Passion vs engagement – how to attract and keep the top talent

Several weeks ago, I’ve read a Henrik Berglund’s post on the blog that really struck a chord with me. In a nutshell, its message is that to stay competitive on the current market, the passive expertise of your employees is not enough, they must also be deeply engaged or even truly passionate about what they do for you.

Quoting Henrik directly:

It used to be possible to compete by having access to hard working obedient experts. This is not the case anymore. […] We need people that show initiative when needed even outside their job description. We need people that keep scanning the surroundings to come up with disruptive innovative ideas. We need people that feel passionate about their work.

He then concludes that:

Since you cannot command people to take initiative, to be creative or to be passionate, the solution is quite simple: […] Treat everyone as if they were volunteers. If people choose to do whatever it is that they do, because they want to do it, then we have created the conditions needed to solve todays top problems. Anything less will not suffice.

He also gives some hints how to achieve it:

Align company goals, team goals and individual goals. […] Ask people: “What would you like to learn, experience, achieve to make participating in this effort worth your time and full attention”. […] Redesign work until everyone is driven by intrinsic motivation.

At first, I’ve just instinctively agreed, and didn’t give it much more thought. But then I started to wonder: Is it possible for any company to achieve such a high level of engagement?

It gave me a lot to think about.

I see two potential sources of such high employee engagement:

  • company’s mission or product
  • the work process itself

Let’s take a closer look at these two cases:

Making people passionate about company’s mission or product.

This is an ideal situation. Only when people are truly passionate about what you do, they will, as Henrik advocates: show initiative [...] even outside their job description [...] scanning the surroundings to come up with disruptive innovative ideas.

Let’s consider what kinds of projects can ignite such deep engagement:

  • non-profit projects with a truly world-improving mission (e.g. Wikipedia)
  • products universally regarded as cool (e.g. computer games)
  • products whose developers are their own customers (e.g. GitHub or IDEs – almost all developers are passionate or at least strongly opinionated about the tools they use)
  • to a somewhat lesser degree, products that are widely used (e.g. Amazon – people may not be particularly passionate about the online shopping, but because they use it frequently they at least have some opinion what their peet peeves are, what works for them and what not etc.)

In cases like the above, I can indeed imagine people stepping out of their job descriptions to come up with new ideas.

But what about the vast majority of companies doing not-so-passion-inducing products, like:

  • “dull” products (e.g. replacement car parts distribution system)
  • small niche products (e.g. field hockey coachig tools)
  • outsourcing (such companies don’t have their own product at all, they are jumping randomly from a product to a product – some potentially interesting, most of them not so much)

Of course for any niche, even the smallest one, you can find a handful of people really passionate about it. And you definitely must have such people at positions that shape the vision of the product: CEO, PM etc.

But what about the people that build the product – the developers? Should you also narrow your search to a small subset of the whole talent pool, passionate about your niche?

My opinion is that when it comes to the nitty gritty details of building a product, the top development talent beats sheer passion. Thus, it is better to search among the whole talent pool.

The question is how to attract top developers and keep them deeply engaged in what they do, if you can’t make them passionate about your product?

This leads us to the second possible approach:

Making people deeply engaged in the work process itself.

What can keep the developers engaged when they’re not interested in the product itself? Let’s discuss a few possible options:

scalability or architectural challenges

The aforementioned replacement car parts distribution system, although seemingly boring as a product, may be quite a big system, with a complex Service Oriented Architecture, high load demands, complicated Domain Driven Design and so on. Building such an app may be deeply engaging for a developer, regardless of its subject matter.

If your app poses such challenges, don’t waste such an opportunity. Build it according to the best engineering standards and don’t be shy to advertise that you did.

The drawback of this option is that many products simply aren’t that complex. And complicating your architecture just for the sake of it won’t impress the top developers.

work methodology

The way people work may be a great source of motivation for them. This applies at two levels: organizational and technical.

At the organizational level, you can engage people by giving them as much autonomy as possible, allowing self-organization, minimizing the amount of management, using modern Agile methodologies, letting them shape their workflow.

At the technical level, you can ignite people’s passion by building a craftsmanship culture, focused on the best engineering practices (e.g. Behavior Driven Development, Continuous Deployment, pair programming or whatever is the state of the art at the moment).

What’s great about this approach is that it is not only attractive to your employees, but also advantageous for your company and product (quality, efficiency, competitiveness) – so it is a win-win situation.

cutting edge tech

Developers love to work with new languages and frameworks. The aforementioned field hockey coaching app may not be widely interesting in itself, nor be the highest-scale app out there, but if it is written in some cool new language developers are excited about, it may still be very attractive.

This is visible in how new startups attract the top talent – in a big part because they have freedom to choose any tech stack they want.

Unfortunately, the majority of products are legacy products, and it is typically difficult or costly to migrate them to a new tech.

A workaround for it may be to let people try new tech as a part of a research or side project. The trick is to design such projects so they are not only a pure cost of keeping your developers engaged, but also provide some additional value for the company.

sharing with the community

Blogging. Writing a book. Presenting at conferences. Recording a podcast or screencast. Participating in Open Source projects.

For some programmers it is a boost to their ego for being known among their peers. For others it is building their personal brand. Or an opportunity for idea exchange and learning. Or just sheer joy of participation in the community.

No matter what their reasons are, most programmers get a lot of energy from reaching outside of the confines of your company.

Allow them to. It will incur some costs, but the boost to the engagement (and thus productivity) of your employees and the new knowledge and skills they will bring to your company will easily compensate for it. And don’t forget what marketing power being such a “famous” company gives you!

So, can any company attract the top talent?

There are a few companies (the obvious example being Google) that have it all: a cool product, billions of users, internet-scale architecture, bleeding edge tech. You may not be able to compete with their power to attract the top talent.

However, despite the media attention they generate, they are still a relatively small niche. And when it comes to all the rest – the vast majority of companies on the market – you can be very competitive if you put a little conscious effort into engaging your employees.

If you are a small company, you can even think of competing with big players by utilizing the strengths that your size gives you. “Family-like” atmosphere, impact on company’s strategy, participation in all vital decisions are things very difficult to mimic by a big corporation – and for many, such a high level of trust and involvement is even more engaging than anything the industry giants can offer.

Do you take any deliberate actions to increase employee engagement in your company? Do you think it is a good approach, or a wasted cost? Please share below in the comments!


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