Toronto firm uses rewards program to attract and retain precious IT talent

While many Canadian companies are struggling to attract talented IT employees or to retain the ones they have – I Love Rewards, a Toronto-based developer of online corporate rewards programs, appears to have difficulty turning them back.

When the company recently put out a call for 13 positions, around 2,700 applicants sent in their resumes.

What could they be doing right? And what could the growing number of Canadian firms lamenting the dearth of skilled IT talent be missing?

Razor Suleman, the 30-something chief executive of I Love Rewards believes he has some of the answers.

Most Canadian businesses are looking at the issue the wrong way, he says.

Rather than just throw money at footloose Gen Y IT professionals, companies should take the time to recognize what these developers are looking for in their place of work.

“Generation Y employees know what they want and aren’t afraid to ask their employers for it…if you don’t pay attention to their unique wants and needs, another company will.”

IT workers in their late 20s and early 30s are not necessarily focused mainly on monetary rewards, Suleman said.

He should know. His company is in fact built on that idea.

I Love Rewards works with companies such as Rogers Communications Inc. and KMPG LLP to develop reward programs for their employees.

Essentially the system involves companies allocating points for specific accomplishments and behaviours that they want their workers to exhibit.

Employees are awarded points by their managers when they achieve these goals.

The workers can then log in their points in their account on a corporate Web site. The site also contains a catalogue of goods they can “purchase” with the points they have accumulated.

“In many ways”, Suleman said, “money can’t match rewards when it comes to recognition.”

For example, many people use bonuses to pay off bills and could be quickly forgotten because it cannot be tied to a specific action, he said.

Suleman recalls his younger years when he used to deliver papers for The Toronto Star. The newspaper offered a bicycle as a prize for couriers who could get the most new subscribers.

He said he wanted the bike so badly that he worked hard to sign on 50 new subscribers. Achieving the goal became a passion for him and the bike was the reward.

Stoking passion and rewarding performance is key to the ability of I Love Rewards to attract and keep young IT talent, says Cathy Chin, the company’s hiring officer.

She said most businesses “fail to project a desirable image” of their company to Gen Y applicants.

“The three biggest things on their list are: opportunity to work on cool technology; working on something challenging; and working with a good mentor or industry leader.”

From the very start I Love Rewards’ hiring process is geared towards impressing its culture on the candidate as well as finding out if he or she would be a “perfect fit” in the company, said Chin.

“At one point, we had to change a want ad to make sure we attracted the right candidate.”

She said a straightforward ad announcing an opening for a Java developer was altered to include questions such as: As a developer do you have occasional dreams in Java? Have you run into the odd piece of code that looked at you funny and had to be re-factored “elegantly”? Do you know that design patterns have nothing to do with fabric?

Typical interview processes were also adjusted to make sure that candidates had a one-on-one discussion with the manager or team leader they would be working with and got to talk with the company’s top developers.

The final part of the multi-staged interview is called Top Grading. Here the hiring manager discusses with the candidate their past experiences and challenges – even those dating back from high school.

“We want to find out how candidates deal with challenges and set backs and what they consider as success. We want to know what their passion is,” Chin said.

She said companies should also recognize that today’s developers are not slackers but rather focused hard-working professionals who also value their quality of life.

Employees at I Love Rewards start out with a minimum of four weeks of vacation, work in a relaxed atmosphere where rather than Friday casuals people follow the First Date Dress Code – or what you would wear on your first date.

Similar to Google workers, employees are also encouraged to set aside 20 per cent of their time to activities other than those concerning their immediate departments, said Chin.

I Love Rewards employees join “vision committees” that engage in activities geared towards various interests.

One committee could be focused on initiatives to boost the health and welfare company workers, another could be working on Web-related issues, while one group could be exploring volunteer opportunities in the community.

“We find that people become more engaged in the workplace when they spend 20 per cent of their time on something they are passionate about than when they spend 100 per cent of their time in their work roles,” according to the hiring officer.

On Fridays at close of business, workers get to chuck their work and hit the corporate bar for free drinks.

“At 5 p.m. people stop what they’re doing for First Round Friday. That means the first round of drinks – non-alcohol or otherwise – is on the house,” said Chin.

Farhan Thawar, 34, director of development, for I Love Rewards, says he was initially drawn to the company for its “cutting edge” reputation, and the challenge of working in largely unchartered territory.

“People my age want to work on something exciting. When I got here in February, they were building cloud-based platforms – you don’t get to that in many of the larger companies,” Thawar said.

He recalls the first day he walked into the I Love Rewards headquarters. “You could immediately feel the culture. People were friendly, at ease, young and energetic.”

“The place is electric. It’s buzzing all the time,” says Derek Martin, 30, a developer who has been with the company for two years now.

The main driver for him is the recognition he receives from peers and the opportunity to contribute to something big. Martin used to work for company that develops online dating sites.

“Back there, I was just another cog in the wheel. There was a lot of bureaucracy and paperwork, no solid IT process. I didn’t get to do much substantial code work.”

At I Love Rewards, the company’s reward program site clearly displays the points that employees have earned for doing their jobs or exceeding expectations.

Their accomplishments are regularly mentioned in meetings and they get to purchase items they like on the company rewards catalogue with the points they receive.

Thawar said his wife just loves to browse the rewards catalogue while Martin said he recently got an $800 barbecue with the points he accumulated.

Both men like the nurturing culture of their office, which they say rewards hard work but provides enough leeway for creative thinking, honest review of practices, and ample time to kick back and relax.

For instance, once a month the company holds what employees call Brutal Facts, a no holds barred examination projects that failed or didn’t come out as expected.

The focus is not to lay blame on anyone or to cover-up mistakes, but rather to determine what went wrong and find solutions to fix the problem or prevent it from happening again.

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