Tuesday, October 8, 2019

On motivation and purpose

In this blog post, I will discuss an important and recurring non-technical subject that is common in our field of expertise: motivation. Pretty much everybody in the industry that I know (including myself) have motivational problems once in a while. There are a variety of reasons why people get motivated or demotivated. In my experience, lack of motivation is one of the more important reasons why people quit and change jobs.

I will elaborate about one of the ingredients that is important to me: purpose.

A common misunderstanding: technology

What I have noticed is that quite a few people think that software developers are generally motivated by technology -- for instance, they will be motivated if they can use the latest computer models and the latest and greatest software technologies to develop software. At the time of writing this blog post, I see many companies that have vacancies advertising with technologies, such as: Node.js, Angular, React, JavaScript, Python, Go, Docker, Kubernetes etc.

While it is true that my skills are stronger with one particular class of technology than another, and that I actually do have preferences, such as which kind of tool is best for deployment, technology alone is not something that gives me motivation.

Instead: development is done for a purpose. Typically, we develop software systems to accomplish certain goals for a certain audience. As developers, we want to reach these goals and offer good quality -- technology is in service of reaching these goals. This sometimes also means that I have to work with technology that is not my primary choice or something I am not familiar with.

In addition to using technology, we may have to do things that are not technical at all. Typically, developing software systems is team work. To work effectively as a team, communication is also very important. For example:

  • You may need to write good documentation so that ideas, requirements and other technical considerations are clear among team members. For this you also need proper writing skills and mastery of the English language, if your native language is different.
  • You may need to give trainings or knowledge transfer presentations to end users or fellow team members for which you need good presentation skills.


I have a lot of interesting anecdotes of unorthodox choices that I made in the past, that I can rationalize by explaining the purpose. Some of them are:

  • I did a PhD, which has number of implications for your career -- as a PhD student you are (fortunately!) employed in the Netherlands, so you will get a salary and additional benefits such as a pension. The biggest disadvantage is that you only get a temporary employment contract and your salary is much lower that an industry job in the same field. Without a permanent employment contract, for example, it is very difficult to get a mortgage to buy a house.

    Because of this "disadvantage", quite a few people think that the PhD degree is the reason that motivated me (because supposedly it provides you better job perspectives, which is generally not the case in software technology).

    My motivation was actually much different: the subject of my PhD research was software deployment. Before I started my PhD research, I already knew how difficult it was to construct software systems from source code, how to package components and how to deploy service-oriented systems that are distributed and facilitate technology diversity. To have the possibility to dedicate yourself to a subject for a few years and construct tools to automate and improve such deployment processes was the real reason why I wanted to do this.

    (As a sidenote: although constructing tools was my primary motivation and the main objective of research in software engineering, I also struggled a bit with motivation on a few occasions. In a blog post that I wrote in my final year, I explained what got me demotivated).

    I learned a lot of things while I was a PhD student. In addition to technology, I also considerably improved my writing skills, presentations skills, I started this blog, and I did quite a lot of traveling alone, which gives you all kinds of interesting experiences. All of these learning experiences were in service of reaching my main goal.
  • During my PhD, I was also a visiting researcher at Philips Healthcare. At Philips Healthcare, I was applying my research and tooling to medical systems.

    Most of the technology stack used at Philips were Microsoft technologies: Windows as an operating system, Internet Information Services as web server, SQL server as DBMS, .NET/C# as an implementation language, and so on.

    I was (and still am) a Linux/Free software/Open source person. As a result, I was always avoiding these technologies as much as possible -- what I basically did not like about them is that were all proprietary and strongly tied to the Windows operating system. Furthermore, I did not like Internet Information Services because of its bad security reputation.

    At the same time, the deployment tool I was working on (Disnix), was also designed to facilitate technology diversity, including technologies that I did not like per se. As part of my work at Philips, I managed to automate the build processes of C#/.NET projects with the Nix package manager and I created Dysnomia plugins so that services implemented with Microsoft technology could be deployed with Disnix.

    I also learned quite a few things about the .NET packaging internals, such as strong names and the global assembly cache. Because I wanted to facilitate technology diversity, I was motivated to learn these concepts.
  • At Conference Compass, I developed a variety of Nix functions to build mobile applications (native Android, native iOS and Titanium). I was highly motivated for native Android, because of two reasons: I have an Android device myself and I consider it quite valuable to automate the build processes of complex Android apps including company applications.

    The iOS and Titanium build functions were less interesting. In particular, what I disliked the most about iOS is that I do not have such a device myself, and I really do not like the fact that app delivery to iOS devices (e.g. iPhone, iPad) rely on one single distribution channel: Apple. It is not even possible to deploy an app that you have developed yourself for a device that you own, without obtaining a certificate and provisioning profile from Apple!

    Still, I considered a conference app to be quite valuable. Our audience uses both iOS and Android devices. This means that iOS cannot be avoided, because that would disqualify a significant chunk of our audience.

