What Motivates a Geek to Take a Job

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

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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

Elizabeth (Betty) Black has worked in education and workforce development for over 25 years, most recently with Joanne Dustin, in partnership as Synergy Consulting Collaborative LLC. Their latest work is Career Collaborators® Building Career Communities -- a unique, self-directed career development program for both for-profit and non-profit organizations. For more information, see careercollaborators.com.


13 Comments on “What Motivates a Geek to Take a Job

  1. Ah, Freddy Herzberg comes back to life…again. Actually Betty, this was one of the better treatises on the psyche of techies at work that I’ve ever read. BTW, have you read “The Rise of Developeronomics” (http://www.forbes.com/sites/venkateshrao/2011/12/05/the-rise-of-developeronomics/)? Good one…

    But one thing caught my eye…”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.”

    Actually, they’re not; I’ve never had a problem finding them (hint – they don’t call themselves Scala Developers; there is a subterranean network of people who are immersed in new technologies, etc. AND they’re getting off LinkedIn and most other places where recruiters of dubious skill ply their craft). Engagement is relatively easy with honesty and actual knowledge of the opportunity in question. The challenge is on the “buy” side – the potential new company. If there’s a way for a company to ruin its “tech brand”, the company will find a way to do it 9 out of 10 times.

    #2 on your list needs to be expanded; the best of the best want to know that technology ranks as high in the eyes of executives as does the health and wellness of the balance sheet. When tech leadership is viewed as weak or diminished in its ability to make strategic decisions, this is when the better folks are recruiting fodder.

    #5 is also interesting; the advent of agile/scrum environments has given developers more of a voice. Agile/Scrum isn’t for everyone because it obviates to an extent the command and control nature of some “leaders”. So go Agile and Scrum and weather the growing pains – you might also see the quality of your apps improve…

    #6 inspired me to tilt my head to the side like a Golden Retriever; sounds like a Gen Whine thing to me where hard work alone – not necessarily “correct” work – is to be praised. Especially when it flies in the face of #4…

    The one thing that is missing – from my experience recruiting and being an engineer – is the flexibility of the development environment to accept new technologies into the stack (like Scala). Stack flexibility – more than legacy code work (which BTW every developer knows there’s some of this in every new employer) – is a sign that the tech environment is agile and open to change.

    Anyway, we can play scenarios with each side. The bottom line is that developers – as you noted – are no more difficult to attract and retain than other HIPOs. The challenge to those in the talent fields is to be just as flexible as are great developers in the methods used to hunt them down and keep them relatively happy and productive.

    Thx Betty..

  2. Hi Elizabeth,

    Essentially, who wouldn’t want these sorts of things (as they apply to their own lines of work)?

    “How will companies keep them from being recruited away by the next great startup?
    Here’s how: generous, multi-year, guaranteed-raise, no-layoff-without-cause employment contracts. Otherwise: “Loyalty = cash-flow”.



  3. @Betty – great article

    @Steve – your insights and expansion on Betty’s article are terrific. I like that you went to the heart of not just what matters, but how and why and what shape that takes from a recruiting & retention standpoint.

    @Keith – I’m w/ you on “who wouldn’t want this?”

    Even though I’m not the kind of geek referenced here, aside from #8 (software) I’m not seeing anything that doesn’t apply to regular non-techie types.

    ~KB @TalentTalks

  4. Tks for the feedback@Steve@Keith@Kelly. Actually we have to credit Rob (http://www.softwarebyrob.com/) for the nine motivators. Agree that these things apply to other jobs and industries, and I’m reminded that they pass the test of time, too. Having been on both sides, I don’t think EEs should hold their breath for generous, multi-year, guaranteed raises and iron-clad employment contracts. I would settle for having candidates and prospective employers have honest conversations about expectations and motivators! Looking forward to checking out the Forbes article, too.

  5. Wonderful article that deserves WAY MORE COMMENTS than it’s getting!

    I was delighted to see you price employees by the head – I have long held that a company is worth what knowledge its employees bring to the table and I have only one regret from my early sourcing days and that was to NOT BUY the stocks of the companies I was tasked to source out of. Some of them were acquired by some of the others for hundreds of millions of dollars (it’d be billions today!) back then and at the time people would scratch their heads at why some of them brought the prices paid. I always thought it wasn’t so much the technology that was being purchased for bug dollars but the brains.

    I’m not making the same mistake i did back then.

