Most people who have been assigned the unfortunate task of managing programmers have no idea how to motivate them. They believe that the small perks (such as foosball tables) and bonuses that work in more relaxed settings will compensate for more severe hindrances like distracting work environments, low autonomy, poor tools, unreasonable deadlines, and pointless projects. They’re wrong. However, this is one of the most important things to get right, for two reasons. The first is that programmer output is multiplicative of a number of factors– fit with tools and project, skill and experience, talent, group cohesion, and motivation. Each of these can have a major effect (plus or minus a factor of 2 at least) on impact, and engineer motivation is one that a manager can actually influence. The second is that measuring individual performance among software engineers is very hard. I would say that it’s almost impossible and in practical terms, economically infeasible. Why do I call infeasible rather than merely difficult? That’s because the only people who can reliably measure individual performance in software are so good that it’s almost never worth their time to have them doing that kind of work. If the best engineers have time to spend with their juniors, it’s more worthwhile to have them mentoring the others (which means their interests will align with the employees rather than the company trying to perform such measurement) than measuring them, the latter being a task they will resent having assigned to them.
Seasoned programmers can tell very quickly which ones are smart, capable, and skilled– the all-day, technical interviews characteristic of the most selective companies achieve that– but individual performance on-site is almost impossible to assess. Software is too complex for management to reliably separate bad environmental factors and projects from bad employees, much less willful underperformance from no-fault lack-of-fit. So measurement-based HR policies add noise and piss people off but achieve very little, because the measurements on which they rely are impossible to make with any accuracy. This means that the only effective strategy is to motivate engineers, because attempting to measure and control performance after-the-fact won’t work.
Traditional, intimidation-based management backfires in technology. To see why, consider the difference between 19th-century commodity labor and 21st-century technological work. For commodity labor, there’s a level of output one can expect from a good-faith, hard-working employee of average capability: the standard. Index that to the number 100. There are some who might run at 150-200, but often they are cutting corners or working in unsafe ways, so often the best overall performers might produce 125. (If the standard were so low that people could risklessly achieve 150, the company would raise the standard.) The slackers will go all the way down to zero if they can get away with it. In this world, one slacker cancels out four good employees, and intimidation-based management– which annoys the high performers and reduces their effectiveness, but brings the slackers in line, having a performance-middling effect across the board– can often work. Intimidation can pay off, because more is gained by intimidating the slacker into mediocrity brings more benefit than is lost. Technology is different. The best software engineers are not at 125 or even 200, but at 500, 1000, and in some cases, 5000+. Also, their response to a negative environment isn’t mere performance middling. They leave. Engineers don’t object to the firing of genuine problem employees (we end up having to clean up their messes) but typical HR junk science (stack ranking, enforced firing percentages, transfer blocks against no-fault lack-of-fit employees) disgusts us. It’s mean-spirited and it’s not how we like to do things. Intimidation doesn’t work, because we’ll quit. Intrinsic motivation is the only option.
Bonuses rarely motivate engineers either, because the bonuses given to entice engineers to put up with undesirable circumstances are often, quite frankly, two or three orders of magnitude too low. We value interesting work more than a few thousand dollars, and there are economic reasons for us doing so. First, we understand that bad projects entail a wide variety of risks. Even when our work isn’t intellectually stimulating, it’s still often difficult, and unrewarding but difficult work can lead to burnout. Undesirable projects often have a 20%-per-year burnout rate between firings, health-based attrition, project failure leading to loss of status, and just plain losing all motivation to continue. A $5,000 bonus doesn’t come close to compensating for a 20% chance of losing one’s job in a year. Additionally, there are the career-related issues associated with taking low-quality work. Engineers who don’t keep current lose ground, and this becomes even more of a problem with age. Software engineers are acutely aware of the need to establish themselves as demonstrably excellent before the age of 40, at which point mediocre engineers (and a great engineer becomes mediocre after too much mediocre experience) start to see prospects fade.
The truth is that typical HR mechanisms don’t work at all in motivating software engineers. Small bonuses won’t convince them to work differently, and firing middling performers (as opposed to the few who are actively toxic) to instill fear will drive out the best, who will flee the cultural fallout of the firings. There is no way around it: the only thing that will bring peak performance out of programmers is to actually make them happy to go to work. So what do software engineers need?
