Engineers are tribal

We heart QR codes.A few months ago, I had the privilege of sitting down with the CEO of a well-known technology company. He had just exited to a strategic for a large amount of money and had decided to take some time off before his next venture. He was in that rare period of reflection that entrepreneurs get in between companies, so I took the opportunity to ask what his biggest “lesson learned” was.

His response:

I learned a lot about how to motivate engineers. I used to think I knew how to do it, but I was wrong. I had this realization a few years in, and our most significant technical progress occurred after it came to me.

You see, engineers are tribal.

He went on:

They’re not like the rest of us. They don’t care about money. They don’t care about titles. The best engineers want to work on the coolest projects; and, moreover, they want to show off what they’ve accomplished to their peer group.

The approval of the tribe is their primary motivator, so you need to give them sufficient opportunity to display their work prominently. Get the tribe working together in a transparent and self-affirmative way, and they will build great products.

This immediately clicked with me. For one, it’s incredibly practical and self-evident within my own life. I spent 2 years creating new materials at MIT in a lab group with 13 other graduate students. Our weekly group meetings, wherein one of us would present his work to the others, had no impact on our grades or our paltry compensation. So, why did each of us spend countless hours preparing for these meetings?

Simple. We wanted to impress each other and share whatever cool results we got that week.

Twitter‘s engineers also get together as a group once a week to share their recent projects with each other. This movement grew somewhat organically and is now something many employees look forward to on a regular basis. The company’s recent Hack Week is an example of how hacking and sharing has become legitimized by management. Tribalism evidently keeps engineers engaged and building cool stuff at Twitter.

Ad hoc tribes exist too. Look at the rise of the “hackathon.” Over 450 developers participated in one of these simultaneously at TechCrunch Disrupt in September. With the proliferation of open source, standardized web development frameworks, and a myriad of APIs, software engineers can do more, faster, which means they can share more, faster too.

Tribes that work well are extremely valuable. Google CEO Eric Schmidt gave each of his employees a 10% raise last week. The company reportedly offered one engineer $3.5M in restricted stock to turn down an offer from Facebook. In the short term, these engineers will move around quite a bit, but in the long term what keeps them at a given company is the power of its tribe.

In summary, while there are many ways to motivate engineers, these two are indispensable: (1) give them cool problems to solve and (2) encourage them to share their solutions with the rest of the tribe.

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