    Maureen Sharib
    Phone Sourcer
    513 899 9628

  6. Thanks, Elizabeth. Didn’t expect I’d get much traction with the employment contract idea, but if employers aren’t prepared to house their precious birds in a golden cage, expect them to fly free whenever and wherever their whims take them… 🙂

    “I would settle for having candidates and prospective employers have honest conversations about expectations and motivators!”
    As Patsy Cline said in “Sweet Dreams: “Well people in hell want ice water – that don’t mean they get it.” We ARE talking about business relationships in early 21st Century America, right?

    @ Mighty Mo: Invest in ZombieCorp.com: “We want BRAINZ!!!”
    I also like you reminding us about the cost/head- keeps the candidates in perspective:

    Keep movin’, movin’, movin’,
    Though they’re disapprovin’,
    Keep them doggies movin’ Rawhide!
    Don’t try to understand ’em,
    Just rope and throw and grab ’em,
    Soon we’ll be living high and wide.


    Keith “Move the Meat” Halperin 🙂

  7. Tks for the feedback, Maureen. “Live and learn,” right?
    Keith, I’m a little more optimistic about business in the 21st century, I guess. I think leaders are trying to do the right things; they just need a little of our help–ok, some of them!

  8. The concept of keeping employees a cage reminds me of jail; there’s not a single great developer who would go with a “locked up” scenario nor do they leave on whims…

  9. @ Elizabeth: Most leaders ARE trying to do the right thing; the problem is there are too many (and they’re too influential) who aren’t. That’s one of the main reasons why our economy is in such a mess. THOSE folks don’t need our help- they need our “righteous judgement”.

    @ Steve: It’s supposed to be a jail- a very pleasant, well-paid, stimulating jail. Are you saying there ARE no developers who would settle for a 5 yr, $150k/yr, 8% minimum annual raise/bonus contract? As far as leaving on whims, I believe that great developers are no less likely (and quite probably) more likely to leave on just that. After all, most “great developers’ would presumably not need to worry as much as most people would about finding new, well-paying work quite quickly and easily when they wish.

    Happy Long Weekend,


  10. @Steve@Keith. In your opinions, what are the top three reasons key talent will leave an org? Are the reasons they stay just the flipside, e.g, key talent will leave for insufficient $ or bad management but will stay for more $ and good management? Can we ever generalize or is it a “that depends” answer?

  11. Thanks, Elizabeth. Personally, I don’t know, but here’s a study-
    The finding is part of the Kelly Global Workforce Index, which obtained the views of approximately 134,000 people in 29 countries:


    Below are the top five reasons why employees leave their jobs and suggestions on how your business can take action to minimise the loss of quality talent:

    Negative relationship with direct manager. When an employee feels unrecognised and unappreciated by the person they report to it is unlikely they will be motivated to perform at a high standard or feel compelled to stay. Ensuring all managers within your organisation understand the impact their management style has on retention is vital. Training managers in the softer skills (personal communication) required to engage a team can make a significant difference.
    There is little hope for career advancement or growth. Employees often feel that many jobs offer little or no opportunity to advance. Employers should work with employees to understand each individual’s career expectations and where possible design a clear, step by step development path to achieve these goals. It’s important employers don’t over promise in this area, because not delivering an agreed promise can quickly lead to an employee becoming disengaged.
    The reality of a role does not match what was promised during the recruitment process. If an employee believes they received an unrealistic or incorrect job description when they applied for their position, they quickly develop a general lack of trust in their employer. Employers must ensure they provide a detailed and accurate description of the job throughout the entire recruitment process, from ad placement to interviewing and at all touch points in between. Engaging a recruitment expert to advise you on how to best communicate the benefits and pitfalls of a role can help avoid this.
    Employees are overworked and stressed out. Many employees perceive an overwhelming lack of respect for themselves and their work/life balance. It is ironic that this perception is one of the primary reasons for leaving employers when so many are publicising the fact that work/life considerations are a priority. Employees have decided that, in many cases, this is more rhetoric than fact. Employers need to lead by example, showing that they have a balanced life and encouraging staff to do the same. Ultimately a balanced life will lead to a healthier and more productive workforce.
    Employees perceive a lack of coaching and/or mentoring from their employers. Heavy workloads and a focus on short-term success can result in employers not making sufficient time for meaningful and constructive individual engagement with their employees. When this one-on-one interaction is not provided employees can quickly lose direction and feel unappreciated. Employers need to ensure they regularly acknowledge both negative and positive performance. Setting aside regular times to engage with employees is vital as is ensuring quality employees have the ability to engage with other people across the business in a bid to drive knowledge sharing and development.

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