The approach I’m going to take is based on timeframes. Consider, for an aside, peoples’ needs for rest and time off. People need breaks at work– say, 10 minutes every two hours. They also need 2 to 4 hours of leisure time each day. They need 2 to 3 days per week off entirely. They need (but, sadly, don’t often get) 4 to 6 weeks of vacation per year. And ideally, they’d have sabbaticals– a year off every 7 or so to focus on something different from the assigned work. There’s a fractal, self-similar nature to peoples’ need for rest and refreshment, and these needs for breaks tap into Maslovian needs: biological ones for the short-timeframe breaks and higher, holistic needs pertaining to the longer timeframes. I’m going to assert that something similar exists with regard to motivation, and examine six timeframes: minutes, hours, days, weeks, months, and years.
1. O(minutes): Flow
This may be the most important. Flow is a state of consciousness characterized by intense focus on a challenging problem. It’s a large part of what makes, for example, games enjoyable. It impels us toward productive activities, such as writing, cooking, exercise, and programming. It’s something we need for deep-seated psychological reasons, and when people don’t get it, they tend to become bored, bitter, and neurotic. For a word of warning, while flow can be productive, it can also be destructive if directed toward the wrong purposes. Gambling and video game addictions are probably reinforced, in part, by the anxiolytic properties of the flow state. In general, however, flow is a good thing, and the only thing that keeps people able to stand the office existence is the ability to get into flow and work.
Programming is all about flow. That’s a major part of why we do it. Software engineers get their best work done in a state of flow, but unfortunately, flow isn’t common for most. I would say that the median software engineer spends 15 to 120 minutes per week in a state of flow, and some never get into it. The rest of the time is lost to meetings, interruptions, breakages caused by inappropriate tools or bad legacy code, and context switches. Even short interruptions can easily cause a 30-minute loss. I’ve seen managers harass engineers with frequent status pings (2 to 4 per day) resulting in a collapse of productivity (which leads to more aggressive management, creating a death spiral). The typical office environment, in truth, is quite hostile to flow.
To achieve flow, engineers have to trust their environment. They have to believe that (barring an issue of very high priority and emergency) they won’t be interrupted by managers or co-workers. They need to have faith that their tools won’t break and that their environment hasn’t changed in a catastrophic way due to a mistake or an ill-advised change by programmers responsible for another component. If they’re “on alert”, they won’t get into flow and won’t be very productive. Since most office cultures grew up in the early 20th century when the going philosophy was that workers had to be intimidated or they would slack off, the result is not much flow and low productivity.
What tasks encourage or break flow is a complex question. Debugging can break flow, or it can be flowful. For me, I enjoy it (and can maintain flow) when the debugging is teaching me something new about a system I care about (especially if it’s my own). It’s rare, though, that an engineer can achieve flow while maintaining badly written code, which is a major reason why they tend to prefer new development over maintenance. Trying to understand bad software (and most in-house corporate software is terrible) creates a lot of “pinging” for the unfortunate person who has to absorb several disparate contexts in order to make sense of what’s going on. Reading good code is like reading a well-written academic paper: an opportunity to see how a problem was solved, with some obvious effort put into presentation and aesthetics of the solution. It’s actually quite enjoyable. On the other hand, reading bad code is like reading 100 paragraphs, all clipped from different sources. There’s no coherency or aesthetics, and the flow-inducing “click” (or “aha” experience) when a person makes a connection between two concepts almost never occurs. The problem with reading code is that, although good code is educational, there’s very little learned in reading bad code aside from the parochial idiosyncracies of a badly-designed system, and there’s a hell of a lot of bad code out there.
Perhaps surprisingly, whether a programmer can achieve “flow”, which will influence her minute-by-minute happiness, has almost nothing to do with the macroscopic interestingness of the project or company’s mission. Programmers, left alone, can achieve flow and be happy writing the sorts of enterprise business apps that they’re “supposed” to hate. And if their environment is so broken that flow is impossible, the most interesting, challenging, or “sexy” work won’t change that. Once, I saw someone leave an otherwise ideal machine learning quant job because of “boredom”, and I’m pretty sure his boredom had nothing to do with the quality of the work (which was enviable) but with the extremely noisy environment of a trading desk.
This also explains why “snobby” elite programmers tend to hate IDEs, the Windows operating system, and anything that forces them to use the mouse when key-combinations would suffice. Using the mouse and fiddling with windows can break flow. Keyboarding doesn’t. Of course, there are times when the mouse and GUI are superior. Web surfing is one example, and writing blog posts (WordPress instead of emacs) is another. Programming, on the other hand, is done using the keyboard, not drag-and-drop menus. The latter are a major distraction.
