Jordan LaFramboise's career track at Quicken Loans is far from typical, but it does say a lot about the depth and breadth of the online mortgage lender's support for its IT employees.
LaFramboise first joined the Detroit-based company as a vendor analyst in 2003, when he was 29. But he soon quit after hearing a company-sponsored speaker talk about the importance of following one's passion.
A self-described creative type who sings and plays guitar, LaFramboise says the speaker inspired him to forgo his day job to tour with his rock band. His bosses and colleagues supported his decision, wished him well and told him he would be welcome back if he decided to return. "That moment in time is when I recognized that this place was everything it says it is," LaFramboise says.
After taking the musical gig as far as he could, LaFramboise rejoined Quicken Loans in 2004. "I gave them a call and said I'd love to come back, and they said sure," he recalls.
Ever since, he has been able to channel his creative talents into IT projects. LaFramboise came back first as a vendor analyst, then worked his way up, becoming a team leader, a senior vendor analyst, a credit analyst, a quality assurance analyst and a business consultant before transitioning to his current position as a senior innovation consultant.
In his current role, he advocates for and promotes innovation throughout the company. That includes organizing hackathons and leading Bullet Time, a weekly four-hour period when IT team members can work on projects of their own choosing. LaFramboise helps colleagues overcome any roadblocks their projects encounter -- determining a project's technology needs, identifying stakeholders and connecting colleagues working on related projects.
The position lets him stretch his creative muscles in an environment where others always have his back -- not unlike playing in a band. "What resonates with me most is the willingness to invest in me. Every time it happens, it's another piece that makes me feel good for being here," LaFramboise says.
It's that culture that employees say makes Quicken Loans a top-notch work environment, earning it the No. 1 spot among large organizations on Computerworld's 2016 Best Places to Work in IT list. The mortgage lender has been on the list for 12 years in a row and is making its seventh appearance at No. 1.
Linglong He, who has been with Quicken Loans since 1996 and has served as its CIO for the past six years, says she aims to create a great work environment through a combination of strategic hiring, proactive management and formal programs designed to support and inspire tech employees at all levels -- an approach that is particularly important because the IT team has nearly 1,400 members now and continues to grow.
"Culture drives who we are. You put people together and they feel they're part of this family, this big team, regardless of what position they're in," He says.
Senior business intelligence engineer Jeff Zyla, 31, says he left a Defense Department job in California to return to his native Michigan for a job at Quicken Loans in 2012 because he saw how the company and its employees were effecting change through their work and their community involvement. "I felt like I could come back and have an impact," says Zyla, who has become active in the company's mentoring program.
Zyla says he also appreciates the opportunities he has to work with a variety of technologies and on projects that address a range of needs. It's work that allows him to build skills and engage with others.
"I'm learning something new every day from a different person on the team," he says, noting that the intellectual sharing "happens all the time here. The open workspace and the games sitting around are like social lubricants; they get people talking."
Innovation takes center stage
Reminding team members how important their contributions are simplifies the job of attracting and retaining top technologists, according to He. "We are a mortgage company, but we always treat Quicken Loans like a technology company," she says. "That's really important -- our tech team feels great because they feel they can make an impact."
As CIO, He has established several innovation programs designed to keep IT employees engaged. In addition to Bullet Time and an annual 24-hour hackathon, there's a month-long competition called Why Wait?, in which IT team members collaborate in exercises involving a specific emerging technology.
During one recent challenge, leadership gave IT team members a month to build something with LEDs. The IT staffers used the lights to create "presence indicators" that show when team members are on their phones or at their desks, or if they've received a high-priority email.
Quicken Loans also has a companywide event called Pitch Day, in which any employee can submit ideas that are then vetted by business leaders for their creativity, feasibility and potential business impact. Employees whose ideas are selected get a chance to pitch them to a panel of executives and managers -- a presentation held in front of a live audience of a few hundred team members that's also broadcast live to all 15,000 employees. The creators of the winning ideas are paired with project managers to move their concepts forward.
A people-first culture
Employees agree that initiatives like those contribute to making Quicken Loans a stimulating place to work in IT, but they say what really sets the company apart is its continuing attention at all levels to building a culture where relationships matter and people come first.
"I work with people who are curious, who care about what they do every day," says Bonnie Six, a 62-year-old senior vice president of IT compliance and servicing.
Six joined Quicken Loans in 2001, attracted by the ability to work full time from her home in New Hampshire and by the company's culture of camaraderie. "Everyone is always striving to be the best they can be and to help others around them to be the best they can be," she says.
IT staffers repeatedly describe their work environment as a collaborative and supportive setting where individuals are encouraged to develop and share their ideas and where leadership is concerned about each team member. Everyone, from the executive level on down, often says "we" -- and not "I" -- when describing
"You're not just a number, an employee on their spreadsheet. You're a person here," says Anne Pichini, 29, who left a career teaching fourth grade and middle school math to become a training consultant with Quicken Loans' TechU training program in June 2015. TechU oversees technical, business and soft skills training for IT professionals including instructor-led classroom-style learning, online internal and external training, and a new program where newly hired IT employees shadow more experienced team members.
Pichini says she's impressed by the company's sense of community -- how it treats employees to perks like ticket giveaways, how it sponsors formal and informal mentoring, and how it invests in the rejuvenation of the city of Detroit. She also likes how company leadership has supported her from the beginning -- for example, by sending her to a well-known training conference in Denver just a few months after she joined the company.
As CIO, one way He brings IT employees together is by setting up virtual teams, which promote collaboration, caring and team member fulfillment in a variety of ways. There are currently eight such teams within IT, each made up of anywhere from a handful of members to upwards of 50 people who generally meet every two weeks to further their team's particular mission or agenda.
The teams' areas of focus aren't necessarily strictly work-related. The IT Gives Back team, for example, organizes volunteer and community involvement events open to all IT employees. The IT Talent, Retention, Rewards and Career team (nicknamed Trac), works on establishing clear expectations and career growth options for each IT team member. Trac also identifies and creates resources that IT workers can use to develop their skills, and it helps shape the company's rewards and recognition program.
Above all, He says her priority is to ensure that the IT team doesn't lose that sense of camaraderie that employees at every level of the organization say they value.
"Team members are empowered when they feel more connected," she says, adding that she aims to ensure that connections exist throughout the ranks by stressing the need for communication and transparency. IT leaders, including He herself, can be found mingling with workers during the day, asking people about their work, their families and their outside interests.
"It's really about having those personal connections. It's not just about being in the conference room talking about projects," He explains. She says she strives to recruit people -- for leadership positions and rank-and-file jobs alike -- who share that philosophy.
Six says she too has that in mind when she interviews potential employees. "When we hire, we absolutely hire for culture. We want candidates who feel good about being part of the team," she says. "We are looking for people who are flexible, who are willing to grow. We look for people who think it's OK to question the status quo."
This story, "The No. 1 large place to work in IT: Quicken Loans" was originally published by Computerworld.