Programmer Nesting Rituals

Feb 2, 2012

I just read that the average Silicon Valley tech salary is over $100,000. I’ve seen starting salaries for CS graduates come pretty close to the magical $100,000 mark. Google recently had to give a 10% raise to all its employees just to stay competitive.

Yep, programmers are getting expensive. But my experience has been that most great programmers don’t really have salary as their No. 1 consideration when deciding where to work. They only worry about salary when the job is so awful that it has to pay well or they couldn’t imagine sticking around.

Here are 10 things that many programmers think about first, long before salary even comes into play:

  1. How much do they believe in the company and identify with its goals? Are they excited about what the company makes? Do they love its products?
  2. How do they feel about the team they work with? Are their coworkers the same people they would want to hang out with after work?
  3. How cool is the technology that they’re using? Will they have a chance to learn powerful new programming languages and systems, or will they be using pedestrian, safe, corporate technologies?
  4. How much of the work they’re doing is new code, and how much of it is bug-fixing and maintenance?
  5. What is the work environment like? Are there plush private offices, nice espresso machines, and free gourmet lunches? Or does it look and feel exactly like a sitcom parody of a miserable office?
  6. How smart is the team? Will they have a chance to learn and grow from their co-workers, or are they going to be carrying the load for a lot of deadweight?
  7. How smart is the organization? Will the bureaucracy fight them every step of the way, or does it exist to enable brilliant work?
  8. Where is the work? Is the commute convenient? Can their spouse find fulfilling work (probably in another field) nearby? Are the schools good?
  9. How much control do they have over their work? Are they required to conform to obscure rules and capricious diktats or do they have the freedom to do great things?
  10. What kind of computer hardware do they work? Are their systems upgraded every year with the latest and the greatest? Can they have three 30” monitors if they want?

You may think that some of these things are completely out of your control … and they may be. Sometimes people run job listings on Stack Overflow and get very few resumes. Then they ask me, “why didn’t we get any applicants for our job listing?” And I look at it and think, “baby Moses in a basket, why would anyone want to work there?”

I know, it’s hard to say, but it’s true: some jobs are just not that attractive, and it’s not a problem of “finding programmers,” it’s a problem of “making this a place where people want to work.”

The first thing to learn is that company founders and CEOs don’t care about the same things as programmers. Usually, if you’re doing what your founder/CEO thought would be nice, you’re not really optimizing for programmers. Founder/CEOs, for example, like to save money, and they like to know what’s going on, so they think having a big room where everyone can overhear everything is a terrific work environment. Programmers need to concentrate, so they would work in a brown cardboard box if it was quiet and free from interruptions.

If you’re scoring kind of low on the “desirable workplace” scale, all is not lost. There’s a lot you can do to fix these issues, even if you are a company that makes atom bombs run by a megalomaniac micromanager with an office on a platform in the Arctic Ocean.

Come to the ERE Expo in San Diego in March, and I’ll go into this in a lot more depth in my keynote. I’ll tell you what I know about how programmers work, what they like, what they care about, and I promise you’ll leave with a lot of ideas of how to make your workplace way more attractive and interesting to the average programmer.

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