Executive management often (correctly) feels that they do not understand what is motivating to engineers.  They then skim a book like “Drive”, by Daniel H.Pink, and happily conclude that engineers don’t care about money.  Now they understand even less.

What Motivates an Engineer?

It’s true that money has not been the prime motivator for a single engineer. I have worked with hundreds.  Additionally, it’s true that an engineer’s pride in the craftsmanship aspect of his work is hugely important. Most engineers greatly appreciate being given time to keep their skills current in a profession where the technology is forever advancing.  But the reason financial compensation is not their number one concern is mostly that engineering salaries are adequate, generally speaking, already. 

It is in this context in which nearly every company I have worked at has felt the need, at some point, to bring a project to market earlier than would normally be possible.  Rarely is reducing the scope of the product considered. The instinctual approach is almost always an edict like: “Make the engineering team work longer hours!” or “Tell them that if they don’t work Saturdays they won’t be eligible for their quarterly bonus.”  I have found this kind of approach as distasteful as it is ineffective.  


In my role as a VP of Engineering, over the years I have seen or tried (or rejected) just about every tactic you can imagine to motivate a team to deliver the “more” that the company needed.  I have seen – and tried – cash bonuses. They almost always end up being de-motivating because there is never enough money to make up for all those lost evenings and weekends. I have personally been “the bagel guy” for the whole team every day for months at a time to encourage the team to arrive early.  I have brought in dinner, nightly, for the same team, to encourage them to stay late: “Order by 5:00 PM on the signup sheet in the conference room and I’ll magically make it appear by 6:00 PM.” (Thai food, in my experience, outperforms pizza, in case you were wondering).

Several years ago I was working with one team that was really clicking.   The outcome of each sprint was highly predictable, so the published delivery schedule was a pretty safe bet.  But market pressures required an on-time/no-miss delivery. The company deemed an early delivery, even by a few weeks, likely to provide a substantial boost to sales for the quarter.  So execs wanted to “pull out all the stops” to try and bring the date in.  

The scheduled delivery date was still about four months out.  What to do? This team was largely folks with young kids. They were also engineers who had to leave the office at a time certain to pick their kids up from school or childcare, or at least be home for dinner.

Incentivizing with Purpose

Over the course of several days, I asked myself the question: “How does one motivate an already overburdened parent to devote more time to their job?”  I repeatedly came up empty-handed.

Then, one morning, while standing in the negative ion chamber, the question morphed into: “What if the team, rather than working for themselves, was working for someone else? How would the team behave if motivated not by minor financial self-interest, but, rather, by altruism?”

I toweled off and sketched out a plan. The team could choose one or more charities to receive a bonus that was tied to the team’s performance. The company would provide a bonus of $10,000 for an on-time delivery; double that, for two weeks early; half, for two weeks late.  By mid-morning execs had approved the plan.


At that day’s standup meeting I told the team what I had arranged.  They were truly excited. One said, “Let me get this straight: if I just do my job *really well* the charity I care most about could benefit significantly?  I’m all over this.” I told the team they were in charge of the process of determining how the money would be allocated – all to a single charity, equally distributed among ten, whatever *they* chose. The only rule was that any recipient must be a non-profit.

A whirlwind of participatory democracy swept across the meeting.  Nominations were made and the team decided that a vote would be held the next day. Folks had time to discuss pros and cons and about 26 hours after the initial concept, it was done. Three charities – the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, Ronald McDonald House, and the MyStuffBags Foundation – would share equally whatever the team could earn for them.  As the meeting broke up, one engineer turned, walked away at a deliberately exaggerated pace, and said loudly and emphatically over her shoulder to the group, “I guess we better get to work!”


As the deadline grew closer, the team focused on hitting the stretch goal – the two-week early, $20,000 plan.  Then, four weeks before that stretch goal, the company published company-wide, mandatory user interface standards for all applications released after a certain date.  This was completely out of the blue. This also had the extremely unfortunate effect of adding previously unscheduled work to our already too-full schedule. I attended the standup the morning we got the news and watched and listened. I took the notes below right after the meeting because it blew me away:

Don:  “So…it looks like we have two, maybe three weeks of additional work here.”

Kelly:   “But that blows the schedule – the kids won’t get anything.”

Frank:  “Can’t let that happen. What are we gonna do?”

Kelly:   “Frank, you’re the UI wizard.  If we take care of your database updates and repair work, so you could work on this new stuff uninterrupted from home, how long would it take?”

Frank:  “A week…maybe. Two weeks tops.”

Steve:  “I can handle the database work; just assign those tickets to me.”

Brian:  “And I can pick up Frank’s repairs.”

Don:  “So…it looks like maybe we can get this new stuff done and still keep the same schedule…cool!”

In Conclusion

It was a really transformative moment for me. I stood there and watched as some really experienced – and cynical – engineers dispatched this last minute roadblock. They almost effortlessly buy volunteering to take on additional work with their schedules already maxed out.  The team was working for a higher purpose and nothing would stop them. It was no more than 90 seconds – completely spontaneous, collaborative, bottom-up problem-solving. It was truly educational for me. Given the right context, people can be extraordinarily creative in service of “doing the right thing.”

In the end, the team delivered two weeks early and earned the full $20,000 bonus.  That team has long since fractured and individuals moved on to other projects, at other companies. The bonding that happened more than ten years ago still shows.
Read more about the author, Alan Kucheck: adk@advantary.co


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