2. O(hours): Feedback
Flow is the essence here, but what keeps the “flow” going? The environmental needs are discussed above, but some sorts of work are more conducive to flow than others. People need a quick feedback cycle. One of the reasons that “data science” and machine learning projects are so highly desired is that there’s a lot of feedback, in comparison to enterprise projects which are developed in one world over months (with no real-world feedback) and released in another. It’s objective, and it comes on a daily basis. You can run your algorithms against real data and watch your search strategies unfold in front of you while your residual sum of squares (error) decreases.
Feedback needs to be objective or positive in order to keep people enthusiastic about their work. Positive feedback is always pleasant, so long as it’s meaningful. Objective, negative feedback can be useful as well. For example, debugging can be fun, because it points out one’s own mistakes and enables a person to improve the program. The same holds for problems that turn out to be more difficult than originally expected: it’s painful, but something is learned. What never works well is subjective, negative feedback (such as bad performance reviews, or aggressive micromanagement that shows a lack of trust). That pisses people off.
I think it should go without saying that this style of “feedback” can’t be explicitly provided on an hourly basis, because it’s unreasonable to expect managers to do that much work (or an employee do put up with such a high frequency of managerial interruption). So, the feedback has to come organically from the work itself. This means there need to be genuine challenges and achievements involved. So most of this feedback is “passive”, by which I mean there is nothing the company or manager does to inject the feedback into the process. The engineer’s experience completing the work provides the feedback itself.
One source of frustration and negative feedback that I consider subjective (and therefore place in that “negative, subjective feedback that pisses people off” category) is the jarring experience of working with badly-designed software. Good software is easy to use and makes the user feel more intelligent. Bad software is hard to use, often impossible to read at the source level, and makes the user or reader feel absolutely stupid. When you have this experience, it’s hard to tell if you are rejecting the ugly code (because it is distasteful) or if it is rejecting you (because you’re not smart enough to understand it). Well, I would say that it doesn’t matter. If the code “rejects” competent developers, it’s shitty code. Fix it.
The “feedback rate” is at the heart of many language debates. High-productivity languages like Python, Scala, and Clojure, allow programmers to implement significant functionality in mere hours. On my best projects, I’ve written 500 lines of good code in a day (by the corporate standard, that’s about two months of an engineer’s time). That provides a lot of feedback very quickly and establishes a virtuous cycle: feedback leads to engagement, which leads to flow, which leads to productivity, which leads to more feedback. With lower-level languages like C and Java– which are sometimes the absolute right tools to use for one’s problem, especially when tight control of performance is needed– macroscopic progress is usually a lot slower. This isn’t an issue, if the performance metric the programmer cares about lives at a lower level (e.g. speed of execution, limited memory use) and the tools available to her are giving good indications of her success. Then there is enough feedback. There’s nothing innate that makes Clojure more “flow-ful” than C; it’s just more rewarding to use Clojure if one is focused on macroscopic development, while C is more rewarding (in fact, probably the only language that’s appropriate) when one is focused on a certain class of performance concerns that require attention to low-level details. The problem is that when people use inappropriate tools (e.g. C++ for complex, but not latency-sensitive, web applications) they are unable to get useful feedback, in a timely manner, about the performance of their solutions.
Feedback is at the heart of the “gameification” obsession that has grown up of late, but in my opinion, it should be absolutely unnecessary. “Gameifcation” feels, to me, like an after-the-fact patch if not an apology, when fundamental changes are necessary. The problem, in the workplace, is that these “game” mechanisms often evolve into high-stakes performance measurements. Then there is too much anxiety for the “gameified” workplace to be fun.
In Java culture, the feedback issue is a severe problem, because development is often slow and the tools and culture tend to sterilize the development process by eliminating that “cosmic horror” (which elite programmers prefer) known as the command line. While IDEs do a great job of reducing flow-breakage that occurs for those unfortunate enough to be maintaining others’ code, they also create a world in which the engineers are alienated from computation and problem-solving. They don’t compile, build, or run code; they tweak pieces of giant systems that run far away in production and are supported by whoever drew the short straw and became “the 3:00 am guy”.
IDEs have some major benefits but some severe drawbacks. They’re good to the extent that they allow people to read code without breaking flow; they’re bad to the extent that they tend to require use patterns that break flow. The best solution, in my opinion, to the IDE problem is to have a read-only IDE served on the web. Engineers write code using a real editor, work at the command line so they are actually using a computer instead of an app, and do almost all of their work in a keyboard-driven environment. However, when they need to navigate others’ code in volume, the surfing (and possibly debugging) capabilities offered by IDEs should be available to them.
