What Motivates a Geek to Take a Job

May 23, 2012

Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg marries his long-time girlfriend and the Washington Post writes, “Another reason, ladies, to give those college geeks a shot.”

Yes, geeks are hot. Particularly in the job market.

John Bischke, an advisor to several tech startups reports, “At a party recently a startup founder told me ‘If you could find me five great engineers in the next 90 days I’d pay you $400,000.’ Which is crazy talk. Unless you stop to consider that Instagram’s team (mostly engineers) was valued at almost $80 million per employee or that corporate development heads often value engineers at startups they are acquiring at a half-million to million dollars per person.” 

In fact, Bischke, in TechCrunch, goes on to report that coding is as hot as it’s ever been. IT recruiters tell us that “purple squirrels” (techies with very specific, very hard-to-find skills in technologies that are in very short supply) are still the bane of their existence.  Software developers in the newest technologies such as Python, Ruby, or Scala and even “older” .Net are still as scarce as the other species of purple squirrel.

Let’s take a look at the job market for these folks, and then get to what you can do about it.

So You Think You Can Code

Good news for technical talent: The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that technical and math occupations are expected to add over 785,000 new jobs from 2008-2018. Bad news for technical recruiters: In 2009, the U.S. graduated fewer than 38,000 students with bachelor’s degrees in computer and information science but more than 89,000 students in the visual and performing arts, according to the Marginal Revolution Blog. Bischke’s tongue-in-cheek commentary:  “We are raising a generation of American Idols and So You Think You Can Dancers when what we really need is a generation of Gateses and Zuckerbergs.”

Even if IT recruiters can find purple squirrels amongst the 38,000 potentially available candidates, how will companies keep them from being recruited away by the next great startup? The answer relies on focusing upon what keeps this rare talent nurtured and engaged so that they not only get excited by the technology but so that they can also can deal with spending eight hours a day, and often more, sitting alone in a cubicle struggling with challenging algorithms and complex systems, to say nothing of business users and customer demands.

What They Want

Serial web entrepreneur, Rob Walling, in his article Nine Things Developers Want More Than Money, gives us a great start based upon 12+ years of experience in the field and feedback from hundreds on his questionnaire intended to measure, anecdotally, software development motivational factors.

After covering organizational psychologist, Frederick Herzberg’s Two Factor Theory on job satisfaction outlining both hygiene factors such as working conditions, quality of supervision, salary, safety, and company policies as well as motivation factors such as achievement, recognition, responsibility, the work itself, personal growth, and advancement, Walling developed a questionnaire that outlined the following nine motivators:

1.  Being set up to succeed

2.  Having excellent management

3.  Learning new things

4.  Exercising creativity and solving the right kind of problems

5.  Having a voice

6.  Being recognized for hard work

7.  Building something that matters

8.  Building software without an act of Congress

9.  Having few legacy constraints

Health and Family

While some of these motivators sound specific to software development, the underlying drivers are similar for any industry: realistic deadlines, encouragement of independent thinking, learning new skills or the ability to challenge old ones, challenging work, someone to listen to one’s problems (who can do something about them), recognition for hard work, concern for one’s career development, doing something to make the world a better place, authority to make project decisions without calling a meeting, and the freedom to start anew when the past (in developer’s jargon “legacy, crappy code”) is a hindrance.

The response to Walling’s informal questionnaire was overwhelmingly positive and supportive of the relevance of these motivators to software developers worldwide. As a result of asking readers to think about what motivates them in their current and even past jobs, he is helping people focus upon one of the most significant elements of career exploration — what motivates developers to join an organization or to stay with it when other factors might seem to be beckoning them elsewhere.

Two comments from Rob’s audience are particularly relevant to the 21st Century workplace and retaining hard-to-recruit talent. One response to the questionnaire was: “All a physicist needs is a pad and pencil, a parking place for his/her bike, and decent health insurance. Same with programmers.” Another wrote:  “It doesn’t matter how exciting the technology is if I don’t get to see my son.”

Organizations looking to hire and retain Geeks, Purple Squirrels (or for that matter, any talented candidate) will continue to showcase great salaries and the latest technology, but they will need to be cognizant that many potential next-gen Gateses or Zuckerbergs also crave the often elusive motivator of quality time with those who matter.


photo from Bigstock

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