In Search of the Motivated

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I’m doing a lot of hiring right now. So much that I’ve had to form a hiring scrum and treat it like an engineering project. The scrum is doing a great job. We now have a systematic way to write job descriptions, assign interviewers, evaluate resumes, perform phone screens, and conduct interviews. All this to find the needle in the haystack: The motivated individual.

There are other requirements: The ability to code with grace and manage with charm is appreciated. Good manners and excellent communication skills a plus. Experience with open source, P2P networks, and super-scalable n-tiered web stacks don’t hurt your chances.

But all that means nothing without the man on a mission to drive it (or woman on a mission. I hear there are female programmers out there. There should be a lot more. Something is wrong with the world when less than 25% of programmers are women. We need to fix that).

Why is motivation so important? Let’s turn to the Agile Manifesto to find out. Principle 5 states:

Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need, and trust them to get the job done.

This principle is in the form of a imperative. No reasons are given and a lot is asked of management. Shouldn’t the framers of the manifesto give us a few hints as to why we chickens should obey this command? It’s almost as if they expect us to know the basis for this principle a priori. Anyone with even a few months of experience in software development knows why the motivated individual is so important that you give him (or her) the keys to the executive bathroom, a company car, and the employee-of-the-month parking spot:

  • Unmotivated people, no matter how good they are at coding, managing, manners, communication, open source, p2p, or n-tier architectures get nothing of consequence done.
  • Motivated people, work wonders no matter how poorly they code, manage, or communicate! And if you find highly motivated l33t hax0rs then the world is your osyter iPad.

I don’t know of any organizations that don’t strive to hire the motivated. They put up all sorts of road blocks to filter out the underachievers. 12 hour interviews, brain teasers, reference checks all designed to make sure you really want the job. One startup I worked at would call applicants late on a Friday and ask them to prepare a presentation over the weekend and present it early the Monday morning as part of the interview process for salespeople. This was a brilliant filter. Only those  hunter/farmers who really wanted to work for the company would put up with this kind of hazing.

But here’s the rub: That same startup did not follow the rest of the Agile plan: They did not give the newly hired highly motivated salespeople the environment and support they needed nor did they trust them to get the job done. Nothing is more frustrating to the motivated than to be treated like slackers and held on a short leash. There was high turnover and poor sales. Management had to result to clever motivational hacks: Contests, awards, and threats to keep sales on track.

But every good manager knows the motivated out performs the unmotivated 10 to 1. The motivated need only a license to kill. For the motivated the journey is the reward.

6 replies on “In Search of the Motivated”

  1. Good point 🙂 But how to find those guys? those mystical motivated people?.. even more important how to keep them motivated?..

  2. When the Agile Manifesto says, “Build projects around motivated individuals. Give them the environment and support they need,” it misses the fact that the environment is itself one of the greatest factors affecting motivation. If people are working extra hard “for the good of the company” without seeing any benefit for themselves, motivation is bound to suffer.

    Motivation is key (and underrated), but the problem with motivated, unskilled people is that they get plenty done, but not the right thing or not in the right way, and everything falls apart later on.

  3. Thanks for your comments Alex and Patrick. Unfortunately the Agile Manifesto does not tell us where to find the motivated. That’s why when you find one you should hang onto him or her! I think the best way to keep the motivated motivated is what Patrick says in his comment: provide a great environment. Clearly the Agile Manifesto doesn’t say enough about the conditions required for great software development. Patrick is 100% correct that if the team feels unappreciated, underpaid, or simply confused about the value of the mission then motivation jumps out the window. (Along with some of the better team members!) My job, as a big chicken, is to work with the other execs to in providing a healthy environment for the team. If it’s not healthy I blame myself!

  4. Patrick brings up another good point: If the motivated don’t have the skills to pull it off their working software ceases to work down the road. Very true. But that is why they invented refactoring! This is a big topic worthy of a blog post. Even the most skilled among us don’t know everything. We used to say at DoubleClick: If you want accurate specs write them after you deliver the software.

  5. How to find the “motivated”? And will they stay motivated after you hired them?
    The team culture is very important and works well when it embraces an individual and let him/her flourish. When individuals see their goals as a part of the team goal — motivation is always there.
    Let me share my own contribution to the scrum’s pigs and chickens characters: a “happy cow”. Remember the California cheese commercial? “Great cheese comes from happy cows”, make your pigs happy and they will make you a very happy chicken :^)

  6. Absolutely correct Vlad! Great software comes from happy engineers. There is a misguided management principle that says you have to keep people under pressure (unhappy) to get good productivity. This may be true for assembly line workers (actually it’s not) but engineers are like artists. They need tools, space, and inspiration to do their best work. Team culture is all about creating a great environment where people can do their best work. Thanks for your comment!

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