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What motivates developers?

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What motivates developers?

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Matt Ballantine is an experienced business technology leader with extensive media and creative industry knowledge. Since April this year he’s been applying that market experience to help Microsoft engage with developers and IT professionals across the UK. Matt feigns an interest in sport by being a Watford fan, and in the arts through tinkering with music (mostly using the Reason software these days).

 I found myself in a meeting the other day listening to a colleague talk at length about how fundamentally software developers were driven by the need to make money. As I get further into my career, I’ve learned how to both sit on my hands and bite my tongue – not a comfortable experience, but one that prevents me launching into a stream of vitriol. That’s what my blog is for!

Whilst at a very basic level we are all driven by basic physiological needs (food, particularly) and safety needs (a home, warm clothing) as was described in Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs, things that actually motivate us come at a higher level – a need for belonging at a social level, a need for self esteem, and the nirvana of a state “self actualization” (where we believe we are doing the best that we could). Money buys the lower levels, and provides proxies through flash cars or designer labels (or whatever floats your boat) at the higher levels. It, in itself, doesn’t motivate people. (For a deeper discussion of this topic, see the wonderful Dan Pink RSAnimate on The surprising truth of what motivates us).

So, all well and good – but if not money, what might motivate someone to develop software? A means to an end might explain traditional software development roles, sitting in an IT team or a software company producing widgets, but what about the new world of App developers?

In my short spell as a management development consultant, the company I worked for used a model to describe motivations based on the idea of different dimensions in which different people get self esteem. It gives an interesting insight to what might help propel people to developing software which will never make them money.

The first dimension is the aethesthetic; the desire for things to look beautiful. Whilst looking right might not at first appear to be something that has particularly driven software developers in the past, the increasingly merged worlds of graphic design and code today are often places of beauty (and, it could be argued, aesthetic principals are the reason why Apple are the company they are today). Even in the traditional IT world, however, beautiful code is something than motivates many programmers.

The second dimension is the desire to show expertise. There is a competitive spirt amongst some coders to show their expertise; the demoscene that sprung up in the 80s was testament to that, with coders producing abstract works of often great beauty, often within very constrained limits of memory, just to show how good they were.

The third dimension is the desire to do good; altruism sits at the heart of much of the Open Source movement, and there are other interesting examples, from Sukey to DecisionsForHeroes.com of programming ventures that are driven by a want to make society a better place in some way.

The final two dimensions of the model I feel are in some ways less prevalent in the world of coding. The fourth is the desire to stand out from the crowd. There are probably relatively few extrovert leaders in the world of coding, and although they do exist, it seems that many of the more bullish characters in the IT world come from a sales background.

The final dimension, one of wanting to control things, is very evident in people who code, but not necessarily in professional, full time coders. Many an over-complicated Excel macro has come from a need to exert control over process within a team…

It strikes me that to encourage people to adopt a new development technology (or increasingly, an “ecosystem”), it’s about appealling to particularly the first three of these esteem needs. How will a new platform enable you to create beautiful content? How can a new technology build on your existing skills and expertise? And how can a marketplace enable you to get reach to an audience? This is the stuff of aspiration and motivation; if coders want just money, they can always go and work for a bank…

  • "if coders want just money, they can always go and work for a bank…" --> what a junk comment. I have worked for a variety of financial services organisations and while the money has been nice, it has been the challenges that have motivated me. In the banking environement, there no room for code that runs slowly, throws out random bugs or is too complex to maintain. Stuff has to work correctly, 100% of the time or there is big trouble. I have had the priviledge of working with a wide variety of people, software, tools and organisations and while I have encountered the odd bench-warmer, for the most part, the people I have worked with have been clever, hardworking and interesting.

  • @bob I completely agree with your point about banking. I always find the intricacies, complication and compliance restrictions make for really complicated problems. Elegantly solving problems is one of my biggest motivators.

  • @Bob Yes - fair commment about a throwaway statement... Although in my mind I guess I meant go and work for a bank in a trading job, rather than doing coding if it's making money that you are after. And the challenges that you talk about in the work involved in programming in the financial services world I think probably support the general thrust of my article.

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