How Ultimate Software became the best workplace in tech
After spending nearly 30 years creating a culture that has made Ultimate Software the best workplace in the tech industry, Scott Scherr and Vivian Maza went out on top.
Scherr, Ultimate Software’s founder and former CEO, and Maza, its Chief People Officer, retired in December 2019, less than a year after the company was acquired by private equity firm Hellman and Friedman for $11 billion. Last month, H&F announced that Ultimate would soon merge with Kronos, another human capital management (HCM) software company in its tech portfolio, to form a new HR tech giant with an estimated combined value of $22 billion.
When asked about their proudest achievements from their nearly 30 years at Ultimate, both Scherr and Maza have said it was their people, or UltiPeeps, the term the company affectionately uses when referring to its workers. Case in point, Ultimate’s tag line and company logo includes the phrase “people first.”
Those happy UltiPeeps have helped Ultimate Software score highly every year on Great Place to Work’s Trust Index Survey, which measures and evaluates employee engagement at thousands of companies globally. The survey responses form part of the methodology used to determine the Best Workplaces lists Great Place to Work compiles in partnership with Fortune, including the newest ranking of the Best Workplaces in Technology, where Ultimate appears at No. 1, and the recently announced 2020 list of Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For, where Ultimate ranks No. 2, behind Hilton.
Incidentally, Kronos, the HCM software company that Ultimate is set to merge with later this year, ranks No. 11 on the Best Workplaces in Tech list, and at No. 52 on the 100 Best Companies. The newly combined company, which has yet to be named, will undoubtedly employ the happiest workers in the tech industry. (Also appearing at the top of this year’s Best Workplaces in Tech list are Cisco at No. 2 and Workday at No. 3. See the full list here.)
Diversity and inclusion have long been hallmarks of the culture at Ultimate, which has had 50/50 gender parity from the beginning. When the company first launched in 1990, it had two male and two female employees, and that balance has been consistent for the past 30 years. “It comes back to the character of the people who we hire and the way that we develop and train our leaders,” says Chief Operating Officer Julie Dodd. “To be very accepting, to be very inclusive, to get everyone involved, to empower everyone, to be as fair as we can possibly be and to always do the right thing.”
And when it comes to pay parity, Scherr notes that today the pendulum often swings toward female employees, especially in key leadership and management roles. “There’s only a $10,000 discrepancy in some areas, based primarily on tenure” he says, “and oftentimes it’s in favor of the women.”
“When I’m asked about my greatest achievement at Ultimate,” Maza offers, “it’s the Communities of Interest. They show how we support one another and are truly a family.”
To get a better understanding of the way Ultimate focuses on inclusion, there’s no better example than the company’s five employee resource groups, which it calls Communities of Interest. There’s PRIDEUS for its LGBTQ employees, Women in Leadership, Women in Technology, UltiVETS (for enlisted members of the military and U.S. veterans), and UltiHOPE, a group that supports employees who have or have had cancer as well as UltiPeeps who are caregivers for family or friends who are dealing with the disease—arguably the first such employee resource group of its kind in corporate America.
One member of UltiHOPE is cancer survivor Ross Sabath, who serves as the group’s chairperson and works as a Senior Director on the company’s Finance team. A survivor of testicular cancer, Sabath has been cancer-free for 16 years, and volunteers to help the UltiHOPE group in supporting any colleagues who are diagnosed with cancer or who are working as caregivers to other cancer patients. The group sends out care packages that include a hand-written note which Sabath paraphrased as “You’ve got this. We’re here for you. Anything you need, reach out to us.” Since the group was founded two years ago, it has sent more than 50 care packages to UltiPeeps who are battling cancer.
“It’s about awareness, but it’s also to give people the chance to talk with others who are going through or have been on that journey,” Sabbath says. “We have a mentor-mentoree program and that’s the main thing we do. When someone reaches out to us and says ‘I need help, I need to talk to somebody,’ then we’ll match them up with somebody who we think would be the most compatible.”
About his own experience with cancer, Sabath says Ultimate was incredibly supportive, even before UltiHOPE existed. ‘Everybody was there for me. They came to the hospital and visited me, sent me notes. I have in my office a signed photo of cancer-survivor Lance Armstrong, which Scott gave me.”
Another group doing amazing work to support UltiPeeps is Women in Tech, which is led by Yasmary Diaz, who is a Senior Director for the Health Tech Insights & Community, and Strategy & Architecture teams. The community is composed of more than 300 women—an astounding fact considering that the industry is notoriously difficult when it comes to women in tech.
“We give a voice to the women we have here,” Diaz explains. “They have stuff to say and things to share. We create partnerships with other companies. Then we get together and share knowledge.” The group works with schools and other non-profits, such as Girls Who Code, as well as a newer group called Code Art, which uses computer code to create art. “They found girls who are more into art, and their minds just explode when they realize ‘Oh my God, I can make art through code!’ We’re finding a whole new stream of girls who we can help and inspire. It’s more than us reaching out, it’s also about trying to make our community better as well.”
Last year, Ultimate’s Communities of Interest group Women in Leadership planned a group trip to climb the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu that was tied to its theme for the year of “Rise to the Challenge.” At the behest of Viv Maza, who says “I’ve always wanted to go to Machu Picchu but I couldn’t find anyone who would go with me,” they organized a trip and immediately two dozen women from Ultimate’s Women in Leadership subcommittee signed up, paying their own way, though the company covered the cost of dinners and tips to the guides.
Eventually, 24 women from the U.S. and Canada made the trek, which included a week of hiking precipitous and dangerous mountains in the Andes before arriving at their destination, the World Heritage Site that is one of the oldest remaining relics of the ancient era. Two of thewomen on the trip had made the treacherous hike before: the company’s wellness coach Stacy Cutrono and Cecile Alper-Leroux, who is Vice President of HCM innovation at Ultimate. According to Maza, “We got together and knew that no UltiPeep would be left behind. We had each other’s back. It was also the most physically gruesome thing I’ve ever done.”
Mariana Sabogal, who is Manager of HRIS at Ultimate, says that the trip was a bonding experience for women across the organization, no matter their title or division. “Any time that you interact with someone at that personal level, I think it makes connections at work easier. You’re not thinking ‘Oh, she’s the VP of HCM Innovation. You’re basically doing the same thing and doing it together, walking in the same shoes. That’s the beauty of anything that we do.”
One of the women on the trip was also a cancer survivor who had a lung removed nine months earlier. The high altitude of the mountains made it particularly challenging for her, but the team moved together as one, encouraging each other along the way. A few folks also had altitude sickness, making the climb even slower. “All 24 of us made it to the very end because we didn’t have a choice,” Maza says. “That was our Rise to the Challenge, and no matter what life puts you through, you either stop or you keep going. And we know that no matter how hard it was, we kept going.”
See the full lists: The 30 Best Large Workplaces in Technology and The 30 Best Small and Medium Workplaces in Technology.
Christopher Tkaczyk is the Chief Content Officer at Great Place to Work and is a former editor at Fortune and Travel + Leisure. This article is an excerpt from Doing the Right Thing, a company profile of Ultimate Software that is being published on greatplacetowork.com this month.