Ask Bobby Martin what he likes best about working for Quicken Loans when he's front and center at a Detroit Red Wings hockey game, and he'd be hard-pressed not to name the scores of free tickets available to any employee.
Back at the office, Martin, like many of his colleagues, admits that choice seats for all of Detroit's major sports teams -- alongside perks like on-site yoga classes and all-you-can-eat popcorn -- pale in comparison to the opportunity to work at a company that doesn't just talk about IT and innovation, but actually walks the walk.
"Quicken Loans holds us to a higher standard, but they empower us to do whatever we can to get the job done, plus more," says Martin, a senior data center engineer.
Making its sixth appearance at the top of Computerworld's Best Places to Work in IT list in the past decade, Detroit-based Quicken Loans engenders extreme loyalty among its 1,151 IT employees, who gush over management's approachable, team-oriented style and applaud the company's commitment to creative use of technology.
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"Our vision is that technology drives the business," says CIO Linglong He. "Our team members really know how much we care about technology and how much it plays a role in our business."
That clear mission statement is what makes Quicken Loans a very different workplace from the norm, says Matt Bowser, a software quality assurance engineer who has been with the company for two years.
"People don't just say that they encourage innovation -- you have every opportunity to pursue it," he explains. "You can talk to any leader and tell them you have a cool idea, and they will tell you to take the time and explore it, regardless of whether it has anything to do with the current project you're working on."
The company's commitment to technology goes well beyond any one manager's encouragement. There are a string of formal programs designed to spark innovation and motivate employees to come up with the next big idea.
It starts with the Cheese Factory, a space on the corporate intranet where any employee (or "team member," in Quicken Loans-speak) can make suggestions. Last year, the company implemented 650 of 5,000 Cheese Factory ideas, acting on matters as small as a request for an addition to the selection of free snacks and as substantial as a proposal for an independent spinoff company. Team members vote on the suggestions, and the "goudas" -- the most notable ideas -- are publicly recognized and their owners may even receive cash prizes.
There's also the popular Bullet Time every Monday afternoon when IT staffers are given free rein to work on any personal project or idea, even if it's not related to company business. On top of those initiatives, there are more traditional avenues for people to expand their IT horizons, including rigorous IT training programs, hackathons and a company-sponsored technology conference that brings IT team members together with top management and key vendors to share expertise and discuss emerging technologies.
Marc Hudson took advantage of every one of those opportunities to cultivate his ideas -- and he innovated his way right out of Quicken Loans and into his own startup with He's blessing, and with financial backing from the company.
Hudson, who first joined Quicken Loans as a software engineer, submitted an idea to the Cheese Factory for an initiative to bring high-speed fiber networks to Detroit in 2013, and the scheme quickly gained traction. Hudson refined the concept with a couple of colleagues during Bullet Time and enjoyed regular feedback from Quicken Loans' top leaders, including He. The company eventually funded a pair of feasibility studies and helped champion the seed capital to launch a startup to pursue the idea.
Hudson's company, Rocket Fiber, was spun out earlier this year as part of Rock Ventures, a portfolio of business ventures and real estate owned by Quicken Loans founder Dan Gilbert. The new company had hired nine people as of April, and Hudson expects its head count to hit 20 within the next few months. "I couldn't have done this without Quicken Loans and the resources they put around us," Hudson says.
Build vs. buy
Unlike many companies in the mortgage industry, Quicken Loans builds its own core systems rather than customizing off-the-shelf products to meet its specific needs. Its loan platform was built almost entirely in-house, as was its mortgage servicing system, dubbed EPIC (for evaluates, prioritizes, integrates and calculates).
And last year, nearly half of the IT group was redeployed to work on a next-generation, technology-driven loan origination system -- one that company officials say will change the way customers move through the mortgage process.
"Some companies have one or two systems -- we have so many systems and new technology platforms, we can give our team members a chance to work on anything new in the field," He says.
That open approach means developers have the freedom to use whatever application is best for the job, regardless of whether it's part of the existing toolbox, says Josh Zook, senior vice president of application development. The Quicken Loans development team works with the latest programming platforms, from Android to .Net, and practices agile development methodologies. Zook says the philosophy is to do things the right way, even if it takes longer, and to learn from mistakes along the way.
"What you run into in a lot of organizations is trying to solve today's problems with solutions they used in the past," Zook explains. "We try to use all the tools available... and celebrate failures as well as successes. It comes back to our culture of innovation."
Leveraging new technology to solve problems is what motivates Jolie Behrns-Vitale, a team leader in the business intelligence unit, who came to Quicken Loans as an intern and has stayed for eight years. Quicken Loans is a fast-paced business, and that means people have to be comfortable working in a constant state of change, she says.
"There is no such thing as a typical day," says Behrns-Vitale, who manages a team of eight. "I like things that are not necessarily cookie-cutter or a rinse-and-repeat environment. Here, you get to use your talent, passion and brains to solve really interesting problems."
Behrns-Vitale says her team's current problem-solving mission is to build an attribution model -- something that's common in e-commerce circles but is a relatively new concept for the mortgage industry. The model will parse the different marketing channels that influence potential clients to submit leads, mining for insights that can help steer the business in different ways.
"We looked at third-party vendors, but nothing suited the way we look at our business, so we decided to get our hands dirty and build it ourselves," she says. "It's appealing to me to start from the ground up and build something. That's what our culture is built on."
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The Quicken Loans culture is centered on 19 isms, or corporate ideals. That's what makes the company different from other employers, says sports fan Martin, who came to the company as an intern more than 10 years ago, right out of high school. Being able to get great seats for Tigers or Red Wings games is a huge plus, he says, as is having the ability to make the rounds at professional conferences.
But Martin says that the collaborative vibe and the isms -- mantras such as "Do the right thing," "We'll figure it out" and "Every second counts" -- put Quicken Loans in a different league. "I've done tours of other facilities and worked with vendors. I see how they do things, and it's completely different here," he says.
Erica Hudson-Biggens, team leader for MyQL, the primary customer portal for accessing Quicken Loans accounts, couldn't agree more. After more than a decade of navigating the hierarchical environments of companies in the automotive industry, Hudson-Biggens says Quicken Loans is a refreshing change, thanks to its opportunities for nonlinear growth, its fast-paced environment and its commitment to out-of-the-box thinking.
She cites her work on a marketing campaign called the Billion Dollar Bracket Challenge as a prime example. Launched in March 2014, the challenge offered participants a chance to win $1 billion for submitting a perfect bracket in that year's NCAA Men's Division 1 basketball championship tournament. Hudson-Biggens was part of a Quicken Loans technology team that collaborated with IT groups from Yahoo and Warren Buffett's Berkshire Hathaway to build and customize the platform in just under a month.
"The various teams learned how to work together and contribute to one ginormous initiative -- and do so seamlessly, even though we never met in real life," she explains. "We put our own objectives aside and marched toward a common vision and goal. The focus was on getting the project out on time... and our culture made it happen."
A lifelong Detroit resident, Hudson-Biggens is also proud of all that Quicken Loans and its founder have done to help the city. Gilbert has invested more than $1 billion in Detroit, funding numerous real estate and renovation projects, and he shepherded thousands of people back to work in the city by relocating Quicken Loans' headquarters to downtown Detroit.
"It gives me an overwhelming sense of pride," she says. "I feel like I have ownership and a mandate to preserve our culture and our ideals." That said, Hudson-Biggens concedes that the all-you-can-eat popcorn and the slushies from Detroit's own Faygo Beverages aren't bad either.