Look around the halls at Quicken Loans and you might figure that good times are the reason the financial services firm ranks as Computerworld's No. 1 large place to work in IT for 2014.
Sure, employees appreciate the candy counter, the basketball court and the pool table fashioned from a classic Mustang, but it's a core set of corporate ideals that's truly responsible for Quicken Loans' staying power on the Computerworld Best Places to Work in IT list. (The company was No. 1 from 2005 to 2007 and returned to the top spot last year.)
That strong corporate culture has recently guided Detroit-based Quicken Loans through times that weren't so good, owing to a recession and to the fact that the company is in an industry directly tied to that downturn and is located in a city battling bankruptcy.
"We use our core culture to drive decision-making, and we always have," says Anne Way, a 10-year company veteran who is now director of project management. "Everyone knows that the core isms are solid," Way says, referring to Quicken Loans' 19 core principles, or isms, such as "Do the right thing" and "Obsessed with finding a better way." "During the downturn, that's when things were even more consistent. We stuck to who we were, and that saw us through."
Some of the company's hurdles have been homegrown. Over the past four years, Quicken Loans has expanded its IT workforce from 350 employees to more than 1,100. It has moved more than 8,000 staffers from suburban Michigan to downtown Detroit. And it has switched CIOs -- Linglong He took over in 2010.
"It's fast-paced and intense, but team members are genuinely open and available to each other," says Way, a former banker who's been in her current job for four years, overseeing 30 project managers and two team leaders handling high-priority IT initiatives. "It's a culture open to ideas. We'd rather be thinking and trying, even things that don't pan out. There are risks worth taking."
Two big initiatives underscore the way Quicken Loans is handling its rapid IT workforce growth.
First, He recently initiated a restructuring of the IT team. Now each business unit has its own IT team, she explains. Instead of shifting resources from one project to another, team members stay on projects from start to finish. "It's more consistent for the business," He says, "and the teams themselves feel better about it."
Second, last autumn the company launched an in-house training program specifically for IT workers. It's called Quicken Loans Technical University, and training specialist Eric Duby says 10 courses have been rolled out so far, on topics ranging from systems training to soft skills like interpersonal communication and time management. "Whatever kind of course it is, it's about personal growth," Duby says.
Having worked at Quicken Loans for 18 years, He has had a ringside seat for the ever-more-heated battle for IT talent, and she knows that pay isn't the only factor that makes a company a great place to work. "Our salaries are competitive," says the CIO. "But that probably isn't why people choose to work with us rather than General Motors, next door, where the pay can be double. It's all the other factors. We invest in people's careers.
"My personal joy," she adds, "is to see a team work together and to see individuals realize their maximum potential."
Ian Kwiotek is a young beneficiary of Quicken Loans' investment in talent. In 2012, as a student at Wayne State University, Kwiotek was a part of the inaugural class of a program called "IT in the D," set up by several Detroit-area businesses to give select students experience with real-world IT projects.
For 10 weeks, Kwiotek worked at Quicken Loans on a database project. He was so smitten by the experience that in the fall, he applied for a permanent position. Now he's a part-time student and a full-time application engineer at Quicken Loans.
"There are constant reminders of why the company is so successful. People here are adamant about walking the talk," Kwiotek says, noting that Quicken Loans workers ask questions like, "What can you bring to the team?" and "How can we do better for the customer?"
"The best part of the job," he adds, "is being surrounded by extremely knowledgeable, hungry, smart people."
When Kwiotek's friends visit the office, he says, they're drawn in. Not just by the vibrant color scheme or the open floor plan, or by the Ping-Pong tables and popcorn -- those aren't cutting-edge workplace amenities anymore -- but by the attitude, perhaps encapsulated best in one of those isms: "Yes before no."
"If a project grows, I can ask anyone for help. Everyone is willing to be part of the solution," he says. "And oddly enough, it's a relaxed environment. We meet deadlines, but somehow it never seems frantic."
Like other employees, Lisa Phillip, a business architect who has been with Quicken Loans for eight years, has enjoyed trips to Las Vegas for Academy Award-style "Gilbert Awards" ceremonies, named for Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert, and surprise invitations to professional basketball games. (Gilbert owns the Cleveland Cavaliers.)
Phillip started as part of a data warehouse team. She became senior engineer on that team then became architect for the business intelligence team. Her first four years at Quicken Loans were at the Michigan campus, but when family needs required her to move to Florida four years ago, Phillip was given the option to work remotely. It's been a successful, and very much appreciated, arrangement, she says.
Many of the rewards Phillip sees in her job are intangible.
"Our team turns data into actionable insights. I get to see the value of what we provide every day. Still, the job is really technical -- we may understand what we're doing, but we don't expect everyone else to," she says. "So when we get emails from the CEO directly praising some new piece of work, that's amazing. To see your work have an impact on someone who you wouldn't think even knows you -- that's great."
That kind of communication spans all layers of the organization. CEO Bill Emerson gives out his phone number, forgoes a corner office and pens personal notes on every birthday card.
Those "out of the blue" appreciations are a welcome surprise. On the flip side, consistent contact with team leaders means nobody's surprised during a performance evaluation. When problems occur, such as a system outage, Phillip says, the tenor of every post-mortem runs toward taking ownership of the issue and using it as an opportunity for growth.
Emerson has said that he spends 50% of his time focused on maintaining and improving the company culture. "That seems like a really wise focal point," says Way. "If you don't define your culture, somebody else will."