Special Report: Best Places to Work in IT 2017

The No. 1 midsize place to work in IT: Ultimate Software

This company’s “people-first” culture offers IT employees challenging assignments and family-friendly policies.

Ultimate Software
Khristine Ponce

Special Report

Best Places to Work in IT 2017

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Fresh out of college, Jason Ruggles joined Ultimate Software in internal applications support, figuring he’d take a couple of years to learn the ropes and then move on to his next gig.

Fifteen years later, after multiple promotions, marriage to a woman who still works across the hall, and the birth of their now five-year-old daughter, Ruggles considers himself part of the extended Ultimate Software family and says he’s not planning to leave anytime soon.

Ruggles says the ability to work with the latest technologies and concepts (microservices  architecture, for example), coupled with the fact that Ultimate execs take time to get to know him and his family, make for an environment that is both challenging and comfortable — a unique combination for the competitive world of high tech. “Every time I see the CTO, he remembers stories and he knows my daughter’s name,” says Ruggles, now 38 and a solutions architect. “It makes me feel like I don’t have to compartmentalize my life. I’m not working for ‘the man,’ I’m working for family and friends.”

Ultimate Software’s self-proclaimed “people first” philosophy and culture has helped the maker of cloud-based human capital management (HCM) software land in the No. 1 spot for midsize organizations the very first year it is participating in Computerworld’s 100 Best Places to Work in IT program, a rare feat. 

It’s no surprise the 3,607-person company, with 1,062 U.S.-based IT employees, also ranked No. 1 among all 100 Best Places for benefits. The Weston, Fla., firm doles out a sweeping set of top-shelf benefits, such as 100% employer-paid healthcare coverage for employees and their families (including same-sex couples); an employer match of 40% for 401(k) retirement accounts; an equity stake in the company upon hire; paid maternity, paternity and adoption leave; and paid community service days, to name a few. 

There is also a generous set of perks, from on-site fitness classes and a car-wash service to numerous rewards programs and reimbursements for children’s after-school activities.

The company’s chief technology officer (CTO) Adam Rogers, himself a 20-year Ultimate veteran who started as an IT intern right out of the University of Florida, Gainesville, says what sets the company apart from other firms is its commitment to its people, both professionally and on a personal level. 

Rogers, 42, got the message early on in his career at Ultimate, when a lead web developer on a small team Rogers was managing opted to postpone his honeymoon to make sure a major new product release went off without a hitch. Rogers was able to award that developer an all-expenses paid trip to the Bahamas post-project without having to jump through hoops to get management approval. 

“It’s more than just paying for stuff—it’s taking care of your people and doing the right thing,” explains Rogers. “‘People first’ is much more than a tag line; it defines our culture.” 

CW Best Places to Work in IT [2017] - Ultimate's CTO Adam Rogers (right), programmer Lenis Hernandez Shane Martin

CTO Adam Rogers (right) and programmer Lenis Hernandez share a laugh. Ultimate's executives frequently collaborate with front-line employees.

Duygu (DJ) Yapar, 37, was so enamored by what she heard from friends who worked at Ultimate that she made a concerted effort to come on board. After two years of interviews for various positions, Yapar finally joined Ultimate in June 2016 as a business analyst, and so far, the work experience has met, maybe even exceeded her expectations, she says. 

Most impressive, according to Yapar, is a commitment to fostering work/life balance at Ultimate, which ranked No. 2 among all 100 Best Places for career development, and placed No. 2 as well for employee retention. While Yapar has been encouraged by management to pursue leadership training as a way of furthering her career, she’s also been able to take advantage of such perks as two paid service days to pursue her volunteering interests as well as the annual reimbursement for her kids’ swimming lessons and camps.

Open-door IT management

Eamonn Caufield, 55, grasped the significance of the Ultimate Software culture the minute he walked through the doors 11 years ago for a role as the director of software delivery.

In his previous experience, IT executive teams operated at arm’s length from staffers, prioritizing a highly regimented corporate atmosphere over individual focus, Caufield says. That wasn’t the case at Ultimate, where IT execs share office space with staffers, are highly accessible and shun red tape and office politics—a management style Caufield happily embraced as he rose up the management ranks. 

Now, as vice president of information services in charge of Ultimate’s 257-person internal-facing IT team, Caufield is committed to an open-door policy and radical transparency, devoting plenty of one-on-one time to every new hire and conducting quarterly reviews and more frequent all-hands meetings. 

“I don’t care if you’re cleaning toilets or managing a team, I get to know who everyone is,” says Caufield, who’s been in his latest post for four years. “I don’t want to be that guy who doesn’t know the people on the team.”

Caufield also places a heavy emphasis on hiring line managers committed to building collaborative teams, and he promotes team-building exercises like awards programs and social events. 

