Best 100: Vision Service Plan, no. 2

Hot projects and cool technologies have long been the fuel for keeping IT workers excited about their jobs. Marites Hoffman, an IT developer at No. 3-ranked Vision Service Plan, is no exception.

"What I like about working here is the fact that I'm always learning something new -- not just for the sake of newer technology," Hoffman says. "We as a company are constantly looking to make sure that our administration costs are reduced so there's always a constant learning environment that is a very attractive part of my job."

Hoffman is currently supporting a Java-based claims-processing system. Rolled out last year, it was developed around IBM Corp.'s WebSphere integration and application server platform and relies on business objects. "That was a new technology as far as this company is concerned," she says.

The Rancho Cordova, Calif.-based provider of eye care coverage also has a new enterprise architecture program under way, which is expected to take five to seven years to complete, says Steve Scott, vice president of the 258-person information systems division. "It's roughly 100 different projects [that will] revamp all of our systems, moving toward a service-oriented architecture," he says.

"We really value technology. We've had a lot of challenging projects -- whether it's the use of the Internet or automating our call center," says Scott. "There are a number of [projects] that have gotten people excited."

Open and honest communication

Application architect Mike Mangelson says even though much is expected of IT staffers, they're also expected to have fun and think outside the box. "I think we have a lot of opportunities to be creative," he says. "We're not told from above, 'Do it this way.' We're told, 'Here's the direction we're going in, so use your creativity.' "

Mangelson says he and his colleagues were given leeway to figure out the best technology to use to build the claims-processing system.

"For the most part, my manager said, 'If you can justify that is the way to go, do it,' " Mangelson says. "The claims-processing project was written in a new set of technologies we hadn't done before. There were lot of things that had to be proven out, and management took a risk allowing us to do that. So far, I think it's paid off."

In a survey conducted by VSP last year, IT employees said they like the open communication fostered within the department and the entire company. Scott holds bimonthly, informal lunch meetings with IT employees, who also participate on teams that recommend process and business changes.

IT employees also like how their staff works together and how it works with other units at VSP, says Scott. "The level of cooperation between the areas is outstandingly high," he says. "It reflects the company culture. The culture comes from the top. Our CEO gets in front of the staff twice a year, and he is very honest with them about what's going on at the company."

Scott says other business units view the IT division as an equal partner, not just as a service bureau. "We have a lot of long-term employees who know a lot about the business. So we're business people who know a lot about technology, not technologists who know a little bit about the business," he says.

Recognition is also part of the plan for keeping IT employees excited about their work. An IT awareness committee, made up of IT staffers, looks for ways to spotlight different groups within the department. For example, the committee posts articles featuring particular IT groups on the company intranet, Scott says.

The committee also comes up with ideas for fun activities, like a recent chili and corn bread contest. There were 20 chili and nine corn bread entries, Scott reports. "We had over 100 people tasting, and we gave out little plaques and gift certificates to the winners," he says. As VSP's IT management knows, combining food and fun is another tried-and-true morale booster.

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