Walk into the IT department at one of Quicken Loans' downtown Detroit offices and you'll be met by a sea of big heads -- not overblown egos, but giant cardboard faces like the ones that fans wave on sticks at basketball games.
"That's everybody's name tag now," says Pat Hartford, an enterprise architect who has been with the company for seven years. "Everybody has a picture of themselves at their desk that you can dress up however you want. It makes it easier to find people when you're walking" through the open office space.
Identifying co-workers became even more challenging in 2012 when the company beefed up its IT staff by 80% to more than 850 technology-related positions, in response to the escalating demands of a business that served more than 1.5 million customers and was handling $70 billion in home loans.
Other than ones of the cardboard variety, you won't find many swollen heads in the IT department at the nation's largest online retail mortgage lender, employees say. "Leaders tend to sit out on the floor with everybody else, because they are just like everybody else," says Hartford.
Employees say there are few barriers -- physical or bureaucratic -- at Quicken Loans. "I've had conversations with [CEO] Bill Emerson in the hallway," says Tim Brickey, a business intelligence engineer who joined the company in 2009. "The first time, I was terrified. But now I know he's funny and friendly -- and he knows my name."
CIO Linglong He says the keys to staying engaged with so many employees are to always walk the floor and to empower rank-and-file staffers. "We give team members the tools, the training and the freedom to grow. They take ownership and actually can make an impact on the outcome," she says.
Teams consist of about five to 10 people, and leaders hold biweekly meetings to make sure that morale is high and that projects are moving along without obstacles. "I always try to figure out where people's passions are and really connect them to that passion," says Noah Ravenscroft, senior vice president of application development. "If we're driving toward that, folks are much more productive and happier."
As CIO, He says that she tries to make sure that "every single team member lives and breathes the same culture." Employees are guided by 19 corporate ideals -- or as Quicken calls them, isms -- that the entire company lives by. Those isms include "Always raising our level of awareness," "It's not about who is right, it's about what is right," "Yes before no" and "Innovation is rewarded. Execution is worshipped."
Leaders and employees recognize people who do things that embody those ideals by nominating them for monthly ISM Awards. And each year, executives give Gilbert Awards to those who exemplify the isms at the highest degree. Named after Quicken Loans founder and chairman Dan Gilbert, Gilbert Awards are presented at an Academy Awards-type event.
"It's a great way that leaders and team members acknowledge the work we do," says Brickey, who has won both an ISM Award and a Gilbert Award in his four years at the company.
Quirks and perks
David Polidori, director of platform engineering, credits the executive team for giving directors like him "the leniency to do what we need to do to keep that culture" and to pass it forward.
Vibrant colors and team members on scooters are common sights. Credit: Quicken Loans.Click to take a slideshow tour of Quicken Loans.
IT staffers, for instance, participate in informal weekly "innovation time" where they can freely explore and prototype ideas. "It's a very good investment. The team members love it, the business loves it and the impact is huge," says He.
With vibrant colors and an open floor plan, Quicken Loans' offices were designed to encourage creativity. Adding to the relaxed environment are Xboxes, Ping-Pong tables, all-you-can-eat popcorn, free-flowing slushies and a weekly dose of veggies and hummus. At "Big Wheel parking stations," employees can grab a three-wheeler or a scooter for an indoor spin.
"I use the scooters to get just about everywhere," says John Fair, senior software engineer. His day typically starts at 8:30 a.m., and then he'll spend an hour or more in meetings, depending on a project's status. "I go to a couple different 'stand-up' meetings, which are short five-to-10-minute briefings," says Fair. The rest of his day is spent on engineering work at his standing desk. "I think better on my feet," he says, adding that he may try a treadmill desk that sits on another floor.
His favorite perk, though, is the freedom to choose the right technologies for his projects. "I can pitch the best solution for the problem and be heard. I don't have to use the same technology we've done before -- I'm encouraged to look into it. I wake up every morning excited to do that."
A close second, he says, might be tickets to Cleveland Cavaliers basketball games that Gilbert (the team's majority owner) occasionally gives away. "There will be contests, or you'll hear our CEO over the loudspeaker saying, 'Caller No. 20 will get tickets to the game.' You'll hear his phone start to ring in the background," Fair says.
Location, location, location
In 2009, Gilbert committed to playing a role in revitalizing Detroit into a tech-focused urban core. Today, Quicken Loans occupies several downtown buildings, some just steps from Comerica Park, where the Detroit Tigers play, and Ford Field, home of the Detroit Lions. New apartment buildings have gone up near its offices, and more than 70 companies have moved to or opened new shops in downtown Detroit over the past three years.
Employees are proud to be part of the revitalization of Detroit. Credit: Quicken Loans.Click to take a slideshow tour of Quicken Loans.
"There's an absolute positive with working downtown," Polidori says. "I grew up in Dearborn, which is 10 to 12 miles from here. I spent a lot of my childhood at the old Tiger Stadium and downtown. So it was pretty cool to move down here."
He says employees love the fact that they can go to Tigers games after work, or maybe walk by the stadium at lunch during a day game and get 10 minutes of baseball in before heading back to the office.
IT employees relish their part in the rebirth of the Motor City. "You can be part of the solution here," Ravenscroft says. "It's something greater than just Quicken Loans. You're part of the revival of Detroit."
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This story, "The best place to work in IT: Quicken Loans" was originally published by Computerworld.