At Patriot Software, we really care about what motivates our people in their day-to-day work. That’s not just a fluffy company line, it’s a real world business strategy. We know that disengaged employees are less productive and harder to retain than engaged ones. That’s why software developer motivation is something that we actively nurture. When your business is built on software development, which thrives on its speed-to-market efficiency, you can’t afford to operate at anything less than 100%.
But keeping software developers motivated and engaged isn’t rocket science. It’s actually fairly straightforward. In fact, in my years of management, I’ve found that motivating developers can be distilled down to three keywords.
At first this sounds like the ability to go off and do your own work, and that’s not too far from the truth. While we don’t send our developers off into the wilderness with a task, à la software spirit quest, we do empower them here to take possession of a project and then freely find a solution to it.
Sometimes talking about the more restrictive end of the extreme helps put the concept of autonomy in software development into perspective. If you’re a person who does a very simple, controlled, and micromanaged task, day in and day out, how quickly would you get bored? Would you feel motivated to do the job after a couple weeks? A month? A year? That kind of job would wear down software developer motivation in record time. Finding good developers is hard enough; the last thing you want to do is de-motivate them.
Sometimes, especially when working with fresh, junior developers, you need to have rigid specs for them to develop on. But as developers become more senior, they need more autonomy. Many developers and software engineers want a complex, creative problem to solve, and they want to take possession of it and solve it their own way. When developers and software engineers have the freedom to do that, it means autonomy in software development. The net result is they are engaged and motivated to deliver. Grant this autonomy regularly, and you hold the key to unleashing the potential of your software development team.
Another key benefit to incorporating autonomy into the business management structure is that, in order to grant autonomy to an engineer, that engineer must understand the business need that spawned the project in the first place. That means that conversations about business goals are happening between the developer and the business side of the operation, instead of being an afterthought. Plus, when the project gets delivered, the developer feels a sense of satisfaction and ownership of the end product, which helps with the next key to motivating software developers—purpose.
If you feel like your software makes a difference, that’s a huge motivator. It makes you want to come into work because you know that the product you are building will affect change in the end user’s life. The effect is even better when you’re able to see the implementation of that software and understand how the business used it.
Purpose isn’t just a software industry value; the same can be said of all professions. People feel more motivated when they know that what they’re doing matters, makes a difference, and gives them a sense of purpose. If you feel like what you’re doing adds no value or is unnoticed, is there any incentive to do it beyond the paycheck? Even if that paycheck is good, people need more than money—they need purpose and purpose comes from knowing you’re making a difference with your labor.
Here at Patriot Software we make online payroll and accounting software. That software is going to get used by millions of people at some point, and they’re going to use it to make their lives better, and run their businesses more efficiently. It’s a product that will, in the end, provide a better quality of life for many people. For me, that’s motivating. Not every software developer gets to work on products like this. That’s motivating; that’s purpose.
This key motivator connects to the other two in a very clear way. We know that, if we give our developers an opportunity to gain mastery over a technology, they become more effective at their jobs and more engaged with their work. Thus, we allow developers at Patriot Software to take time out of their work schedules to improve themselves, because we know that improves us.
If a developer gets on a project and doesn’t know what they’re doing, they’ll have to go and learn the skills to do it. This sets us all back. If we give our developers opportunities to learn and have mastery before that moment happens, it brings value to the whole company.
Our feeling is if you are a master of what you do, or you are given an opportunity to gain mastery over a certain subject, you will gain confidence. When you are confident and know your subject, you are able to teach others about it. When you can teach others and help them via your mastery, you are affecting change on your co-workers—making them better, adding to their skill set, proving your ability to act autonomously, and realizing a purpose.
If you aren’t confident in the subject that a development project requires you to work in, you’ll have to take that time on the front end to get up to speed and learn the subject. And you’re going to have to do that for every new project. At Patriot, we know this, so we take a proactive stance. We know that you can never really learn everything on a software subject and then put a lid on it. Things are always evolving in this space. Knowing this, we set up learning opportunities for people to gain mastery in subjects, and learn about new and evolving software developments before we run into a project that might need them. The end result of this continuous learning process is increased employee engagement across the board.
Result: Outstanding Software Developer Motivation
If you want to get the most out of your people, you need to make sure you’re motivating them, empowering them, and giving them chances to be fulfilled. We do that here at Patriot Software, starting at the top. We’ve built a culture where free thinkers are empowered to solve complex problems. It wasn’t that hard to create. We simply hired quality people, gave them the chance to work autonomously, related their work to a larger purpose, and empowered them with chances to become masters in their fields. Consequently, our average employee retention rate is more than seven years, and the quality of our full service payroll software is best in class.