Noah Consulting is a completely virtual company -- its 89 employees live and work in various cities and states nationwide. But those 89 people say they feel completely connected with and supported by their colleagues and supervisors, and that's a big part of the reason why, for the second year in a row, the consultancy was named the No. 1 small employer on Computerworld's list of the 100 Best Places to Work in IT.
Read the full report: Computerworld's 100 Best Places to Work in IT 2015
"It's a friendly place to work, and everyone helps everyone else out," says Steve Hollingsworth, an Atlanta-based senior principal who has been with Noah since 2011. "It's a place where they minimize the politics as much as possible."
That environment didn't come about by chance. The three co-founders had a vision for a different kind of workplace in 2008 when they established the Houston-based consultancy, which serves the oil and gas, energy trading, power and natural resources industries.
"Culture was one of the major reasons we started it," says director and co-founder Stewart Nelson. Having worked together previously at other consultancies, including one organization that lacked a strong commitment to its employees, Nelson and his co-founders wanted to create a culture where consultants were eager to help each other and contribute to the success of the organization, and where the organization was equally concerned about employees' individual success.
"One of our tenets was we were going to work hard to create a family-type culture. It's important to all of us individually, and it differentiates us from the next consulting firm," Nelson says. He explains that, to him, family means employees are "willing to contribute to the larger benefit, and we contribute to your individual needs and concerns."
For senior consultant Sarah Finnigan, the emphasis on family is literal. When she was pregnant with her first child and flying from her home in Florida to a client site in Houston every week, Noah managers intervened on her behalf, persuading the client to let Finnigan work from home more often.
Finnigan got three months' paid maternity leave plus another three months without pay, during which she took on occasional paying projects that she could do from home.
Now pregnant with her second child and living in Houston, Finnigan is on a no-travel list that gives her the time she needs for her family while still allowing her to advance in her career. "There's a big investment in the culture, and you really feel like once you've worked with these people, it's a family thing," Finnigan says. "There's such a mindset about mentoring and helping people grow."
She landed a promotion earlier this year, and she recently finished a challenging assignment -- a data analytics project in which she cleaned geochemical data for an energy company and implemented standardized automated processes to keep the data clean going forward.
"We have highly varying projects, so everywhere I go there's something new," Finnigan says. "The nature of the work is very good for growth, good for your career. It doesn't require moving around to grow your career in a very quick manner."
Bringing people together
Noah strives to foster collegiality among all workers, regardless of where they're located.
The company hosts two big events every year: a winter gathering for employees and their spouses or partners, and a summer event for employees and their families, with travel and accommodations paid by the company. Noah also organizes smaller get-togethers in locales where it has pockets of employees. Those events, which range from regular happy hours to volunteer projects for charities, give co-workers a chance to get to know one another.
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Nelson and other Noah managers take a multipronged approach to fostering a collaborative culture: "It's about understanding what drives people and the different ways they want to be recognized. We have spot bonuses, we're setting up new hero awards, and we reach out to people individually," he says. "We try to visit with as many projects as we can."
The firm holds biweekly companywide conference calls, and it uses various collaboration platforms that help employees stay connected. As a result, people don't feel isolated.
"No one feels like they're left hanging. There's a lot of emphasis on collaboration and team-building," says Hollingsworth, who notes that the consultants in his area regularly get together outside of work and are visited by Noah executives at least every two months.
In its recruiting efforts, the company seeks candidates who demonstrate a commitment to others, in addition to a high level of expertise and a rock-solid work ethic, according to Nelson. The firm focuses on hiring top-notch people with varied backgrounds -- Finnigan, for example, joined the company after graduating with a bachelor's degree in music performance and then deciding to pursue IT-related work. Once hired, employees are assigned to innovative, transformative projects -- the kind that IT professionals thrive on.
Hollingsworth, who is currently working on the architectures for several exploration and production systems for an oil and gas company, credits Noah management for creating a place where employees are given engaging, high-level projects. "Noah works really hard to put people on projects that are a good fit for them and can help them grow," he says.
Emphasis on training
Moreover, Noah puts training and career advancement front and center. A mentoring program pairs junior consultants with veteran employees who offer guidance on both day-to-day challenges and long-term development. Employees work with mentors and senior staffers to set up individual training plans, and everyone has a $3,100-per-year training allowance.
The company also encourages people to share what they've learned. Hollingsworth says he can send out a blast email posing a question and know he'll get dozens of responses. "I've never seen someone refuse to help someone else," he says.
Principal Phil Henderson says he too appreciates "the chance to learn from really smart people." What's more, he says, "if someone sees there could be an improvement in helping Noah Consulting do better, they're empowered to go talk to someone, one of the partners or their mentor, or speak to HR or accounting."
Henderson, who is based in Houston, says he can approach any of the company's leaders to talk. "I can call any of them and say, 'Let's go to lunch; I want to talk about this.' There really isn't much of a hierarchy within our company," he says.
Henderson says the opportunities he has had with Noah have allowed him to expand his skills and challenge himself. When he wanted to learn more about the oil and gas industry, he signed up for two courses at the University of Tulsa: one on the geology of exploration and production, and one on petroleum engineering. Noah paid for both.
Tammy Carter has found similar benefits at Noah.
She says the work is exciting, the compensation is competitive, and the management team genuinely cares. The biweekly company updates and the regular team conference calls and get-togethers "make you feel like you belong, even though you're at a client site," says Carter, who joined Noah in 2012 after working as a business analyst and project manager at an energy product services and solutions company.
"Out of all my entire career, there have been two companies that I've always enjoyed working for -- my very first company, because we all felt a sense of family, and now Noah, for the same reason," Carter says. "I don't see myself ever leaving."
This story, "The No. 1 small place to work in IT: Noah Consulting" was originally published by Computerworld.