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13 ways to motivate software engineers

Yvette Francino Agile Consultant

Today's software engineers and development teams want more than a good salary and benefits. Yes, the standard perks will help to attract employees, but as Daniel Pink explains in his book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, to retain employees for the long haul, you'll want a work culture that offers intrinsic motivators as well as extrinsic motivators. Here are 13 ways to motivate your software engineers and developers.

1. Listen

Every individual is different.

What motivates a business analyst will be totally different from what motivates a software engineer. There will even be differences between what motivates one software engineer vs. another. One may want to dig deeper into a specific technology, while another may want to grow into more of a generalist. Engineers are sometimes introverts, wanting to stay focused on coding rather than engaging in meetings. It may even be difficult for managers to get engineers to open up about their interests in the beginning. However, regular, one-on-one conversations will offer that opportunity. During these conversations, managers need to listen more than they speak. Find out what makes your software engineer tick.

2. Use new technology

Technology is always changing, and techies often pride themselves on keeping up with the times. If they're stuck for months maintaining old, broken code written long ago on older technologies, they'll become frustrated. It might be time to revamp that software and modernize.

3. Training

Once you agree that it's time to ditch the old and get with the times, make sure the staff has ample opportunity to be trained properly so they can perform at their full potential. Check out what type of training is available and make sure you offer up what best suits the needs of your software engineers so they feel prepared before diving into that exciting, new technology.

4. Recognition

Employees love recognition. Whether they're doing that task that no one else wants to do or have taken the initiative to do something new, they don't want their hard work to go unnoticed. Software engineers are often introverts and prefer private rather than public recognition and might especially appreciate peer recognition for an outstanding piece of creative code. Establishing a culture in which people regularly thank each other and express gratitude to their coworkers and staff can make for a happy workforce. Workhuman is one company that helps organizations recognize the power of recognition and how to do it well.

5. Opportunities for growth

Managers need to work with employees to understand what they want for their future. Many engineers would prefer to stay technical rather than go down a management path, but they want to be sure they can continue to grow in the organization. Providing opportunities for them to excel and become technical leaders within the organization will go a long way toward motivating your software engineers to continue producing quality work and maintaining their loyalty to the business.

6. Opportunities to innovate

Hackathons and similar efforts that give employees free rein to work on code outside of their normal work activities have led to innovations benefiting both employee and employer. Having events that encourage software engineers to have fun and experiment is a great way to offer up more autonomy and capitalize on the creativity and ingenuity of your staff members.

7. Flexible work hours

The stereotypical software engineer is burning the midnight oil, energized by solving the problem they're working on. However, if they're going to be scolded for coming into the office late, they're more likely to spend those evening hours on pet projects that have nothing to do with work. Though an organization has to enforce policies regarding when employees should be in the office, the more flexible they can be, the more likely they'll be to have loyal employees. An employee who is trusted to get their work done is more likely to work on their own time than one who is mandated to be in the office at times that are difficult for them.

8. An infrastructure that allows employees to work from anywhere

Similar to allowing flexibility in office hours, a work culture that enables a work-from-anywhere approach will demonstrate that an employee's value is not based on whether or not they're physically in the office but on the quality of their work. One of the benefits of software development in today's world is that technology enables us to do this from anywhere. Most coders love what they do and if they can do it from anywhere, they're likely to be working outside of office hours—not because they have to, but because they want to.

9. Empower

Flexibility shouldn't be limited to start times or work locations. Software engineers should be empowered to make decisions about their work. There are certainly guidelines and policies that must be respected, but in general, it's better to have the technical staff decide and agree on things such as coding standards, processes, tools, and design decisions. Business leaders should define the end objectives and goals and empower the technical staff to figure out how to best implement, possibly using self-managed dev teams.

10. Simplify and streamline

Software engineers like to get work done, but often the plethora of tools required to get the work done are slow, cumbersome, or don't integrate nicely. Likewise, bureaucratic processes that don't add much value can end up slowing employees down. The Agile Manifesto promotes simplification and "individuals and interactions over processes and tools." Whether or not your organization uses an agile methodology or a more traditional approach, look for ways to streamline your processes and simplify your tools so your workforce is focusing on work that matters most.

11. Surround them with talent

Software engineers thrive in environments where they're surrounded by technical talent. If they're stuck on a team in which they're having to pick up the slack or clean up mistakes from their less-talented colleagues, and no one is doing anything about it, they'll start looking for a better situation. Teamwork is important and engineers need to work well together. If there's a disrupter in the group, the organization has to be proactive about handling the situation.

12. Play

Software engineers are often big gamers and will spend hours on a challenging game in order to get to the next level. Gamification is big business and any time you can make work fun, you'll have more energized and engaged employees. One company that has gamified workplace happiness is OfficeVibe. With their application, employees gain points for doing activities aimed at improving the culture. Check out their application and blog for specific ideas about how to improve your work culture.

13. Respect

The final and most important motivator that every individual needs is respect. Software engineers are typically proud of their intelligence and technical aptitude. Their opinions and insights are important to the organization. Rather than playing a typical "team building game," software engineers would more likely bond through solving a tough coding problem together. But most importantly, respect their individualism and unique talents. None of the steps outlined above should be undertaken to manipulate employees into doing work they don't want to do. A culture of respect means understanding how to best motivate each unique employee by genuinely caring about their happiness and their interest in success.

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