It’s cheap—heck, it’s free!—it can make you love your job, it will make you crazy if you don’t get it, and it’s why you should print this article out and slip it under your boss’s door tonight if you’re not getting it now.
“Let’s do an article about how technologists get rewarded!” I said.
“Great idea!” my editor responded, so I starting asking around to find out how software developers and IT professionals are rewarded at work.
“Salary,” they answered.
No, no, no. That’s just being facetious. Because, come on, as one technologist puts it, a paycheck basically just acknowledges the fact that, “Hey! You showed up!”
“My paycheck, unless it includes a bonus or a raise, just tells me I did the basic job, not how well,” says a former manager at Deloitte, who worked with financial auditors on regulatory security. “And [the paycheck] certainly does not tell me whether I have followed the desired path, because it is part of a basic bargain, not an incentive.”
Well, bingo. That infosec evangelist, mind you, wrote to us after we asked the right question. The right question being this much more articulate inquiry:
While it’s nice to be paid, we get our sense of “reward” from something else: public recognition, with our name in lights; status, such as a corner office; the boss telling us privately how much we improved; a client telling us that the code we wrote changed his life; better opportunities, such as the team’s “best” developer getting to go to a tech conference.
Is that about ego? Maybe. But “ego” might be shorthand for “We are primates.” We’re social creatures. We look for evaluation. It’s hard to tell whether we’re good at what we do. Most of us need to feel like we’re contributing something to the pack. We’re hard-wired to do what we can to ensure that the pack doesn’t push us off the cliff when small prey gets scarce in the cold months.
When we asked, again, how technologists are rewarded, and how it maps to the rewards they actually crave, verily it was like unto opening the gates of hell and unleashing the howls of the tormented. Far too often, you women and men are getting squat for feedback, or recognition, or trust.
Which is a shame. Before I unveil stories from keep-your-employees-in-the-dark limbo, here’s a data point that underscores what a shame it is. A survey by WorldatWork, Loyola University Chicago, and Hay Group titled Impact of Rewards Programs on Employee Engagement showed that base pay and benefits has a weaker relationship with employee engagement and motivation than does feel-good rewards such as feedback, career development, and management quality.
“Quality of work, career development, organization climate and work/life balance all have a greater perceived impact on employee engagement than financial rewards such as base salaries, benefits and monetary incentives,” said Tom McMullen, North American practice leader for Hay Group, a consulting firm, as quoted in this article from the Society for Human Resource Management.
Here, then, are stories from technologists who value feedback, acknowledgment, mentoring, and trust—to the extent, even, that some would jump ship and take big, big pay cuts to get it. I anonymized most responses, for reasons that will be clear.
“Fine” is not an adequate response to “How am I doing?”
Let’s call her Julie. She’s a software engineer at a company so big, with a reputation for a workplace so enviable, I can’t name the industry nor even use her real first name. Let’s just say that she’s well-compensated, her working hours are flexible, and the company offers great perks. She’s the team lead for a technically interesting, challenging project.
She’s considering quitting. Julie’s even started asking around. She found that jumping ship would entail a pay cut on the order of $30,000 per year.
The thing that she’s really after: Feedback, both positive and negative—especially from her manager. Or, as she puts it, “More pats on the back and nudges in the right direction.”
“There are a lot of aspects of my job that feel hard to me, especially in the area of team leadership, at which I am new,” she says. “I’m happy to have a challenge, as long as I get some indications about whether I’m improving, or some guidance about how to do better. As it is, I feel like I’m flailing, and I find it extremely stressful and frustrating.”
Here’s how the conversations with her manager go:
Julie: “How’s my performance?”
Julie: “Is there anything I should be doing differently?”
Manager: “No, seems OK.”
She’s described situations, explained how she’s handling them, told her manager her approach isn’t working, and asked what else she might try. Her boss says, “I’ll handle it,” but then sually doesn’t.
One example: Julie had a low-performing engineer on her team. She was a new tech lead and felt like she was just screwing it up, so she took the issue to her manager—multiple times. Her manager said he’d handle it, and she asked, “How?” (so that she could learn how to deal with situations like this in the future). The manager replied that he’d talked to the engineer about setting concrete goals (as Julie had been doing all along, to no avail).
The guy eventually left the team. Maybe her manager just didn’t know what to do, never mind how to tell Julie what to do. But if he’d just said that, at least the two could have brainstormed together.
The way Julie sees it, when you’re head-down on a technical project, it’s sometimes hard to see the long-term impact, because you’re busy with day-to day-minutia. But she’d like to know which things she and her team are working on are important to the big picture, and they’d all like to know that they’re making a difference—that they’re making progress.
“Or if we’re off in the weeds, I’d like to know that too, so we can change direction,” Julie says.
If words cost money, that manager is saving his company buckets of cash.
But they don’t.
Can we get a little respect, here?
