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Motivating the Unmotivated

Since I’ve had my head in Joel on Software, I have felt like I need to put pixels to screen and confess many of the mistakes I made as a developer turned manager. The following is my catharsis, and hopefully, the more experienced among you will help me find the answer to the question I ask at the bottom (just scroll down if you don’t want to read the boring part).

When I was given the title of Technical Director at my last place of employment, part of my responsibilities involved managing people. Just one or two people… ok, just one (and I can’t imagine what the disaster would have been if there were more). The position I managed was a junior developer one, and for my five years there, the position had a lot of turnover.

Looking back it was easy to see why. We had to hire under schedule pressure. The region had a real dearth of technical talent (and upper management reluctant to support a telecommuter). Previous projects were not executed well, so the junior dev had to handle frustrated, angry tech support calls (hey, I’m too busy to take this call, and you’re Tier 1 anyway). At the risk of sounding emo, I felt like I had to pick the best of the worst. But I also felt I had a responsibility to bring out the best in them and help them become a better developer and a better employee.

So… meet John Doe, known as John for short.

We hired John in October 2008 when we were desperate to fill a void left by our previous developer (he got his MBA and “got out”). John had some experience, enough to justify a junior developer hire, but I knew I had my work cut out for me from a training perspective. He was new to .NET, but not to ASP or web development, so after telling him that he would need to learn .NET in order to complete his day to day job duties, we agreed to give him a shot. I decided I would take him under my wing and help him learn enough to stand on his own.

Here was my first out of a thousand mistakes. I assumed that John would have the same zeal for technology as I did. In my mind I’m thinking, “you are getting paid to train! How many people can say that? What a great opportunity for you!”. I provided him with short question and answer meetings, training materials, and offered company reimbursement for other materials or courses he wanted to take. But he didn’t really care, or so it seemed.

Anyway, John didn’t pick up on .NET quickly. But we muddled through projects. Soon his first “big” project came along for a major client. It was in C#, but he was primarily a VB.NET developer. We let him do it anyway. We didn’t have much of a choice, as I was on all the other “big” projects. Needless to say, it was only mildly successful.

An adjunct project arose for the same client and I grew frustrated as my workload increased exponentially because John required continuous handholding in his C# and .NET training. I was irritated that he didn’t pick it up “fast enough”. I watched as he “did his job” and did not, as I saw it, “go the extra mile”. For me this meant working longer hours to make up for the loss in productivity, mostly. Basically I wanted him to suffer like I was suffering (and I was, I was working 65+ hour weeks with a new baby at home). I was starting to harbor resentment towards him, and the working relationship started to turn sour.

So I started to look at how we were motivating John, and I realized we really weren’t motivating him at all. I decided to start motivating him. I kept thinking about Gunnery Sargent Hartment, the drill instructor from the movie Full Metal Jacket.

It worked for him (well, almost). But for some reason I became fixated on exactly the wrong approach to motivating John.

The first thing I did was give him the “guilt trip”.

“John, you know, we are all working pretty hard here and you’re leaving right at 5pm. What gives?”

John just kind of shrugged his shoulders and didn’t really know what to say. After about 20 minutes of “you know we all have to work extra special hard to make this company work” nonsense I let the guy get back to work.

And he left right on time.

Since that didn’t work I decided try some “carrots”. We waved bonus money at him for any extra hours worked (we worked on hourly rates, so we had a target billable rate every week to make just to break even). And it sort of worked, until the billable work dried up, or projects were at a net loss (so no bonus was earned at all).

So John continued to leave right on time.

I was angry by now. Here I was, putting forth all this effort, and this other guy who can’t code his way out of a shoebox is just getting by… that by itself didn’t annoy me – it was that he didn’t give a shit.

So I went on screwing up this guy’s development future by putting him on “probation” when bugs he claimed to fix kept recurring. When he “sicked out” of an important work day that was tied to a deadline for an important client, I put him on double secret probation.

When he came back from his sickness, he left at 5pm.

The last straw with John came when we needed extra hands to help with our company’s largest project ever. We communicated this to John, that it was big and important, and I tried to play up the “personal growth” angle. And since I was overworked I didn’t pay attention to John’s work in the “right way”. I managed by “walking around”, and that didn’t work with John for a number of reasons.

One day I walked around and found that John had billed almost six weeks worth of work to our client and no work was done. He claimed to have lost it in a tragic source control accident. Then when we tried to recover from older revisions, he claimed he never checked anything in (basically he left files open for six weeks). After another angry outburst, John was let go a week later. I left two months later.

Looking back I realized I’ll never behave that way to peers or colleagues ever again. But at the same time I can’t help but wonder what in the world would have motivated this person? Money didn’t work. Not punishment, not public acknowledgement of success, not training. I couldn’t elicit anything out of him that he was excited about (except college basketball). I took out my anger and frustration on him because I could not motivate him. And when he didn’t care that I was angry and frustrated, it kept the cycle going.

This is a short version of the story. There were other incidents that were serious but don’t change the overall point of the story.

So here’s the question – what do you do to motivate the person who is semingly unwilling to be motivated?

Categories: Development
  1. September 13, 2010 at 9:31 am

    Plain and simple you don’t. Time and time again it’s been proven that extrinsic motivation doesn’t work and in many cases is counter-productive. Make the training available to your employees but don’t tie anything to the training. Shocking as it may sound, not everyone who enters the technology field are in it because they love technology. So it’s up to you to determine two things: what kind of personality your candidate has and will that personality thrive within your environment.

    If you need to finde a candidate with intrinsic motivation for software, the most important screening questions you can ask are:
    What brought you into technology?
    How do you stay abreast in the field?
    Do you have any personal or pet projects you’re developing?

    Usually, you can tell by the answer to the first question if the candidate has an intrinsic motivation for software. But by the third question you should have a definite picture of whether he’s a clock watcher or not.

    There is nothing wrong with someone who approaches their job as just a means to pay the bills. Some people have different motivations in life (John probably enjoyed being able to put work behind him at 5 o’clock so he can have a social life). The responsibility of the employer is to determine what personalities will work in their environment. This will save you a lot of headaches in the future.

  2. November 4, 2010 at 10:24 am

    The environment you describe sounds horrible. Why should anyone have to work longer hours to make the company work except in the most exceptional circumstances? As stated in the comment above, intrinsic motivation is key. As a manager you must work your butt off to create an environment in which people with that characteristic thrive. Get rid of the rest. You’ll never get a sufficient ROI no matter what you try to motivate them.

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