Kevin Eaton, PhD

Technology Leader, Non-Profit Founder, PhD, Chaplain, Geek

Software Engineers and Motivation, Part 1

3 minutes
February 28, 2016

In 2016, I wrapped up my took-forever-but-worth-it dissertation for my PhD in Business Administration and Applied Computer Science. Given my background, I took a psychological approach to my research and decided to explore something that has always interested me, but could also make for some valuable insights. I explored what motivates software engineers in a general sense.

You see, motivation is a tough egg to crack. There are many different theories and insights. Sometimes, the literature seems to be conflicted over what motivation actually entails. As a software engineer myself, I know anecdotally what made me excited for a job and what made me dread getting out of bed. Therefore, being able to look at this scientifically helped scratch an itch I had, especially if I ever cross back over into management.

One prevalent theory in motivation is Self-Determination Theory (SDT), originally coined by Deci and Ryan [1]. Grossly simplified, SDT breaks motivation into two separate generalized sources: Extrinsic and Intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is primarily monetary (nice salary, big bonuses, commissions, etc). Intrinsic motivators refer to feels of professionalism, self-control, tool selection, and empowerment. To the surprise of absolutely no one, most knowledge workers are motivated primarily through intrinsic motivators [2][3].

Well, logically, since software engineers are knowledge workers, it is likely that they too are motivated by intrinsic motivational sources rather than extrinsic sources. But how do we measure that? How do we confirm that we as a group aren’t weird (I mean, statistically different)?

For my dissertation, I used the Motivational Factor Inventory created by Seiler et al [4]. The survey utilized a Likert scale and asked respondents to self-report how motivating different situations were, such as working conditions or resource availability. These questions were grouped into motivational “dimensions” which were able to be separated into “primarily intrinsic” and “primarily extrinsic”.

While I was at it, I asked respondents to identify their educational attainment level, so I could do correlational analysis as well. This was prompted by the question of whether engineers with higher levels of formal education should be motivated with other options when compared to more junior engineers.

In my next post, I will share my findings and a brief discussion.

[1] Deci, E., & Ryan, R. (1985). Intrinsic motivation and self-determination in human behavior. New York, NY: Plenum.

[2] Fang, Y., & Neufeld, D. (2009). Understanding sustained participation in open-source software projects. Journal of Management Information Systems, 25(4), 9–50. doi:10.2753/MIS0742–1222250401

[3] Yan, Y., & Davison, R. M. (2013). Exploring behavioral transfer from knowledge seeking to knowledge contributing: The mediating role of intrinsic motivation. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology, 64(6), 1144–1157. doi:10.1002/asi.22820

[4] Seiler, S., Lent, B., Pinkowska, M., & Pinazza, M. (2011). An integrated model of factors influencing project managers’ motivation: Findings from a Swiss Survey. International Journal of Project Management, 30(1), 60–72. doi:10.1016/j.ijproman.2011.03.002