9 Nov

Why my Mom and Ted Neward Irritate Me

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My mother is a psychologist and recently visited me us here in Idaho. We spent some time talking about the psychology behind some agile practices. Pretty cool!

Additionally, we ended up on the one mystery topic that has always eaten away at me. That mystery for me is simple:

Why does one person or team pursue excellence relentlessly while another hits the door at 5:01 and doesn’t think about software development until tomorrow morning?

I got into the same discussion with Ted Neward at the recent P&P Summit while playing pool. Heck, it was almost an argument. 🙂 I said something stupid that night. I said, “It’s all about incentives.”


One Theory: Incentives

I have had the opinion for years that there must be some motivator, some technique, or some dynamic that will affect people positively to simply care. This is the whole idea behind coaching, after all. A well-versed and motivating individual comes into a team and works with them to get better results. This happens every day.

If this will really work, it necessarily means that people are motivated by incentive. What I mean by that conditions like salary, a great leader, wonderful co-workers, free pizza and soda (or something) will inherently motivate someone to care about excellence.

Certainly no one can deny that incentives like these contribute to an enjoyable workplace. Heck, I love visiting the Microsoft campus and downing those free V-8s. All of them combined though, probably cannot cause someone to ponder, read, and learn. Incentives cannot move someone to try a new coding technique just because it might be interesting.

The Irritatingly Simpler Theory that is Likely True

There is just something about unique about people who can’t stop trying to improve. It isn’t the great boss or the great office space that causes me to think about the finer points of TDD in the shower. It’s just because I can’t NOT do it.

Both my mom and Ted Neward tried to get me to see that incentives will get you behavior and results (sometimes the ones you actually want), but can’t create passion. That is something that is simply innately there or not there.

This isn’t to say that there is no value in the person who wants to do their bid and get fair pay for a fair day. That’s not what I’m talking about. I am talking about the fact that most genius is recognized by relentless pursuit, the kind we can’t define.

The Good News

OK. Uncle, I get it. The great news is there are so many of us passionate geeks out there striving to improve. You wouldn’t likely be reading this if you weren’t one. Heck, I even geek to work with some!

What’s your theory? Are passionate professionals just the obsessive-compulsive ones?

14 thoughts on “Why my Mom and Ted Neward Irritate Me

  1. From my limited work experience (2 years) I have noticed that the ones most concerned with incentives are usually the 8-5 people that don’t find any pride in their work. They are often limited by their own minds and reason that it is up to the employer to educate them in how to perform at their best, they seldom take that upon themselves. But in the end we are all needed no matter how compassionate we are – but to explore and go beyond our limits I think we need people that are passionate, and perhaps even a little obsessed :-).

  2. Nice article. In the work I’m doing with lawyers and Agile, I will make the argument that even work some consider “soul crushing” (e.g. litigation document review) is only made so because of the way it is defined. I did a Craig’s List test several month’s back and made it sound positively awesome. The result was a group of resumes with essays from highly-motivated lawyers who would probably work for less than rate because of the way I defined the tasks (not that I would ask them to). The simple act of demonstrating that my company values the individual contributions smart people make was enough. It’s not rocket science, but it takes a certain commitment from the top to say “people first, task second.” Then, you get people who care and “geek out” without the need for external compulsion or incentives that reward bad behavior.

  3. @Regina Mullen

    That’s certainly an interesting idea. I hear you saying that if consider our work to have merit, then motivation becomes inherent.

    If I respect the work of everyone in my team and recognize their contribution and importance, they are compelled to greater things.

  4. In our company training (that you may also have been part of in the past) three things are called out as key motivators:
    1. recognition- people seeing your work, telling you you did a good job
    2. learning- learning something new
    3. belonging- being part of a group, people care about what you are doing

    I believe this is true for the most knowledge workers, and the passionate geeks you are describing feed off #1 and #2 especially. I think your point is still valid though: some people are passionate about what they do, some are not.

  5. Here’s another question for you: Is the difference between the person who checks out at 5:01 and the person who keeps it on their mind all night a question of people who are truly doing something they want, enjoy or even love doing?

    I wouldn’t chalk it up to being the only factor. I just don’t think that people would spend outside time trying to better themselves if they didn’t actually want to be doing it.

  6. I don’t think it’s about “what’s important to you” so much as, how do you define yourself/your life? Some people have a family and relationships outside of work and see their work as not only a successful endeavor in itself, but to provide for them. Others just simply don’t have time to sit down and code at night when they have to give attention to other people.

    Not all programmers are “geeks” (i.e. people who are ‘passionate’ and love to hack around with stuff) and not all good programmers are, either. this idea gets perpetuated a lot but it is false.

