Illumina shines through IT empowerment

Best Places to Work in IT 2019: Flexibility pleases employees and helps IT advance the company mission.


Suset Vega is not a scientist, but she says that one of the most rewarding aspects of her role as a senior IT project manager at Illumina is that she gets to figure out how to create systems that support scientists who are impacting life.

Illumina, a maker of sequencing and array-based solutions for genetic research, is all about improving human health through the power of the genome, and every IT project advances that mission. The 267-person technology organization not only builds and deploys systems to help the company run more effectively, but it also is intimately connected to the design and development of Illumina solutions. As Norm Fjeldheim, the company’s senior vice president and CIO, says, there’s a continuously blurry line between what constitutes IT and product development.

“There’s not a person in IT that doesn’t have a personal connection — either they’ve had health issues or their family member or friend has,” Fjeldheim says. “Illumina is all about being able to change that course and make life better. Being part of that change in health care is very empowering to people.”

In fact, empowering internal IT staffers is a key part of the Illumina culture. The San Diego-based company, the No. 9 midsize organization on Computerworld’s 2019 Best Places to Work in IT list, has made a concerted effort over the last few years to move away from managed services and consultants and instead make investments in employee development. Employees are exposed to new skills and given the chance to work on the latest technology platforms, which lets them beef up their résumés while allowing them to work on interesting projects that make a difference for the company.

“It’s not just keeping the lights on, but about solving business problems so IT feels much more part of the company and a key contributor to its success,” Fjeldheim says.

illumina1 Illumina

As part of the Illumina Cares program “Giving Back is in Our DNA,” employees make and distribute superhero capes for pediatric cancer patients being treated at Rady Children’s Hospital in San Diego.

Fjeldheim also points out that employee contributions are recognized via the quarterly Value Awards, in which the CEO spotlights recipients at an all-hands-on-deck meeting. The award winner’s story is supported by a short video clip and presentation by the winner’s sponsor. “This isn’t just a little piece of paper you stick on your wall in a cubicle that no one knows about the next day — it’s a big deal here,” he says.

Vega, the recipient of a Value Award along with some other official shout-outs, says the companywide recognition really helps create a connection to the workplace and makes each person feel like a valued member of a team. “People like to be recognized for their work,” she says. “Sometimes you’re working on projects that aren’t shiny, and you’re doing your job and getting it done right and you don’t think people take notice. It is nice to see that leadership does.”

illumina2 Illumina

Illumina headquarters in San Diego

Beyond the recognition, Vega also likes the open, nonhierarchal culture of Illumina, along with its many employee groups, including a reading group, a volleyball team, and especially a newly formed Women in IT group designed to promote diversity in the IT organization. “Any hobby you have, you can find a group, and that’s how you get to learn, and meet new people inside the company,” she says.

Also a hit among the IT staff is Illumina’s flexible time-off system, which doesn’t have a defined number of vacation days, and a $500 annual wellness allowance that can be spent at the employee’s discretion. Other key differentiators are access to a Genomics Resource Center to help employees understand how genetics can impact their health and a new Compassion and Care Time Off policy, which offers employees up to 30 days of time off, with full pay, to deal with a personal crisis. “Historically, companies have had rigid rules around employee time off, but a crisis for me may be very different than a crisis for you,” says Karen Wetherholt, Illumina’s vice president of human resources. “We believe this is unparalleled in the marketplace.”

In the end, however, what really has the greatest impact on keeping the IT organization happy and engaged is empowering the teams to make decisions and drive solutions that directly impact company success. Says Fjeldheim: “We’re not just a back-office function with a bunch of people no one sees. We are front and center.”

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Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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