Charney Kaye, 01 January 2015


Many start-up founders have found themselves challenged to instill a ‘sense of urgency' into a lone developer who's building the first version of their product, but what motivates a developer!?

The Question

Recently, a start-up founder asked me a question:

[the developer] has been doing a good job so far from what it seems, but … we're falling behind schedule. I've been trying to instill a sense of urgency into him, but it doesn't seem to really process with him yet that the sooner we can get this built, the sooner we can demo with [the prospective customer]. And we have a lot of riding on this for our company.

That certainly reminds me of the bad ol’ days!

I spent a great deal of my early career as a freelance developer stretching myself too thin, and disappointing clients with my inability to meet expectations.

EXPECTATION, n. The state or condition of mind which in the procession of human emotions is preceded by hope and followed by despair. - Ambrose Bierce, the Devil’s Dictionary

Imagine being a developer, sitting with a start-up founder over dinner, sketchbooks and laptops. We're just as excited as they are, to solve the problems of the future. But hours later, alone in front of a computer, untangling problems far too esoteric to talk about with any non-developer, it's just.. not the way to do great work.

We may be intelligent and experienced enough to engineer great machines; however, inexperience with communicating to businesspeople can reveal our time to be infungible.

Clearly, regardless of craftsmanship, this will be a shortcoming in our ability to meet expectations in doing business.

Oil & Water

This "how to motivate a developer" challenge is both unique (compared to other business problems) and all-too-common (among modern businesses).

The simplest useful thing I could share is that, in my opinion, creating a 'sense of urgency' for a developer is futile.

I've been on both the urging and receiving end many times, with and without cash and/or equity involved— The results have been consistently negative.

In my opinion, great developers are hackers at heart.

There is an essential paradox facing all endeavors to pay another person to do high quality software development. Many of the qualities that make an individual great at developing software, also make them less motivated by financial gain.

Ergo, urgency to hackers is like oil to water.


So how does an independent start-up founder create incentives for developers?

In my opinion, the best incentive for a developer is the opportunity to solve fascinating problems, side-by-side with a more-skilled developer they can respect & learn from.


So what's the constructive take-away from all this?

If you aren’t a software developer, don’t hire software developers. Being able to read and write “code” is a surprisingly tiny portion of the trade acumen of being a software developer. It also takes years of experience to be an effective manager of software development, including the ability to determine whether any particular developer is completely full of B.S. (and that’s not a Bachelor of Science).

If you are ready for high quality software to solve your business problems, don’t build it yourself. Think of your business as a machine. Map out a business model canvas. It is almost certain that you could get your business off the ground by purchasing the individual services you need to run it, instead of building custom software out of pocket.

You can operate a business from spreadsheets. Most software is just a user interface bolted onto a spreadsheet anyway.

From a legal standpoint, your “customer portal” is just automating the process of creating contracts between your company and your customers. Do the math every step of the way. Would it be faster to just email each new customer yourself? Do you have a million customers, twenty-three customers, or zero? Is your process already so venerated that you are ready to codify it? Do you gain a lot of opportunity value from remaining fluid in the early stages?

Don't allow progress to be blocked by your guns-for-hire. Do it yourself. Either the full-time founders are the absolute center of the value of the business, or pushing boulders uphill.

Charney Kaye, 01 January 2015