3. O(days): Progress
Flow and feedback are nice, but in the long term, programmers need to feel like they’re accomplishing something, or they’ll get bored. The feedback should show continual improvement and mastery. The day scale is the level at which programmers want to see genuine improvements. The same task shouldn’t be repeated more than a couple times: if it’s dull, automate it away. If the work environment is so constrained and slow that a programmer can’t log, on average, one meaningful accomplishment (feature added, bug fixed) per day, something is seriously wrong. (Of course, most corporate programmers would be thrilled to fix one bug per week.)
The day-by-day level and the need for a sense of progress is where managers and engineers start to understand each other. They both want to see progress on a daily basis. So there’s a meeting point there. Unfortunately, managers have a tendency to pursue this in a counterproductive way, often inadvertently creating a Heisenberg problem (observation corrupts the observed) in their insistence on visibility into progress. I think that the increasing prevalence of Jira, for example, is dangerous, because increasing managerial oversight at a fine-grained level creates anxiety and makes flow impossible. I also think that most “agile” practices do more harm than good, and that much of the “scrum” movement is flat-out stupid. I don’t think it’s good for managers to expect detailed progress reports (a daily standup focused on blockers is probably ok) on a daily basis– that’s too much overhead and flow breakage– but this is the cycle at which engineers tend to audit themselves, and they won’t be happy in an environment where they end the day not feeling that they worked a day.
4. O(weeks): Support.
Progress is good, but as programmers, we tend toward a trait that the rest of the world sees only in the moody and blue: “depressive realism”. It’s as strong a tendency in the mentally healthy among us as the larger-than-baseline percentage who have mental health issues. For us, it’s not depressive. Managers are told every day how awesome they are by their subordinates, regardless of the fact that more than half of the managers in the world are useless. We, on the other hand, have subordinates (computers) that frequently tell us that we fucked up by giving them nonsensical instructions. “Fix this shit because I can’t compile it.” We tend to have an uncanny (by business standards) sense of our own limitations. We also know (on the topic of progress) that we’ll have good days and bad days. We’ll have weeks where we don’t accomplish anything measurable because (a) we were “blocked”, needing someone else to complete work before we could continue, (b) we had to deal with horrendous legacy code or maintenance work– massive productivity destroyers– or (c) the problem we’re trying to solve is extremely hard, or even impossible, but it took us a long time to fairly evaluate the problem and reach that conclusion.
Programmers want an environment that removes work-stopping issues, or “blockers”, and that gives them the benefit of the doubt. Engineers want the counterproductive among them to be mentored or terminated– the really bad ones just have to be let go– but they won’t show any loyalty to a manager if they perceive that he’d give them grief over a slow month. This is why so-called “performance improvement plans” (PIPs)– a bad idea in any case– are disastrous failures with engineers. Even the language is offensive, because it suggests with certainty that an observed productivity problem (and most corporate engineers have productivity problems because most corporate software environments are utterly broken and hostile to productivity) is a performance problem, and not something else. An engineer will not give one mote of loyalty to a manager that doesn’t give her the benefit of the doubt.
I choose “weeks” as the timeframe order of magnitude for this need because that’s the approximate frequency with which an engineer can be expected to encounter blockers, and removal of these is one thing that engineers often need from their managers: resolution of work-stopping issues that may require additional resources or (in rare cases) managerial intervention. However, that frequency can vary dramatically.
5. O(months): Career Development.
This is one that gets a bit sensitive, and it becomes crucial on the order of months, which is much sooner than most employers would like to see their subordinates insisting on career advancement, but, as programmers, we know we’re worth an order of magnitude more than we’re paid, and we expect to be compensated by our employers investing in our long-term career interests. This is probably the most important of the 6 items listed here.
Programmers face a job market that’s unusually meritocratic when changing jobs. Within companies, the promotion process is just as political and bizarre as it is for any other profession, but when looking for a new job, programmers are evaluated not on their past job titles and corporate associations, but on what they actually know. This is quite a good thing overall, because it means we can get promotions and raises (often having to change corporate allegiance in order to do so, but that’s a minor cost) just by learning things, but it also makes for an environment that doesn’t allow for intellectual stagnation. Yet most of the work that software engineers have to do is not very educational and, if done for too long, that sort of work leads in the wrong direction.
When programmers say about their jobs, “I’m not learning”, what they often mean is, “The work I am getting hurts my career.” Most employees in most jobs are trained to start asking for career advancement at 18 months, and to speak softly over the first 36. Most people can afford one to three years of dues paying. Programmers can’t. Programmers, if they see a project that can help their career and that is useful to the firm, expect the right to work on it right away. That rubs a lot of managers the wrong way, but it shouldn’t, because it’s a natural reaction to a career environment that requires actual skill and knowledge. In most companies, there really isn’t a required competence for leadership positions, so seniority is the deciding factor. Engineering couldn’t be more different, and the lifetime cost of two years’ dues-paying can be several hundred thousand dollars.
