U.S. 100 Best Places to Work in IT 2006

Willy Anderson remembers the day he realized the human impact of the work he does at Allstate Insurance. When he started as an intern at the insurance giant at the age of 19, Anderson was responsible for maintaining the company's claims loss reporting system. As part of that job, he listened in on a call that the claim center received from a woman who had just been in a car accident.

"She was crying because her husband was trapped in the car, and she wasn't sure if he was alive," says Anderson, now infrastructure services senior manager at the US$33.9 billion insurer, which ranks No. 62 on Computerworld's 2006 Best Places to Work in IT list. "My work took on a whole new meaning after that. When you see how the claims reps can and can't touch the client when the system goes down, you realize you're in IT because of the promise Allstate sells its customers, not just because of your skill level with a given technology."

Just as important, Anderson later shared his eye-opening experience with all of his direct reports, who thereafter also got a chance to listen in on claims calls. Their ability to appreciate the way Allstate touches its customers' lives -- along with Anderson's own freedom to institute that kind of change -- are both key ways in which the company makes individuals in IT know that their work matters, he says.

It may seem difficult to believe that in this age where "employer" and "loyalty" don't often appear in the same sentence, employees of companies on this year's Best Places list agree that a big reason their firms deserve that ranking is because they foster a culture that nourishes not just their careers, but the human beings pursuing those careers as well. In fact, in our survey of more than 27,000 IT workers at this year's Best Places, 80 percent said their jobs are both interesting and challenging.

"Salaries are a good thing, but it's all about the feeling on the part of the employee that they're part of the whole experience," says Dennis Foster, vice president of enterprise technology planning and engineering and architecture at Washington-based Marriott International, No. 19 on the list.

Or as Cathy Brune, chief technology officer at Allstate, puts it, it's about encouraging employees to bring "the whole person" to work. "We try to create an environment where you can be not just a great technologist -- which is the left-brain, logical side -- but you can also use your right-brain, empathetic, creative side." That means recognizing that IT people need to feel valued, stretch their capabilities, be part of a community and lead a life outside of work.

Best Places do this in myriad ways, such as making technology a vital part of the business strategy, fostering strong intracompany relationships, seeking and responding to feedback for improved work/life balance, enabling the flow of ideas and helping employees keep up with fast-changing technology.

And there are other reasons why employees of these companies showed high satisfaction levels this year. Just 37 percent of the companies experienced IT layoffs, versus 43 percent the year before. Hiring is up, salaries are expected to climb, and the majority of companies will issue bonuses. And although employee satisfaction with morale and salaries stayed virtually the same, the percentage of respondents who agreed or strongly agreed that their jobs are secure rose from 68 percent to 71 percent this year.

There's no doubt that technology staffers want to work with leading-edge technology, and many of the companies on the list meet that criteria. For instance, MasterCard International Inc., which ranks No. 34, is implementing an MPLS-based global network, and Allstate has based its application infrastructure on a service-oriented architecture.

But there's more to cool projects than just technology, says Paul Glen, author of Leading Geeks (Jossey-Bass, 2002) and a Computerworld columnist. "People want to work on something interesting, and that can happen because of the technology itself, their peers, the role they're playing or because there's an interesting outcome to the project," he says.

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