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 you 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.

To realistically expect a great outcome, it’s crucial to either be that excellent developer yourself (learn to program) or co-found with a technical master as passionate about the business as you are.


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

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.

Could your business prove its income first operating from spreadsheets, instead of building custom software out-of-pocket?

Charney Kaye, 01 January 2015