Tech for the techie

When IT comes to enviable IT assignments, it's hard to beat Adam Grand's job as a project manager at Royal Caribbean Cruises. Grand regularly travels to Europe to install leading-edge technology on Royal Caribbean's luxury ships. In May, he finished a three-month assignment aboard the Freedom of the Seas, the company's newest and largest ship. He installed some of the most advanced technologies ever placed on a cruise ship -- wireless and Internet applications, BizTalk tool sets and radio frequency identification (RFID) systems.

"This is just something you don't find yourself [doing] on a daily basis. Your desk becomes the ship. You're not bound to the same location day after day, and the technology is very attractive," Grand explains via satellite phone aboard Freedom on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic.

Nice work if you can get it -- but what about the other 354 IT employees who stay ashore to keep the systems running? Don't they have any fun?

"It's a challenge," says Gregory Martin, IT manager. "There are definitely some areas [of IT] that people like or don't like," he says, such as maintenance, hardware support and the dreaded after-hours, on-call phone duty.

It's a common concern among IT managers. How does a company expose tech workers to the latest technology while maintaining and improving current systems? These Best Places reveal how they keep the lights on without dimming IT employees' enthusiasm.

Martin has found several ways to appease Royal Caribbean IT workers who are hungry for new technology. The company's Unite program gives all IT employees a chance to earn the coveted shipboard assignments. Staffers are nominated by their managers based on their performance. "They set up PCs, verify the network is working, and they get out of their normal 9-to-5 for a week and a half," Martin says.

Managers regularly post internal messages announcing opportunities to work with new technologies. For instance, the data warehousing team recently sent out a request for IT staffers interested in learning new extract, transform and load tools. Employees also rotate maintenance roles every nine to 18 months to avoid burnout.

"Over the next three years, 30 percent to 50 percent of our technology is being upgraded or changed," which will give more employees a chance to engage in new technology, Martin adds.

Financial services firm Sallie Mae is moving toward a service-oriented architecture, creating plenty of opportunities for interesting IT work. "The real challenge is balancing [new technology] with our everyday systems and projects," says Jo Lee Hayes, vice president of enterprise technology.

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