One such example is the IS Olympics, a set of games held regularly during lunch time to promote camaraderie, along with monthly off-site team-building events, including a recent corporate run where Ultimate sponsored 600 runners—the largest participating team. 

On the awards front, the company hosts the Ulti Spirit program, which mimics the Boy Scouts by doling out badges for professional and personal successes, along with the Ulti Bucks peer-recognition effort, which gives everyone in IT $50 a month to award to peers for outstanding work. “I’m a strong believer in a leader who is a great cheerleader for the team,” Caufield says. “I consider it a big part of my job to troll for successes and wins and publicize them internally.”

Mike Klein, 55, who started at Ultimate as a contractor back in 2000 working on Y2K conversions, considers his Christmas 2006 nomination for the coveted UltiPeep MVP award one of the highlights of his career. Klein, who came on board full time as employee No. 493, says it was an honor to be chosen as the embodiment of the core “people first” values of Ultimate. Still, he says it’s the collaborative spirit of the company that he finds so compelling. “Everyone works together as a team to achieve the company’s goals,” he says. “The team effort drives everything.”

New tech drives innovation

Even so, the individual doesn’t get short shrift. Ultimate puts a huge emphasis on training and innovation, a combination that’s particularly relevant to IT, says Klein, who is now manager of client services. Everyone is encouraged to stay current on the latest technologies, which keeps it interesting from an individual’s perspective, Klein explains, but it also makes it easier for his team to do their job delivering top-notch customer support.

“It’s a big thing to have the chance to discover new ways of taking care of [customer] issues without having your hands tied using old technology,” Klein says, citing as an example the ability to deliver critical system updates via imaging and an enterprise app store as opposed to traditional methods of networked or individual machine upgrades. “We’re able to find the best possible means of helping our customers. Many other companies I worked for were short-sighted and didn’t put money towards making sure IT had the tools they needed.”

CW Best Places to Work in IT [2017] - Ultimate Software Ultimate Software

Ultimate's culture fosters a strong sense of teamwork and camaraderie among IT staffers.

Giving employees the tools and the latitude to experiment with creative problem solving and out-of-the-box innovation is one of the hallmarks of the Ultimate culture, says CTO Rogers. The organization encourages lifelong learning through a variety of initiatives, including leadership and technical training, reimbursement for popular IT certifications, and its own unique program called 48 Hours, which gives employees two days, twice per year, to work on pet projects as a way of encouraging people to take risks. 

A couple of times a year, Ultimate stages a science fair of sorts, where participants present their 48 Hour innovations while giving staffers a chance to vote on their favorite. In one of the more successful examples, a developer team came up with an app called Huddle, which works with motion sensors to detect when conference rooms are in use. Huddle was such a hit, it got backing to become an official company tool, making it easier for all employees to locate and book available meeting rooms.

“I can’t underscore the importance of growth and development enough,” Rogers says. “I expect people to take chances because IT is built on the shoulders of others making mistakes. That’s why I encourage exploration and don’t punish mistakes.”

Quiyu Wang, 44, lead software engineer, says the 48 Hours program and the notion that the entire company got behind a developer-led idea like the Huddle app is a huge source of inspiration for her team of 12 software and quality engineers. “The last company I worked for would have been skeptical, uninterested, and not open-minded,” she explains. “Those developers are so thrilled to see their idea being loved by everyone. It’s so rewarding for them.”

Realistic goals, ready resources

While Wang relishes the opportunity to push herself and her team, she is also comforted by the fact that top management is realistic when it comes to resources and goals. For one particularly challenging project with an aggressive deadline, management didn’t cut corners or subject the team to a punishing schedule—rather, it was willing to invest in additional resources to get the job done. 

“We knew we had to work hard, but we also knew we wouldn’t have to go to the extreme,” Wang explains. “Other companies might make you work nights and weekends or sacrifice quality or people’s personal lives. Here at Ultimate, management listened to our concerns and gave us what was needed.”

Wang also takes advantage of training programs offered to Ultimate IT personnel. She got started with leadership training last October and has taken advantage of several technical learning opportunities as well as situational training to help navigate tough conversations common in management, she says. 

Team outings have also been an important component to her leadership preparation as well as for general bonding. Most recently, her team braved a ropes course and participated in the IS Olympics, including a cardboard boat race among managers that made for some friendly competition, she says.

Tales of the IS Olympics along with other company perks like the state-of-the-art office space, interior golf course, and on-site fish tank captivated Yapar’s nine-year-old son when he attended a recent “bring your child to work day” at Ultimate. 

That, coupled with his keen interest in computers, already has him asking when he too can work at Ultimate. “I would love it if he did,” Yapar says, citing the firm’s robust internship program as a possibility down the road. “I would encourage him to do that when the time comes.”

Next: The No. 1 small place to work in IT: Axxess

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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