Let’s call this systems administrator JP. JP worked for a big computer hardware company. One epic thing JP accomplished was engineering a global server setup that he could run from anywhere, some three years ahead of when it became easy and commonplace to do so. He ran 65 servers around the world and never got recognition for it. Not once.
So JP moved to a different department where they saw what he’d done and recognized the benefit. JP left his original department with a server that worked with the next generation of the product they were working on and a page-by-page manual on how to build the system, down to every mouse click, with screenshots for every item. Regardless, they couldn’t figure out how to repeat his work ,even though JP himself built them another one six months later, just to prove his instructions worked.
Then JP spotted the fact that almost every time someone left the company or switched departments, the software licenses they used were lost. So he worked with a vendor who understood the situation, and they pushed through a license recovery and updating proposal that saved the company about $375K. And this time, his boss actually—you better sit down for this, it’s a shocker—listened to him.
JP was, he says, the “happiest camper on the planet.”
He got up every morning excited to go to work. He looked at another “ball-of-yarn” license problem and saved the company yet another $75K for a single project.
Happy days came to an end. JP was placed on a project where he knew, by the second day, that he and his team couldn’t meet the client’s demand. So he said so. One and a half months later, the project closed without solving the client’s needs.
“Even though I had done extraordinary work for eight years at that company, they still would not trust what I told them, even when it was ‘We need this, can the software do this?’” he says. “‘No, case closed,’ easy.”
The entire time JP was with that company, for every project, he says, he had to fight as though he was starting from scratch. “Nothing is more demotivating to me. If I prove to you over time that I can save you big chunks of money, don’t make me fight to do it,” he says.
Does respect and recognition cost money? Does it gut a company’s revenue stream?
Nah, I didn’t think so.
How to do it right
A technical director at a semiconductor company—let’s call her Ruth—would like to stipulate that in addition to touchy-feely benefits, she wants to be well-remunerated.
“I want it all!” she says. “I want to be paid and treated in a way that shows that my skills are valued and respected, and I want my work to be challenging and satisfying. And I generally have gotten what I want. I also want to know that my efforts benefit my company and society.”
But as far as the pay goes, Ruth notes that for years after she joined her former employer, there were no technical ladder titles and all engineers were paid on a curve. The top line on the curve was dotted, meaning that top engineers could be paid above the line.
That was perfect, Ruth says: a marriage of recognition and financial reward. “It was very rewarding to get to the point where I was paid above the line, and it didn’t matter to me that that wasn’t something to be shared with others,” she says.
Her current employer also makes her feel valued with decent, comprehensive medical plans with low employee premiums. She doesn’t see this as purely a financial benefit. Ruth says it’s like the company is saying, “We value all our employees, want them healthy and not distracted by worries about health care”—especially with other companies nowadays reducing benefits and shifting costs to workers. “While I want to be paid among the best, I want to know that my employer also values its work force as a whole,” she says.
So yes, actual benefits and pay do matter. But that’s not enough, even for the “yes-pay-matters” Ruth. It’s just one half of the onion, with being valued making up the rest.
Cheap! Easy! Make Them Happy!
And just because technologists contributed so very many ways through which they have felt rewarded, here’s a quick list of other ways to make them happy:
- Evan: “One of the best ways in which my work is rewarded…is when I’m asked to do more work. As I am a self-employed contractor, primarily engaged in education and consulting, that means that the client thought highly enough of my work to want me to do more work for them.”
- JoAnna: “Buy me food and tell me I did a good job. Reward me by showing me you trust me enough to take my work to the next level or try something new. Mostly, a sincere ‘thanks’ or ‘good job’ goes a hell of a long way. … We have multiple informal and formal rewards processes, but honestly, the best are the ‘Hey, good job, let me buy you lunch.’ It’s sincere, not over the top, and is just enough to keep you plugging on.”
- David: “Currently we have a wall we can write on. Thank-you messages on those that everyone sees are nice.”
- Michael: “I’m a security officer in a hospital, and it’s truly a thankless job, but my manager makes it great. He makes a point of finding out how each of his employees wants to be managed, and then he manages them that way. Me, I like to be left alone, for the most part. Don’t give me trophies, or certificates of appreciation, or pins to wear, or accolades in the company newsletter. I hate that stuff. … Two of my highest values at work are to be effective and to be useful. If you really want to reward me, let me know that what I’ve done is working, and how it makes the place better.”
- Keith: “Reward me by letting me be more social or public and let me go to see customers or speak at conferences. A different view is provide me better work areas, better staff or teams, let me work flexible hours, or stop having a painful process for holidays or sick days. If I am good, trust me; if not, fire me.”
So here’s a riddle: What is it that’s free, makes employees jump out of bed eager to get to work, and will make them crazy if they don’t get it?
Call it respect. Call it acknowledgement. Call it appreciation. Call it feedback. Call it trust.
Call it, perhaps, consideration, and simple, human decency.