100 best places to work in IT

If you work in IT these days, you don’t need anyone to tell you that times are tough. You might have watched as colleagues packed their cubicles and headed to the unemployment office. You probably haven’t gotten a promotion or a decent raise in a while. And morale in your department has likely shrunk right along with the IT budget.

Although it may look bleak where you are, not all of your IT brethren are singing the blues. Some employers are bucking the negative trends. They’re finding ways to give their IT workers the pay, training and technology projects they crave.

At Caraustar Industries Inc., which ranked No. 13 on this year’s Best Places to Work in IT list, staffers are reveling in the family-friendly flextime. Instead of going to offshore outsourcers, cool technology projects at No. 17 Ford Motor Co. are staying in the hands of the Dearborn, Mich.-based IT staff.

Computerworld’s search to find these top companies began six months ago with a call for nominations. Surveyed companies earned points for great training options, benefits and pay, but this year, it was the employees who got the final word. More than half of a company’s score came from a survey of its IT employees and what those employees said is important to them in their jobs. The 100 Best Places are listed on the following pages.

These companies start with the standard fare that IT employees used to take for granted – competitive pay, health insurance and sufficient vacation time. According to our survey of more than 11,500 employees at these winning companies, those basics are very much appreciated in today’s economy. But what separates the good employers from the great ones?

Interviews with IT workers of all stripes – from help desk technicians to CIOs – indicate that in a down economy, the 100 Best Places earn the honor by using modern technologies that offer challenges, ensuring that employees get the training they need to meet those challenges, bending to accommodate family and personal needs, and tying all of them together with pride in the work of not only IT, but also the business as a whole.

Flare for Flexibility

“This company is just so family-flexible,” says Kaci Turner of her employer, Caraustar, a cardboard-packaging company with 2002 revenue of US$950 million. “On the one hand, I want to say they’re strict because they sure expect you to do your job. But when you show you can do it, they’ll do anything to accommodate your family needs,” says Turner, a systems operator and help desk technician at the Austell, Ga.-based company.

As our survey of IT workers at these Best Places indicates, flexible work hours and telecommuting programs are prized by staffs. Said one IT worker, “I’m given the flexibility with my work schedule that helps me stay balanced between home and work. I don’t feel that I have to choose to be a mother or an employee. I’m empowered and able to accomplish both.”

“IT people are working their butts off,” says Tim Talbot, CIO at PHH Arval (No. 14), a fleet-leasing company based in Hunt Valley, Md. “You’ve got to support that any way you can.” PHH Arval uses work-at-home products from Avaya Inc. and a virtual private network from Cisco Systems Inc. to let IT staffers telecommute full time or on an ad hoc basis.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. CIO Linda Dillman agrees with Talbot. “IT people here know that sometimes the hours aren’t 8 to 5,” she says of the Bentonville, Ark., retail giant, which came in at No. 15. “In turn, we need to be flexible.” Dillman says the bulk of Wal-Mart’s telecommuting and flexible scheduling is done informally, allowing managers and workers to create sensible arrangements.

The Pride and the Passion

In the post-Enron, post-WorldCom, post-job-security era, eyes may roll when two notions arise: pride in the corporate mission and a warm, familial work environment. But make no mistake – these are crucial components at the top IT employers.

“In my department, it is easy to see that the work we do is important,” one respondent says. “Therefore, individuals perform at high levels and stay motivated.” Many workers echo that sentiment. Whether they are remotely monitoring intensive-care hospital patients or supporting sales of three-day Caribbean cruises, IT workers excel when they believe their employers are going about their business honorably. Pausing to search for the right word, Caraustar’s Turner says, “This company is very . . . moral.”

And while “We’re like a family here” may be a clich