Unchain Your Developers

October 13, 2012

Development is a creative process. Projects can be long and draining, we can hit roadblocks and become run down.

As a technical founder of a startup, and having been in many far from ideal jobs in the past, I believe it is my job to make sure developers are looked after.

I've seen many situations where companies expect developers should be spending every waking hour hacking away on their project. Developers who work long hours are thought to be more committed to their job. People are rewarded based on hours rather than output. This is neither productive nor healthy.

There are many things you can do to keep developers motivated and productive. I believe a key to this is encouraging them to work on other things, give them options, here they can step away from a massive code base, start something new, learn new things and recharge. Let them be creative.

What You Should Be Doing

  • Do Internal Hack Days - we try to do these every few months, it's a great opportunity to try out new things (some of which have become features or projects). You'll find that your developers will often learn a new tool or technique that benefits your product. But most importantly it's a great mental break and reward.

  • Encourage External Hack Days / Events - there are hundreds of amazing developer events around the world, from Startup Weekend to hack days. These are a great opportunity for developers to meet new people and create something new in a short time. We organised the first Australian music hack day, and recently Sam and myself competed in "AppAid - Coding For A Cause" where we made an app for charity in 48 hours. I know I came back inspired to create.

  • Encourage Side Projects - side projects are a great way for developers to scratch an itch and learn more on their own time. It also expands their skill set outside programming to things such as design and marketing, which can only help in their day jobs.

  • Give Developers Flexibility - have different tasks developers can work on during the day, maybe they have been stuck doing a backend task for a few weeks? Give them a simple front end task to mix it up. Maybe there is a tool that needs to be evaluated? If the developer isn't in the zone that day, maybe they'll decide to do one of these other tasks rather than loading up Hacker News.

What You Shouldn't Be Doing

  • Think You Own What A Developer Does In Their Spare Time - if the developer isn't a founder / owner of the company and they create a side project, in their own time, it's theirs, hands off. Contracts probably say different, but this is my opinion of what is right.

  • Expect Hack Day Productivity Is Normal - yes developers can make an app in 48 hours during a hack day. No they won't make a production quality app in 48 hours during business hours. It's a very different process and level of quality.

What Now?

In the end we want the best product created in the shortest amount of time possible. A startup is a series of short sprints, in between those short sprints everyone needs to recharge. Unchain your developers and let them create.

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