Don’t Bore Your Developers: How to Keep Them Engaged

Jeremy Conkin

  • Reading Time  Min Read
  • Publish Date March 18, 2016

Software development isn’t an unattainable dark art that only sorcerers who sip Mountain Dew potions can master, but it does take discipline and a self-starting mindset to grasp. 

A majority of developers have a strong love of learning. They crave a good challenge, and they’re constantly training and retraining themselves on new technologies and languages as older ones fade into obsolescence.

But the fact still remains: At most companies, software development is something that only the software developers truly understand. Developers are seen as human containers of the mystical language of programming, and for that reason, they’re pigeonholed into specific, mundane roles and deprived of the same growth opportunities the rest of the company has access to. 

As Valve’s employee handbook states, “Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe.” But that’s just the first step. If you want to retain those great hires, you must set great expectations for them and provide the resources they need to meet those expectations.

Businesses that neglect to invest in, empower, and challenge their developers aren’t just failing to get the most out of their talented employees — they’re at risk of losing them. If employers don’t stimulate developers with opportunities to learn new languages and paradigms, the developers will begin to look for more challenging work elsewhere.

The Good Kind of Stress

Kelly McGonigal, author of “The Upside of Stress,” gave a great TED Talk in which she explains that fearing stress is actually more harmful than stress itself. One study she references found that people who view stress in a positive light are healthier than their peers who view stress negatively, especially in group settings. The study also found that people who help others in stressful situations show an increase in both health and happiness.

For managers of developers, the challenge is not to make the job easier, but to make it more exciting. 

Forcing a single person to solve an impossible problem generates the bad kind of stress, which leads to feelings of pressure and lost productivity. Alternatively, challenging a team of people to create a solution to that problem transforms the perspective from a daunting individual task to an exciting group challenge. One person’s hair-pulling nightmare is a small group’s thrilling adventure.

While thinking about McGonigal’s theory, I asked some co-workers about their favorite memories at work. Everyone said something like “That time we tracked down that super-complicated bug and fixed it with that crazy solution!” or “When we all knew that project was unbuildable but built it anyway!” 

I’ve never heard anyone say, “That time I wrote the same type of code I always write for the 1,000th time in a row!”

How Managers Can Challenge Developers

A good challenge doesn’t ask the developer to take something simple and make it more difficult; it gives developers the freedom to find creative solutions to otherwise intimidating obstacles. 

Use these four tactics to get the most from your developers while keeping them engaged and motivated:

1. Give them a choice. 

Don’t dictate the technology stack for a project. Instead, let your team members tell you which stack they want to use. One stack solution is often as good as another, but ceding control of this choice to your team members will save you from having to replace them down the line when they inevitably grow bored of your confines.

2. Facilitate professional development. 

Growing companies need growing employees. Offer extra paid time off for learning new languages or earning new certifications. Create a budget for training, and encourage team members to attend conferences and events.

3. Build communities. 

Set up common discipline communities within your office for knowledge sharing, and encourage people to join groups that focus on something they want to learn. The more people have the chance to enrich themselves at the office, the more engaged they will be.

4. Ask follow-up questions. 

Ask teams to give presentations on the architecture behind their apps. Offer them the opportunity to show off the great things they figured out behind the scenes. When teams know infrastructure matters, they raise their game and get excited about demonstrating their discoveries to their peers.

Easy work is boring work. Don’t bore your developers to death with coddling and redundant assignments. Instead, encourage them to face new challenges, and give them opportunities to grow within the company. 

If you don’t, they’ll probably start looking for more variety somewhere else.

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