Lessons of Failure
Humans + Software Development = Always Interesting

TAG | motivation

Software has long since lost its glory-days status.  We’re not the go-to field anymore.  Geeks are no longer revered as gods amongst humanity for our ability to manipulate computers.  We get crappy jobs just like everyone else.

So, what is it that still motivates you to work as a software developer?

Ah...satisfaction!

Is it your fat salary, great perks, and end-of-year bonuses?  Unless you’ve been working on Mars for the past two years, I think Computerworld would disagree with you.  We’ve been getting kicked in the nads just as hard as everyone else.  Between budget cutbacks, layoffs and reductions in benefits or increases in hours, clearly our paychecks are not our primary source of satisfaction.

If money was our primary motive, right now we’d be seeing a mass exodus from the tech sector.  So, if it’s not the money, then what is it that we hang on to when we get up each day?  Are we really working for those options?  That salary bonus?

Turns out, we’re kidding ourselves if we think that’s our real motive as developers.

The assumption: People perform better when given a tangible, and even substantial, reward for completing a task.  Think bonuses, stock options, and huge booze-driven parties.

The reality: In a narrow band of actual cases, this is true.  (And by narrow, I mean anything that isn’t a cognitive task, simple or complex, according to the research I quote below).  By and large, the reward-based incentive actually creates poorer performance in any group of workers for cognitive tasks, regardless of economic background or complexity of the task involved.  (Sorry, outsourcers…dangling the reward under your workers noses doesn’t help even when your home country is considerably poorer on average than Western economies.  Yet another surprising finding of their research.)

I’m not making this up, nor am I just drawing on anecdotal experience.  Watch this 18 minute video from TED and I’ll bet you’re convinced too:

Daniel Pink gave this lecture at the 2009 TED.  It’s mind-blowing if you’re stuck in the carrot-and-stick mentalityAnd I’ll just bet, unless you work for Google, are self-employed, or extremely worldly, you probably are.

I’m not saying that to be mean or controversial.  I’m saying that because this mentality has pervasively spread to every business, industry and country on the planet over the past 100 years.  It’s not just software development, but we’re hardly immune from its effect.

While we’re not immune to the impact, we do have a lot going for us that gives us an advantage in stepping outside this mentality:

  • Developers tend to be social oddballs and the normal conventions seem awkward to us. Social oddballs tend to question things.  We don’t like what everyone else likes because, well, we’re nerds and we don’t think like sales people.  Or accountants.  Or athletes.  We’re willing to try things others find weird because we’re weird too.
  • Because we’re odd, we tend to be forward thinking and revolutionary in our approaches to workplace advancements. Think about the good aspects of the Dot Com era:  pets in the workplace, recreation rooms with pool tables and ping pong, better chairs and desks for people, free lunches.  Those innovations didn’t come out of Pepsi, Toyota, or Price Waterhouse Coopers, they came out of tech companies.  Every one.
  • In doing so, our weird becomes the new normal. Witness the output of the Dot Com era:  Aside from the economic meltdown, how many companies now regularly practice some, if not all of those things we did back in the late 90s?  (Albeit with more restraint, thankfully)

With that in mind, let’s take Daniel’s idea of the results-oriented work environment (ROWE) forward and create something new for the 21st century.  It focuses on three important ideas, which developers already love and embrace:

  1. Autonomy
  2. Mastery
  3. Purpose

Autonomy: What developer out there doesn’t like to be given the freedom to do their own thing, on their terms, with their preferred hours, using their tools, environment, IDE, language, operating system and favorite t-shirt?  Find me a single developer anywhere that doesn’t crave this kind of freedom and I’ll pay you $10.  Seriously.  Drop me a contact above.  I’m good for it.  Of course, you’ll search for the rest of your life and won’t be able to do it.

Mastery: Every developer on the planet wants to get better at what they do.  We crave new knowledge like some people quaff coffee after a hangover.  Fortunately, the side effects of getting better at development are far more benign than caffeine binging.

Purpose: Nothing is more tedious, horrific, or uninspiring to developers to work on projects that lack any real meaning in the world.  Or lack any real direction.  Or lack any substantial need from the company.  In fact, you can probably point to the brightest points of your career all stemming from those projects that had the deepest meaning to you personally.  Maybe the darkest points are those soul-sucking projects that you waded through because you were glad to have a job but desperately waited for things to improve so you could find a better job elsewhere.  Preferably where soul-vacuums didn’t exist.

Google gets it:  They already advocate the 20% time concept and (near-)complete workplace freedom.  Atlassian gets it:  They have the Fedex challenge where everyone in the company gets 24 hours to work on something they are interested in, with the caveat you have to deliver it at the end of 24 hours and you must present it to the company.  Think those don’t create passion for the company?  How about the Nine Things Developers Want More than Money?  These points all touch on the same three basic concepts:  autonomy, mastery, and purpose.

Does your company “get it”?  If the answer is NO,  what can you do right now to change your workplace to “get it”? And if that is too Sisyphean a task for you, how about starting your own company instead, that does “get it”?

That’s my challenge for you in 2010.  “Make software suck less in the 21st century”

Good luck.

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