In software, good projects tend to beget good projects, and bad projects beget more crap work. People are quickly typecast to a level of competence based on what they’ve done, and they have a hard time upgrading, even if their level of ability is above what they’ve been assigned. People who do well on grunt work get more of it, people who do poorly get flushed out, and those who manage their performance precisely to the median can get ahead, but only if managers don’t figure out what they’re doing. As engineers, we understand the career dynamic very well, and quickly become resentful of management that isn’t taking this to heart. We’ll do an unpleasant project now and then– we understand that grungy jobs need to be done sometimes– but we expect to be compensated (promotion, visible recognition, better projects) for doing it. Most managers think they can get an undesirable project done just by threatening to fire someone if the work isn’t done, and that results in adverse selection. Good engineers leave, while bad engineers stay, suffer, and do it– but poorly.
Career-wise, the audit frequency for the best engineers is about 2 months. In most careers, people progress by putting in time, being seen, and gradually winning others’ trust, and actual skill growth is tertiary. That’s not true for us, or at least, not in the same way. We can’t afford to spend years paying dues while not learning anything. That will put us one or two full technology stacks behind the curve with respect to the outside world.
There’s a tension employees face between internal (within a company) and external (within their industry) career optimization. Paying dues is an internal optimization– it makes the people near you like you more, and therefore more likely to offer favors in the future– but confers almost no external-oriented benefit. It was worthwhile in the era of the paternalistic corporation, lifelong employment, and a huge stigma attached to changing jobs (much less getting fired) more than two or three times in one career. It makes much less sense now, so most people focus on the external game. Engineers who focus on the external objective are said to be “optimizing for learning” (or, sometimes, “stealing an education” from the boss). There are several superiorities to a focus on the external career game. First, external career advancement is not zero-sum–while jockeying internally for scarce leadership positions is– and what we do is innately cooperative. It works better with the type of people we are. Second, our average job tenure is about 2 to 3 years. Third, people who suffer and pay dues are usually passed over anyway in favor of more skilled candidates from outside. Our industry has figured out that it needs skilled people more than it needs reliable dues-payers (and it’s probably right). So this explains, in my view, why software engineers are so aggressive and insistent when it comes to the tendency to optimize for learning.
There is a solution for this, and although it seems radical, I’m convinced that it’s the only thing that actually works: open allocation. If programmers are allowed to choose the projects best suited to their skills and aspirations, the deep conflict of interest that otherwise exists among their work, their careers, and their educational aspirations will disappear.
6. O(years): Macroscopic goals. On the timescale of years, macroscopic goals become important. Money and networking opportunities are major concerns here. So are artistic and business visions. Some engineers want to create the world’s best video game, solve hard mathematical problems, or improve the technological ecosystem. Others want to retire early or build a network that will set them up for life.
Many startups focus on “change the world” macroscopic pitches about how their product will connect people, “disrupt” a hated industry or democratize a utility, or achieve some world-changing ambition. This makes great marketing copy for recruiters, but it doesn’t motivate people on the day-to-day basis. On the year-by-year basis, none of that marketing matters, because people will actually know the character of the organization after that much time. That said, the actual macroscopic character, and the meaning of the work, of a business matters a great deal. Over years and decades, it determines whether people will stick around once they develop the credibility, connections, and resources that would give them the ability to move on to something else more lucrative, more interesting, or of higher status.
How to win
It’s conventional wisdom in software that hiring the best engineers is an arbitrage, because they’re 10 times as effective but only twice as costly. This is only true if they’re motivated, and also if they’re put to work that unlocks their talent. If you assign a great engineer to mediocre work, you’re going to lose money. Software companies put an enormous amount of effort into “collecting” talent, but do a shoddy job of using or keeping it. Often, this is justified in the context of a “tough culture”; turnover is reflective of failing employees, not a bad culture. In the long term, this is ruinous. The payoff in retaining top talent is often exponential as a function of the time and effort put into attracting, retaining, and improving it.
Now that I’ve discussed what engineers need from their work environments in order to remain motivated, the next question is what a company should do. There isn’t a one-size-fits-all managerial solution to this. In most cases, the general best move is to reduce managerial control and to empower engineers: to set up an open-allocation work environment in which technical choices and project direction are set by engineers, and to direct from leadership rather than mere authority. This may seem “radical” in contrast to the typical corporate environment, but it’s the only thing that works.