I just had a really interesting working session with an LA-area product management team about how to motivate developers. Rather than assuming we knew the answers and talking among ourselves, we brought in a half-dozen technical managers for a mixed product/engineering discussion about what dev teams want. (Product managers do this continually with customers – researching instead of assuming – but less often with internally.)

We know (or should know) that building software is as much craft as science. We don’t get more software by chaining developers to their workstations and flogging the slow typists. Building software is a collaborative, social endeavor that demands the enthusiasm, inspiration and motivation of the team.

So we generated a long list of ways that product managers could encourage their technical teams. While some of these were obvious critiques of narrow work deliverables (keep requirements more stable, write clearer user stories, include business flow diagrams), most were about engagement and communication and collaboration.

Devs Say They Want Us To…

  • Share more of the big picture, give more visibility into the business
  • Talk about what real users are doing with our products: fuller descriptions of what customers love and problems they encounter
  • Explain/explore trade-offs between market needs and reducing technical debt
  • Connect user stories to customer-visible features to revenue and closed deals
  • Describe problems rather than specify technical fixes: give them the freedom to solve problems creatively
  • Recognize that they bring passion and intellectual fervor to the job

Shining through is the need for them to know that real people use their code to solve important problems.  That their technology rolls up into successful products.  That the company values their effort. Dev teams are hungry to know that users appreciate the love they put into their work. Otherwise, it’s just a job.

Helping motivate technical teams is an important product management “soft skill.” In most organizations, development teams don’t work for product managers. We don’t directly hire, fire, evaluate, promote or re-assign developers | test engineers | technical writers | sys admins | architects | dev ops leads | scrum masters | project managers. So how do we keep them engaged? Motivated? Passionate about the work? How do we encourage collaboration and cooperation within the team, and with product management?

Here’s a partial list. (Please add your own.) In the spirit of incremental improvement, you should be able to try one of these today, in under 15 minutes, and make it a habit if you like the results.

  • He fights for the Users!

    We fight for the Users!

    Share how a specific customer got to be a hero because of our product(“Remember when we chopped data entry time on our payroll product by 80%? Becky Bookkeeper told me that she now gets all new employees their first paychecks on time, even those who start on a Friday. She loves our v5.2 release.”)

  • Talk about quarter-to-date revenue numbers
  • Circulate the press release that mentions our new feature
  • Take 20 seconds in a stand-up to say how much you appreciate the team (and why)
  • Post notes and interesting facts from your customer meetings
  • Invite members of the team to listen in on selected customer calls (with some ground rules)
  • Publicly thank a junior test engineer for unraveling an obscure bug
  • Use the word “elegant” about something end users can’t see
  • Remind the team that outside interrupts should be routed to you, since their time and focus are so valuable
  • Kick a hard technical problem to the team to solve
  • Admit that product managers don’t always have the answers. (FYI: all devs are smarter than product managers. Just ask them.☺)
  • Relentlessly reiterate which few features are absolute-must-haves for this release, and ask the team to de-prioritize everything else
  • One on one, ask about their kids (or favorite teams or craft brewing hobbies or vacations).  If you’re able, contribute a little to their worthy causes.
  • When someone on the team does something great, thank them immediately and publicly, then send a one-line appreciation email to their manager
  • Order some cheap, cheesy t-shirts that say “most awesomest dev team”
  • Don’t be afraid to have some geeky fun.  Tell a Big Bang joke.

Happy, motivated, engaged teams are more productive and more fun to be around. Besides, the best folks on your team could work somewhere else in a heartbeat.

Sound Byte

Just as you do, your development team throws its heart into designing, building, testing, documenting, releasing and maintaining your product. Make sure you provide motivation and not just requirements.