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Are You Engineering for Happiness?

  • Niall Haslam, Engineering Manager at Apex Fintech Solutions UK, discusses the importance of loving what you do and how work culture determines employee satisfaction

    After the Great Resignation, many of us have been left wondering why we do our jobs. Earning money is essential, of course, but we’re searching for greater meaning — from our careers, our lives, and everything we do. What if I suggested that we do our jobs, especially some of our more technical work, to create happiness? I know happiness sounds like a lofty goal, and one that feels far removed from the daily grind, but it is actually made up of many small moments of joy throughout the day.

    What, exactly, is happiness? Definitions vary, but typically include joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment. Happiness may not be as exciting as euphoria or rapture, but it’s also more achievable — it’s simply not practical to feel the most intense emotions all the time. That’s why I like to define happiness as contentment, a feeling that can underpin your various moods all day, every day.

    For example, let’s step into the shoes of a software engineer for a minute. Taking on a task and coding a solution may not sound particularly “happy,” but dig a little deeper. Being assigned a task is a gesture of trust, and should be celebrated as recognition, rather than being viewed as a chore. And the problem-solving process can result in exhilarating “eureka moments” and the deep satisfaction of finding a solution. Then there’s the production and release, when innovative technology really comes to life. There are plenty of daily opportunities for happiness in this job, and the possibility of deeper contentment is built-in.

    Engineering Principles for Happiness

    Software engineers follow a number of modern programming principles, including simplicity, receptivity to feedback, and end-goal mindfulness. These very same guidelines apply to happiness, giving developers a built-in opportunity to find contentment.

    Take simplicity, for example. It is parsimony in algorithm design, simplicity in systems design (the KISS principle), or the global minima in your ML algorithm. In product thinking, it is doing more with less, or even just doing less. There is elegance, clarity, and purity in simplicity — and a simple life without excess worries and drama is more likely to also be a happy life. After all, that’s why it’s often said that “simplicity is the key to happiness.”

    Another essential aspect of software engineering is feedback, including periodic reviews, formal QA, and post-launch bug reports. This feedback is intended to improve our work and how we approach it — making it a springboard to achieving happiness. Consider this: autonomous work, which most developers love, is only possible when there is a robust feedback loop. In other words, regular assessments give us the freedom to work our way, creating the best possible outcome. A great outcome achieved independently sounds like a developer’s dream.

    A third principle we follow is keeping the end goal in mind at all times. This alignment with the big picture increases the value of our individual efforts, keeps us moving forward, and reminds us that we are creating real business value. This mindfulness does not diminish our individual contributions; rather, it amplifies everything we do, because the whole cannot work without top-notch components. Being part of a big project can certainly contribute to a sense of purpose and happiness.

    The Company You Keep Matters Most

    Although we do carry out many tasks ourselves, working together towards a shared vision is a vital aspect of all successful engineering teams. Teamwork is a powerful aspect of happiness because it allows us to achieve more than we could alone, while also providing a sense of belonging.

    A sense of belonging is considered a basic human need — and is especially important at work, where we spend so many waking hours. The best workplace team isn’t built on friendship, it’s built on trust. When we encounter difficulties, working together makes us more resilient. When we are overwhelmed, having teammates can lighten the load. When we celebrate success, we have others to share the fun. Our teams are the source of so much joy, satisfaction, and fulfillment at work.

    There’s one last really important aspect to building happiness at work: kindness. It’s hard to quantify, which means it’s often overlooked in corporate culture, but it’s so essential. As an expression of empathy and friendliness, kindness assumes that we’re all looking out for each other. As agile practitioners, we are always practising empathy through user stories, which let us imagine being end users.

    As we search for happiness, we must cultivate it at work. Fortunately, engineering departments can offer an ideal environment for finding both individual contentment and team camaraderie. And based on my own experiences at Apex Fintech Solutions UK in Belfast, I know that when we strive to be happy at work, we can accomplish truly amazing things.

    This article appears in the summer edition of Sync NI magazine. To receive a free copy click here

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