H&R Block's IT Crew Survives Four Months of Taxing Times

Interviewee: Dan Henderson, data center manager

Company: H&R Block Inc.

Main location: Kansas City, Mo.

Tenure: Since 1998. "Since then, we've gone from a sleepy AS/400 shop to a huge IT organization."

Number of IT employees: About 60 in the data center; 250 to 300 in corporate IT, plus 20 regional IT support teams for the company's 10,000 tax preparation offices. During tax season each year, about 200 temporary IT employees are hired to handle calls into the help desk.

Number of employees (end users): About 20,000. "During tax season, the company grows to 100,000 with about 80,000 seasonal employees. A lot of our offices are only open four months of the year."

What is tax season like for IT? "What's different about working here is that while employees in most companies are slowing down in December and enjoying the holidays, here it's the opposite. We have major work to do and put in a fair share of weekend hours and late nights preparing to lock down before peak season starts. We're on pins and needles in December and January."

When is peak season? "The first two weeks following the Jan. 28 release of W2s are huge because of all the people depending on their tax refunds to purchase homes or pay bills. We actually have to turn business away during that time because we can't handle the load.

"That's one reason we launched our Online Tax Preparation product, so we could recoup some of that business, and we're already up 500% over last year in completed online tax returns. The other peak is during the first two weeks of April."

How does the data center help H&R Block keep pace during such a hectic period? "We have a Financial Information Network that receives all completed returns via frame relay or batched up every two hours via dial-up. Information from those is extracted, encrypted and dumped into an Oracle database engine. Then we do summarizations of how well we've done -- bookkeeping-type data -- that are placed on various intranet sites where regional and district managers can review their stats for the last week, last month, etc. They use those to plan for upcoming weeks, in terms of head count and so forth."

Workday: "It's typically eight and a half hours with an hour for lunch, but during tax season, we're putting in longer days, and the developers who support our [online tax preparation] product are heavily engaged. The tax laws are constantly changing, so keeping our system up-to-date is an ongoing battle."

Must people carry beepers? Cell phones? "Oh yes, both. During tax season, we're on heightened alert and everyone is on call."

What will you do on April 17? "We'll take a breather, and then we have to start preparing for next year's tax season."

IT training: "Our CIO is very big on training, and the rule of thumb is 80 hours per associate each year."

Bonus programs: Short-term incentive program and signing bonuses. "Depending on your job, you can receive up to 30% of your salary as a bonus."

Dress code: Business casual, with casual Fridays.

On-site day care? "No, but we have a tax-free fund you can contribute to from your paycheck to pay for child care."

Little perks: "We own seats to the Kansas City Chiefs, so during football season, you can put your name in a hat for free tickets."

Would employees feel comfortable e-mailing Henry Block? "Absolutely. He's the most approachable, easygoing guy you could ever meet. A very classy gentleman."

This story, "H&R Block's IT Crew Survives Four Months of Taxing Times" was originally published by Computerworld.

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