    For example, there are probably mechanics out there who really love cars and work on their own cars in their spare time, and mechanics who just do their work at their job. Both can be great at what they do, just like coders can, I think. So the answer from my perspective to the question posed would be, “Time and commitments to people in your life have a large effect on dictating what you do outside of work.” For that matter, someone can improve themselves regardless of this, but obviously the degree to which you can spend your whole evening coding is dictated by those outside factors. The other factor of course, is self-discipline. 🙂

  7. Nice post! Every developer has a certain level of passion. Even the “out the door by 5:01” developer has a certain level of passion – albeit not the same level as others.

    I recognize that my passion fueled by others’ passion. So the problem I have is determining if one’s passion is at (or exceeds) my level. I hold in high esteem those close friends with the same level of passion as mine. Growing that circle however is sometimes difficult. That’s why I love reading blogs, and attending conferences such as Tech-Ed – where the average level of passion there is at or exceeds my level.

  8. Uncle Bob made the point well:

    Tenet of professionalism: work 40 hours for your employer and another 20 hours improving yourself. Always increase your own value.

    If you haven’t already seen it, check out this post: 50% Time

  9. Actually, I think incentive does have a bit to do with it, but maybe just not in the way you discussed it. Again, it’s not going to explain 100%, what in life does?

    Take your typical graduate developer. They’re excited, energetic, focused, and full of ideas. What they don’t have is practical experience. Mix them in a room with experienced developers, give them free drinks, snacks, and lunches, proper equipment, non-intrusive management, and skilled business analysts and you’ve got a happy, effective software development unit. More importantly, you’ll have a software development unit that will be much easier to retain. People adopt things like best practices because they are looking for things to make their lives easier. The way a business is run has far, far more to do with enticing this out of their staff than anything.

    Uncle Bob’s tenant is perfectly correct, but who’s going to invest in themselves if they don’t know that investment will be appreciated?

    I believe incentives will encourage best practices. But equally, if not more important, the lack of incentive will surely *kill* any effort. (Other than people spending effort to improve themselves to get hired somewhere else.)

    It is amazing though. Providing lunches & snacks & drinks costs peanuts compared to the cost of unproductive staff, and staff that just perform to the minimum expectation instead of 100%. I mean what, $15/day for lunch and bulk snacks? that’s not even 1/2 hour of pay. You can pay for 8 hours and get 8 hours of half-assed work, or pay for 8.5 hours and get 8 hours of dedicated, happy work. Hell, I spent a week at a company where the boss figured that staff weren’t going to be productive on a Friday afternoon so he had them go around the office to vacuum, clean the kitchens and bathrooms. I thought they were pulling my leg.

  10. All of these comments are cool.

    Here’s the thing: I shouldn’t even have used the term 5:01 in this post. There are plenty of passionate people working for lame employers that have every reason to get out fo there and practice Kaizen on their own. That will certeinly lead to a better company, and a better team.

    Further, I wonder about something. Do driven people gravitate to that for which they have a passion?

    I understand plenty of people are not on fire for their chosen profession. Isn’t that sad? I mean, who wants to spend so much time doing something you you don’t love?

    I’ve known programers who decided to move into other careers. Go for it! The point is to do what you love and do it with passion. If you are lacking either, why not go find what works for you?

  11. @David Starr

    Yeah, it’s true. I came in on Friday morning to officially say I was quitting. I can only think of 2 reasons for it. #1 as I mentioned before, or possibly #2, He was paranoid about letting 3rd parties into the office when no one was there.

    I remember in the interview, one question set off small warning bells. “How well do you work with difficult personalities?” I can, and have worked with just about every kind of personality. At first I thought he was talking about the technical lead who was a bit eccentric & difficult to talk to at first. Actually, he was talking about himself. When the rest of the team was having a team meeting to discuss a set of requirements, they started at 07:00 and went right through to 10:00 then took a break where the tech lead went out for a smoke. The boss walked into the office around that time and asked what everyone was doing sitting around. Then when the tech lead came back he grilled him for leaving everyone waiting and wasting time. (maybe 10 minutes) That afternoon I did a demo with another dev of the functionality I started earlier in the week and we were discussing using a UI similar to what users are used to with Excel. When I had started up I’d moved many of the shortcuts into folders to de-clutter my desktop & start menu. Since we did the demo on my machine the other dev had to ask me where the Excel link was. After I pointed out the “Office” folder, the boss piped in and told me to put the icons back on the desktop.

    I was amazed that anyone would work under those conditions.

  12. I agree that generally people are passionate or not, but Steve makes a good point about the amount of apreciation you get having an effect on that.

    For a couple of years I worked at companies where the work was dull and laborious, and nobody listened to anything the developers had to say or gave them an opportunity to shine. It really put me off programming for a time, and although I was still passionate, it was about my various hobbies and not development. As you say, not enjoying your work really sucks.

    Fortunately that acted as a catalyst and made me start learning C# so I could get a better job – I’m now regularly coding in the evenings again, blogging about all the cool stuff around, and often work an hour or two extra (at my new job) just because I want to keep going on some interesting problem!

    So while I think your mum is right about traditional incentives like money not making people passionate, motivators such as the those identified by Fred’s company (such as being appreciated!) can certainly make a difference.

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