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What motivates developers?

posted 2012 // tech // 0

I’ve always found the people side of software development interesting, and have read various books about what makes developers tick: Peopleware, Smart & Gets Things Done, The Psychology of Computer Programming, Coders at Work, Slack etc.

I asked myself what really motivates software developers?

Dilbert comic strip about becoming a top 100 company to work for

Developers aren’t much different from other information workers. Their happiness is dictated by the same things.

About 50% of our happiness is set by your genetics. Other factors such as age, gender, personal history and wealth only accounts for around 10%. Many people associate wealth as the primary factor for happiness but evidence tells us that desires and expectations change along with material fortunes.

The remaining 40% is derived from things like personal relationships, a healthy lifestyle with regular exercise and doing meaningful work.

What is meaningful work? What can companies do to provide it?

Herzberg tells us in his two factor theory that motivation and dissatisfaction have to be tackled separately. They are not mutually exclusive, eliminating dissatisfaction will placate your employees but not motivate them.

Many employee’s won’t know what motivates them, many will report their source(s) of dissatisfaction during appraisals (work environment, supervisory practices, low salary). All hygiene factors must be met for motivational factors to work in the long term. So yes, developers need a quiet place to work, be trusted to work and not be micro-managed, given a comfortable chair and second or third monitor.

Salary is a hygiene factor, a low salary only serves to create job dissatisfaction but a fair or even generous salary will only provide short term motivation.

“a raise is only a raise for thirty days; after that, it’s just your salary”

David Russo, HR leader at SAS Institute

Incentive pay often does more harm than good. It implies the employee only produces quality work on time for a cookie, instead of being intrinsically motivated and professional.

Motivational factors include:

  • interesting & challenging work that enables the employee to grow their skill set
  • recognition from managers (praise), peers or customers
  • trust and autonomy to proceed with own ideas and solutions
  • increased responsibility and career progression

It’s easy to fail and hard to succeed at achieving all of these points, which probably explains why the majority of employees are dissatisfied.


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