Last summer, the Reddit community /r/programmerhumor was rocked by a question someone heard in a job interview. The subreddit was full of replies like “This is horrifying” or “I would probably lie…because I know how toxic most tech companies are.” Countless developers and technical experts on this subreddit shared their revulsion and anger in response to this question:
“Did you use the pandemic lockdown to pursue any passion projects or personal development?”
It’s not a great question. After how hard the pandemic has been for everyone, I can see how a job candidate might read the question as implying a prolonged Covid lockdown is the same as a sabbatical. Take the emotionally fraught “pandemic lockdown” phrasing out, and you make the question a simple ask about passion projects and personal development goals. But beyond the pandemic insensitivity, the common objection in the replies was: “When I have the technical skill for this job, anything else is irrelevant.”
Let’s play out what happens when hiring managers agree with the commentors that “only technical skills matter and personal development is irrelevant.”
Months after filling your developer team with brilliant but impersonal coders, someone quits and you need to train a new developer. However, no one on your team likes teaching or talking to new colleagues, so the new developer has to essentially get herself up to speed.
When her lack of training leads to a mistake that costs a week of work, the other developers complain the new hire isn’t pulling her weight. Rather than talking out how to resolve this team issue, your impersonal developers work around the new hire until she quits without notice. Now your project is behind schedule, you still don’t have the right team to finish it and your “tech skills are all that matters” developers are even less trusting of people than before.
I can write this scenario with confidence because I used to be a cynical developer who said “I hate people. I’d rather just code all day.” But years later, I’ve come to realize I actually love other people for their passions, their ideas and their stories. What made me realize this was being on a great team–the same kind of great team that a “tech skills are all that matter” believer would (and several times, did) struggle to fit into. It took managers and coworkers being patient with me and supporting my personal development for me to realize the value of true human connection and become the CEO I am today.
Even employees with zero desire to be managers will benefit from support of their personal growth. Take my chief technology officer (and brother) Anton. To capitalize on his gifts for software architecture and programming, we decided years ago that he would have no direct reports so he could devote himself to the technical vision of our company. But rather than become a myopic and misanthropic code hermit, Anton also developed his ability to teach and communicate. The result is that he’s not only the top programming mind I’ve ever known, but also a patient and effective educator who can hold our entire company’s attention when they watch him explain the intricacies of any technical concept.
Great Company Culture Is Built on Passionate Employees
Passionate employees are the building blocks of a great company culture. As CEOs and managers, it’s up to us to show our employees that we value and support their personal development–not because we want to wring all the output we can from our employees, but because when they bring their character growth and passions to the company, everyone benefits. It’s easy to fall into the trap of believing company culture is defined by top-down policy and personality when it’s more often driven by hiring and retaining people who care deeply and want to grow as both professionals and humans.
Being the kind of business that nurtures employee soft skills, growth and identity can also give you a huge edge over big hiring bonuses from larger firms. Last year, a publicly-traded firm with deep pockets made a generous employment offer to a top employee on our product team. She turned down a big bump in compensation, preferring to stay at a company where she had grown in her career. The firm came back doubling their compensation increase, and she turned them down because she loved working where her passions were supported. Then the firm offered her four times their original increase. While we countered as best we could, she reluctantly agreed to the bigger company’s offer.
While we were heartbroken to lose her and understand her decision (compensation matters too), her value to LiveSwitch was so much greater than her technical skills. In her time with us we saw her use her passions for creating great products and teaching to make a lasting mark on our organization, and our culture was richer for it. In return, she was part of the LiveSwitch family and made us all better as we grew in our character together. That’s the power of nurturing personal development in your employees.