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Managing Engineers: Rethinking Motivation

David Kyle Choe
March 16, 2021

"Wiefling says, 'Never reward firefighters. Don't encourage them! Reward is a double-edged sword: what gets rewarded is what gets done...Firefighting, diving catches, and heroics are symptoms of a problem, not signs of a cure. Don't spread this disease by rewarding the carriers. Find the person who is planning ahead, preventing disaster, executing with excellence, and recovering from setbacks without setting their hair on fire, and without glitz or fanfare. Whip out a Starbucks gift certificate for this everyday hero and send them home at 3 p.m. to enjoy some time with their kids."

"Firefighters who get rewarded carry matches."

-Kimberly Wiefling

We started Staat with a base hypothesis: there had to be a better way to manage engineering projects and teams.In the process of proving this hypothesis, we did not expect to also uncover that there was a fundamental disconnect in engineering cultures.

There's a natural impulse to reward what Kimberly Wiefling refers to as "firefighters". These are the ones on your team who take out the fires, jump headfirst into the hairiest problems, and welcome chaos. Although we all appreciate these members, we've come to realize their "heroics" wouldn't be necessary if there was a better planning culture.

As motivated, determined, and self-sufficient as most engineers are, they're like the rest of us; they aren't their work. They want a life (even if it's a life of more coding) outside of work. How do we create engineering teams and cultures that are optimized for a full life and not just a full work life? How do we get people to do the best work of their lives with the least amount of stress and anxiety?

Better planning. Clearer communication. Stronger management.

All of this seems obvious, maybe even antiquated. But the lack of proper implementation is a real problem.

Wiefling unpacks this issue further.

"...We were discussing the motivations for companies who routinely work on almost twice as many projects as they have the resources to efficiently staff. Key projects are routinely understaffed, and many individuals multi-task among various projects, resulting in task-switching inefficiencies known to decrease productivity by as much as 60%.

Lack of planning and lack of focus routinely lead to predictable delays in product launches as well as server quality problems with those products that do manage to launch.”

This is not news to anyone in product development. In our own development lifecycle, we've discovered this to be true. Our core challenge shifted from "what features should we prioritize" to "how do we focus?"

Focus is the golden egg. Focus comes when technologies talk to one another. When teams are in sync. When managers feel ahead and on top, not behind and sinking. When IC's are confident. When companies are restrained and disciplined.

Enabling focus, enables progress.

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