    Furthermore, I also wanted to support technology diversity again -- to be able to build apps with the Nix package manager for any mobile platform is useful. The domain and technology diversity of Nix motivated me to also learn about these areas that I initially did not find interesting.
  • For my Nix and Disnix related work, I have developed several small utility libraries, e.g. for concurrency and data exchange, and I explored underlying concepts, such as layered build function abstractions. The primary reason to do these things is not because I was directly interested in concepts, but they significantly contribute to quality improvement of the deployment tools -- they make the infrastructure faster, more robust and easier to maintain.

What I typically do

To get motivated, I basically need to know my purpose, and then define and align goals. This is typically easier said than done and it requires quite a bit of exploration.

Basically, I have adopted the following habits whenever I am new to some organization:

  • Learn about the company: IMO is important to know (at least from a high level perspective) the kinds of products and/or services a company offers, because the work you do is primarily focused on improving business value. For example, when I had the feeling that I learned enough about the Mendix product and service, I wrote a small article about it on my blog and I am grateful to Mendix that I am allowed to do this.
  • Learn about the domain: in addition to the company product and/or service, it is also important to know in what domain it is active. You will get a better understanding about the customers, what they want and what kind of challenges you might face in reaching them.

    For example, at Philips I learned a lot about medical regulations, at Conference Compass I learned the true value of having digital versions of traditional paper programs (that cannot change after they have been printed) and at Mendix it is interesting to continuously think about what kinds of value can low-code development offer (in terms of speed, quality and target audience, such as non-technical developers).
  • Learn about your team and their contributions. Typically, in large organizations with big/complex services or products, you typically work on a particular component (or stack of components), not the product as a whole. For me, it was also interesting to see what my team's contribution is and what value it offers to end users.

    To fully answer that question, I wrote a simple tutorial page that explains how end users use our team's product -- it helped a lot to understand what my changes will contribute to and I noticed that it has been particularly helpful for on-boarding new team members.
  • Define and align goals. Typically, after learning about the company and the teams' products and/or services, you will probably see opportunities. For example, you may notice that there is something that can be improved with technology that you are familiar with. It is good to remember them and work with the team to address them. Be proactive.
  • Keep learning. In addition to opportunities, you may also probably experience confusion or realize that there are things that you do not know yet. I always try to allocate time to learn new things, both technical (e.g. new programming languages, frameworks, technologies) and non-technical (e.g. communication, the domain). From my experience, in software engineering there is only one constant and that constant is change.
  • Try to be pragmatic. This is an important personal lesson for me: since you are working in a team and every person is different (different opinions and priorities), you must sometimes accept that you can not always (directly) accomplish everything you want and that things will work out the way you have intended.

What organizations can do

In addition to the things you can do as an individual, you also need support from the organization. I highly value the following traits:

  • Transparency. It is very useful to inform teams about the impact of the work they do: both positive and negative. I have seen in the past that it is quite tempting, for example, that after a failure things get covered up. I personally believe it is important for developers to know about the strengths and weaknesses of the software they work on, so that they can make meaningful contributions to make something a success.
  • Opportunities to get in touch with end users and other relevant stakeholders. In many organizations, developers are rarely in touch with end users and that is typically for a good reason: they should not get distracted from their work.

    Although I consider preventing distraction a good thing, I personally believe it would not be a bad thing to get in touch with end users sometimes: it gives a developer direct insights in how well the product works and what a customer needs or struggles with.

    At Mendix, we sometimes have clients that will visit us to explain what they do with Mendix and what kinds of challenges they face -- everybody in the company is invited and has the opportunity to ask questions. This will not happen on a very frequent basis, but having these sessions once in a while is something I consider to be very valuable.
  • Offer time to learn and explore. Typically to reach goals, quite frequently developers need to expand their skill set by e.g. by learning new technologies or simply explore the possibilities. They should be offered the time to do this.
  • Taking technical debt seriously. Technical debt, a phenomenon that hinders evolution of a software system, by postponing/skipping certain kind of work (i.e. taking shortcuts) that should have been done (e.g. testing, documentation, refactoring) should also be taken seriously.

    When a system has a lot of technical debt, making changes and improving quality can be enormously (and unnecessarily) difficult and time consuming. In extreme cases, even a subtle change takes too much time. As a result, it becomes quite easy to lose track of the original purpose and easily causes developers lose their motivation.
  • Taking feedback from developers seriously. Developers typically raise concerns (such as quality issues) that may not always look urgent -- as a result, it is very tempting for organizations to always give priority to new features than quality improvements. This may sometimes cause quality to degrade significantly over time.

    Whilst developers are typically not against developing new features, they are very concerned about poor quality and high technical debt. If the latter grows out of hand too much, it is quite easy for developers to lose track of the original purpose of the product or service and lose motivation.


In this blog post, I have shared my experiences with motivation in relation to purpose. Although it may sound conceptually simple, learning about the purpose of a product and service and aligning goals is actually quite difficult -- it requires you to learn about an organization, a product or service, the people in the company, your team, and about yourself. It typically is quite a journey with interesting and, sometimes, a few non-interesting steps.

Finally, purpose is not the only factor that motivates or demotivates me as a developer, but it is an important one.

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