allow companies to explore ways of handling benefits.

Mike Kubas, a Lotus Notes LAN administrator, says he knew that Lotus' SameTime application would give Hewitt a business advantage as soon as he saw it at a Lotus Development Corp. fair. "It's a way for Hewitt Associates to collaborate in real time," he says. "It's like having 11,000 associates in your office, even though they are really in more than 75 locations in 30 countries."

The challenge is keeping it contained as a pilot. "As people hear about it, they want it," he says. The scheduled fiscal 2001 rollout may be accelerated by popular demand. After working on the project for the past year, Kubas says he expects to lead the rollout.

Willard is a freelance writer in Los Osos, Calif.

Copyright © 2000 IDG Communications, Inc.

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