Finance firm gives IT staff chance to improve skills and specialise

Open-minded approach helps to develop staff

The reason why personal loans and mortgages specialist Firstplus Financial is a great place to work in IT is youth, according to senior network consultant, Tim Morris. Not the youth of the IT team that is but the tender years of the company itself.

Firstplus was originally set up in 1997 and is now part of the Barclays Group. It has doubled in size over the past three years to about 220 staff.

"There are always lots of projects going on, so staff do not get stuck doing just the business-as-usual work. Someone working on, say, the break/fix support team will be given an individual project as well and told to do the firewall. Everyone gets to do the interesting stuff," he said.

The philosophy is to give everyone a particular responsibility for a system or topic in addition to their main job description so that they can specialise in that area.

Because the company is young and growing, this has engendered a no-nonsense approach to developing staff.

"The mentality is to take responsibility for something and get on with it. We do not have any dead wood, such as people who have run out of drive and who are just going through the motions. We all feel we are stakeholders, and all get annual, performance-related bonuses," Morris said.

IT employees are encouraged to come up with ideas and present a business plan with a cost-benefit and risk assessment and a project summary. They are also encouraged to add to their skills portfolios.

Staff are trained in specific skills when necessary, such as security, and also offer training for more general areas, such as Microsoft courses.

IT workers also get help from Firstplus if they want to further their education.

"We have had three people doing Open University qualifications, where the company has paid half the fees up front and the other half once the employee has passed the exams," said Morris.

"Most companies train people solely for the company's benefit, but here we put company needs together with developing career paths for staff."

As a young, fast-growing company, Firstplus is keen on keeping IT fully integrated with the business. "This is endorsed by our chief executive and our IT director is on the board," said Morris. "In most places I have worked, IT has been stuck in a side room where people knock to come in. Here, although we do have quiet project rooms for staff working on development, we are all open plan and easily accessible."

Outside office hours social outings are organised for staff.

"When the last Harry Potter film opened, the company hired a screen in a local cinema complex and the whole company went along with their families. We also do things together such as bowling and quiz nights," said Morris.

The socialising helps break down inhibitions between IT staff in the workplace, he said.

"If you are in a project meeting you can be much more open and honest about saying uncomfortable things that have to be said if you already know the person," he said. "We are much closer to the business here."

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