Chief Happiness Officer: Fad or future for tech?

Laurent Pontier, technical director at Sidetrade. Laurent Pontier, technical director at Sidetrade.

By Laurent Pontier, technical director at Sidetrade.

Like every field, the digital world is subject to fad and fashion. The latest craze is the CHO, or chief happiness officer, an executive in charge of making employees happy. The term “happiness officer”, however, is an oxymoron. You cannot make people happy by diktat, and the very act of setting “happiness” as a new professional objective constitutes a double bind, as pointed out by economist Nicolas Bouzou and philosopher Julia de Funès.

In technology, as elsewhere, there is a true issue behind this smokescreen. For any healthy, successful company, there is a self-evident truth: before pitching workplace happiness, start by ensuring you’re not actually mistreating your employees. This could be physical (e.g. noise, pollution, hazardous conditions) or psychological (manipulation, harassment, denigration). Once this has been established, how do you find the keys to professional fulfilment? The answers are often hard to pin down, and are sometimes industry-specific.

At a time when a talent war is raging among technology companies, let’s look at four keys to attracting and retaining top profiles. Good news: you don’t have to be a Silicon Valley native to put them into practice!

Key No. 1: passion for technology

In our industry, it should go without saying that people are driven first and foremost by a passion for innovation. They want to be “disrupters”: movers and shakers constantly looking for newer and better ways of doing things. This means you can’t recruit high tech engineers and developers unless you have state-of-the art technologies (e.g. Python, .NET Core, Java, Progress SQL, Greenplum) and top methodologies (Kanban, Scrum).

You don’t recruit techies with marketing hype, but with proof. You have to show them what’s under the hood, through employee blogs and communities, and through conferences and seminars. Code is a living language, which develops peer-to-peer.

Also, recruitment should be conducted by HR-Technology duos, so as to get a 360° assessment of the candidate as soon as possible, and reduce the risk of passing over an applicant who is a real diamond in the rough. Also, you attract tech talent not just with salary and benefits, but by providing them with exciting resources and by recognizing their brand of genius.

Key No. 2: recruiting outside the box

On my teams, I have a database administrator who is a former cook, and a development engineer who’s a biology grad. Why hire such profiles? Because atypical career paths can reveal essential qualities, such as the ability to reexamine choices, the confidence to challenge oneself, and the drive to overcome hurdles. Having personalities like that on the team brings in new ways of thinking and acting. It fosters healthy emulation and interplay of talents.

Similarly, an engineer who moves to sales, or a customer support engineer who becomes a developer, is a bearer of a double-culture: technological and relational. Whenever we have this type of career move, we see enhanced problem-solving, as well as a tendency to better understand and dialogue with R&D and users.

Leaving career paths open also contributes to professional fulfillment. For example, not everyone who starts in R&D dreams of a management career; executive positions are not the Holy Grail. Technological and managerial skills can be reconciled by remaining a developer and becoming a team leader. You can also move up the ladder just by continuously building your technological expertise. Different career tracks can be developed internally or externally to boost the entire R&D department and the brand image of the company.

Key No. 3: autonomy and concrete results

Once you’ve recruited a skilled and passionate professional, the next concern is to retain them with attractive career development opportunities. Over 20 years’ experience in the Digital industry have shown me that people in this field thrive on autonomy and concrete results.

Autonomy is exercised individually and collectively. Everyone must feel welcome to come up with new functions or ways of working; and must be given time and resources to try out novel ideas (e.g. hackathons). Autonomy on projects means freedom to succeed and freedom to fail. In either case, it is essential to share lessons learned. You can’t build team spirit without the right to fail. You stumble, you pick yourself up, and you do better next time.

For a tech person, “getting results” means prototyping a function on Monday, developing and testing it on Tuesday, putting it into production right away, and getting first customer feedback the next day. You come up with an idea, you do it, and bang, you see the results of your creation! This is how you really motivate tech teams. It is the opposite of the “tunnel effect”, often observed in large groups, where you kill motivation by leaving stakeholders in the dark, without any clue about the progress of the project.

Key No. 4: spontaneity and informal culture

Finally, I consider that management has a key role to play in creating an environment which fosters initiative. Rather than imposing top-down rituals, it is far better to provide facilities and a budget to enable staff to share time off the job (e.g. a sports or video game tournament, company-supported volunteering, a celebration).

A chance to break routine reinforces a sense of belonging, which is highly motivating. Sometimes the art of management consists in providing the underpinning for a project, and then acting as a facilitator and guide.

Finally, fulfilment at work depends on the interrelations among individual needs (what I want, I need, and I can do), group dynamics (e.g. colleagues, peers, customers), and corporate culture, enriched with new recruits. It is the manager’s job to implement positive practices which have proven their worth, and dismiss the fads propagated by happiness merchants.